Sample College Admission Essay—The Allegany County Youth Board

An Essay by Sophie for the Common Application

Oberlin College
Oberlin College. Allen Grove

Sophie wrote the following essay for question #2 on the pre-2013 Common Application: "Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you." Sophie used the Common Application to apply to Bard College, Dickinson College, Hampshire College, Oberlin College, Smith College, SUNY Geneseo and Wesleyan University. All are selective schools that at the time she applied accepted between 25% and 55% of applicants.

Note: Sophie wrote this essay before the Common Application set the current 650-word length limit.

The Allegany County Youth Board
I am not entirely sure how I ended up on the Allegany County Youth Board. I know my parents' friend recruited my mom after an older Board member retired, and he told her to ask me if I had any interest in becoming a youth member as there was no one yet to represent our district. I said sure, but wished I hadn't after the first meeting, during which a bunch of people my parents' age and older sat around discussing 'allocations' and 'subsidies.' "Nothing got done," I complained to my mom afterwards. I had thought politics was exciting; I had thought that there would be fiery debate, patriotic vehemence. I was disappointed, and I didn't want to go back.
I did go back, however. At first it was my mom's nagging that made me go. The more I went, though, the more I understood what people were saying and the more interesting it all was. I began to get a sense of how things worked on a board. I learned when to talk and when not to, and even occasionally added some input of my own. Soon it was I who nagged my mom to attend.
It was in one of our recent meetings that I got a taste of the heated discussions of my initial preconception. A Christian-based organization was requesting a grant to build a skate park and the head of the project was due to present her proposal. Although the Youth Board is a government entity and funded by taxpayer money, it is not unusual for funds to be allotted to religious groups, as long as it is clear that the grant will be used for non-religious purposes. For instance, the organization Youth for Christ receives public money each year for their recreation programs aimed at getting kids off the streets and providing alternatives to delinquent behavior. These projects, including a skate park like the one in question, are separate from the group's religious objectives and programs.
The woman who presented to us was in her thirties or forties and was, a board member told us, "a person of few words." From what she did say it was clear that she was poorly educated, that she was steady in her convictions and sincere in her desire to help, and that she was utterly naive about how to get the money she wanted for her program. It was this naivety, perhaps, that gave painful honesty to her words. We questioned her on whether kids of any faith would be allowed to skate there. They would, but they would be encouraged to "find God." Would there be any religious lessons taught? The lessons were separate; they didn't have to stay for them. They would be at the same place and at the same time, though. Would there be religious pamphlets or posters? Yes. What if a child didn't want to convert? Would they be made to? No, that would be left up to God.
After she left a heated debate ensued. On one side were my parents' friend, my mom, and me; on the other side were everyone else. It seemed clear that this proposition overstepped the line--the director had stated explicitly that it was a ministry. If the proposal were carried out, however, the skate park would be a great asset to her town, and the truth is that pretty much all of Allegany County is Protestant anyway. In all likelihood the skate park/ministry would only benefit the community, and in a town of under 2000 people with nearly 15% of them below the poverty line, they need all they can get.
I am no Machiavelli. The ends do not always justify the means. What we seemed to be looking at was the question of whether to endorse a program that promoted a religion. On principle I could not agree with this. Even if in this case the result could be positive, it violated the guarantee of separation of church and state. I believe that any infringement of this, no matter how trivial, undermines the government’s claim to neutrality. Furthermore, we needed to be aware not only of the situation at hand but also of the precedent set for future situations.
But then the decision that seemed so clear to me became hazier. There was more than a month between the presentation and the vote on whether to fund the project. I kept thinking of my experience of the previous summer, working as a counselor at Camp New Horizons. The camp serves kids in Cattaraugus County who have emotional or behavioral problems, often due to poverty, and it is funded by the state. One of the first things I noticed when I got there was the prayer before each meal. This seemed inappropriate to me, since it is a publicly funded camp. I asked returning counselors if the kids were required to say the grace. They gave me confused looks. I explained that I, for instance, am an atheist and would feel uncomfortable saying grace. They wanted to know why it mattered to me if I didn't believe in God. "I don't lack belief in God," I tried to tell them. "I believe in a lack of God." "Wait until the kids get here," they said. "It'll make sense."
After three weeks with those kids, it sure did make sense. Each camper had a story, a strung-out newspaper clipping of tragedy. The only routines they had created for themselves were tantrums, violence, and running away. One girl, for example, would throw a fit between four thirty and five o' clock every day without fail. She would get angry about some minor frustration, sulk for a while, then work herself into such a frenzy that she would have to be restrained. She needed stability in her life, and these outbursts provided routine. Saying grace before meals became part of the pattern of life at camp, and the campers loved it just for that.
They had to make it from one day to the next, and it wasn't going to be separation of church and state that saved their lives. What of it if there was a picture of Jesus painted on the wall of their skate park? They needed routine, focus, and gentle transitions. The simple prayer gave them these. It wasn't out to convert kids or go against their upbringing. By the end of camp, I was the only one converted - converted to the notion of practicality over principle.
And yet, when it came time for the vote, I voted against the proposal. In a way it was a cop out, since I knew that the skate park would win even with my vote against it, which it did, by a narrow margin. I wanted the skate park to be built, but I was concerned about the precedent of funding religious projects. Thankfully, I was able to vote on principle without sacrificing the community benefit. I am still not sure what I believe is right in this case, but at this point in my life I like being unsure. Uncertainty leaves room for growth, change, and learning. I like that.

Critique of Sophie's essay

Before getting into the details of the essay, it's important to consider the schools to which Sophie applied: Bard College, Dickinson College, Hampshire College, Oberlin College, Smith College, SUNY Geneseo and Wesleyan University. Each of these, including the one state school, is a relatively small college with an undergraduate focus and a liberal arts and sciences core curriculum. All of these schools use a holistic approach to their admissions decisions; that is, each school is carefully thinking about the whole applicant, not just the applicant's grades and test scores. These are schools that are looking for more than smart students. They also want excellent campus citizens who will foster an open and questioning intellectual community. For this reason, the essay is a remarkably important part of Sophie's application.

Now let's get into the nitty-gritty of Sophie's essay.

The Topic

Don't be misled by Sophie's focus on a local and rural issue. At the heart of the essay is a discussion of big questions: separation of church and state, conflicts between personal convictions and the good of the community, and the gray areas that define all politics.

Sophie has taken some risks in choosing this topic. Her declared atheism might alienate some readers. From her opening line ("I am not entirely sure") she presents herself as someone who does not have all the answers. Indeed, Sophie is not the hero of this story. She's not even convinced that she made the right decision, and her vote did not affect the outcome of the situation.

The Tone

These risks are what make the essay effective. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer at a liberal arts college. What kind of student do you want as part of your campus community? One with all the answers, who knows everything, never makes wrong decisions and seems to have nothing to learn?

Clearly not. Sophie presents herself as someone who is continually learning, rethinking her convictions and embracing her uncertainty. It's important to note that Sophie does have strong convictions, but she is open-minded enough to challenge them. The essay shows Sophie to be an engaged, thoughtful and questioning community member. She takes on challenges, sticks with her convictions, yet she does so with pleasing open-mindedness and humility. In short, she demonstrates the qualities that are a great match for a small liberal arts college.

The Writing

I do think the opening could use a bit more work. The second sentence is a little long and clumsy, and that opening paragraph needs to really grab the reader.

That said, the writing itself is mostly excellent. The essay is largely free of grammatical or typographical errors. The prose is clear and fluid. Sophie does a nice job shifting between short, punchy sentences ("I am no Machiavelli") and longer, more complex ones. The essay, despite its length, holds the reader's attention.

Final Thoughts

Sophie's essay is strong because the focus is local. Many college applicants worry that they have nothing to say, that nothing significant has happened to them. Sophie shows us that one need not have climbed Mount Everest, experienced great personal tragedy or found a cure for cancer to write an effective essay.

Sophie grapples with tough issues and shows herself to be eager to learn. She also demonstrates strong writing skills. She successfully presents herself as a good match for a competitive liberal arts college.

Sophie's College Application Results

Sophie applied to seven colleges. All of these schools are competitive, but Sophie's good high school record and strong SAT scores made her competitive at each. She also had strong extracurricular activities in music, dance and (as her essay shows) community service. Her class rank was not exceptional, so the essay is one place where she can make up for that deficiency.

The table below shows where Sophie was accepted, rejected, and waitlisted. She declined being placed on the waitlists and accepted the offer of admission from Smith College where she attended after a gap year.

Sophie's Application Results
College Admission Decision
Bard College Accepted
Dickinson College Waitlisted
Hampshire College Accepted
Oberlin College Waitlisted
Smith College Accepted
SUNY Geneseo Accepted
Wesleyan University Rejected
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Your Citation
Grove, Allen. "Sample College Admission Essay—The Allegany County Youth Board." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, Grove, Allen. (2020, October 29). Sample College Admission Essay—The Allegany County Youth Board. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "Sample College Admission Essay—The Allegany County Youth Board." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).