College Application Essay - The Job I Should Have Quit

An Essay by Drew Written for the Common Application

A student working on a metal lathe.
A student working on a metal lathe. Monty Rakusen / Getty Images

Drew wrote the following college admissions personal essay for question #1 on the pre-2013 Common Application: "Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you." After reading the essay, be sure to read the critique.

Note that Drew's essay was written in 2010 before the current 650-word length limit was imposed.

The Job I Should Have Quit

You can learn a lot about me from a quick glance in my closet. You’ll find no clothes, but shelves filled with motorized Lego kits, Erector sets, model rockets, remote control race cars, and boxes full of motors, wires, batteries, propellers, soldering irons and hand tools. I’ve always enjoyed building things. No one was surprised when I decided to apply to college for mechanical engineering.

When last May a friend of my father’s asked me if I wanted a summer job working for his machining company, I jumped at the opportunity. I would learn how to use computer-operated lathes and milling machines, I would gain valuable hands-on experience for my college studies, and I’d get a good line on my resumé.

Within hours of beginning my new job, I learned that my father’s friend was a subcontractor for the military. The components I’d be making would be used in military vehicles. After that first day of work, I had many conflicting thoughts.

I’m firmly against the United States’ overuse of military might in the world theater. I’m a big critic of our mismanaged involvement in Iraq. I’m appalled by the number of lives that have been lost in the Middle East, many of them young Americans like myself. I want our troops to have the best equipment they can, but I also believe that our possession of the best military equipment makes us more likely to go to war.

Military technology continues to grow more lethal, and technological developments create a never-ending cycle of military escalation.

Did I want to be part of this cycle? To this day I still weigh the ethical dilemma of my summer work. Were I to not do the job, the vehicle components would still be produced. Also, the parts I was making were for support vehicles, not assault weaponry. It’s even possible that my work would be saving lives, not endangering them. On the other hand, nuclear bombs and missile guidance systems were all created by scientists and engineers with good intentions. I’m convinced that even the most innocent involvement in the science of war makes one complicit in war itself.

I considered quitting the job. Were I true to my ideals, I really should have walked away and spent the summer mowing lawns or bagging groceries. My parents argued in favor of the machinist job. They made valid points about the value of the experience and the ways that it would lead to bigger opportunities in the future.

In the end I kept the job, partly from my parents’ advice and partly from my own desire to be doing real engineering work. Looking back, I think my decision was one of convenience and cowardice.

I didn’t want to insult my father’s friend. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. I didn’t want to let a professional opportunity slip away. I didn’t want to mow lawns.

But what does my decision say about the future? My summer job made me recognize that the military is a big employer of engineers, whether directly or indirectly. Undoubtedly I’ll be confronting similar yet more serious ethical decisions in the future. What if my first job offer has a stunning salary and interesting engineering challenges, but the employer is a defense contractor like Lockheed or Raytheon? Will I turn down the job, or will I once again compromise my ideals? I may even face such conflicts during college. Many engineering professors work under military grants, so my college research and internships could get entangled in messy ethical dilemmas.

I’m hoping I’ll make a better decision the next time my ideals are challenged. If nothing else, my summer job has made me more aware of the types of information I want to collect before I accept a job and arrive at my first day of work. What I learned about myself during my summer work wasn’t exactly flattering. Indeed, it makes me realize that I need college so that I can develop not just my engineering skills, but also my ethical reasoning and leadership skills. I like to think that in the future I’ll use my engineering skills to better the world and tackle noble causes like climate change and sustainability. My bad decision this past summer has inspired me to look ahead and find ways to make my ideals and my love of engineering work together.

Read a critique of Drew's essay...

More Model Essays: an ethical dilemma | an important issue | an influential person | a fictional character | diversity | the open topic | a supplemental essay

Here I'll discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Drew's college admissions personal essay, "The Job I Should Have Quit."

The significant experience topic on the Common Application raises unique issues that are discussed in these 5 writing tips. Like all college admissions essays, however, essays for Common Application option #1 must accomplish a specific task: they must be written clearly and tightly, and they must provide evidence that the writer has the intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness and the strength of character necessary to be a contributing and successful member of the campus community.

Okay, on to Drew's essay . . .

The Title

Drew's title is rather straight-forward, but it is also quite effective. We immediately want to know why Drew should have quit this job. We also want to know why he didn't quit the job. Also, the title captures a key element of Drew's essay -- Drew is not writing about a great success he had, but a personal failure. His approach carries with it a little risk, but it is also a refreshing change from all the essays about how great the writer is.

The Topic

Most applicants think they have to make themselves look super-human or infallible in their essays. The admissions folks read scores of essays on "significant events" in which the writer describes a winning touchdown, a brilliant moment of leadership, a perfectly executed solo, or the happiness brought to the less-fortunate by an act of charity.

Drew does not go down this predictable road. At the heart of Drew's essay is a failure -- he acted in a way that did not live up to his personal ideals.

He chose convenience and self-advancement over his values, and he emerges from his ethical dilemma thinking he did the wrong thing.

One could argue that Drew's approach to the essay is foolish. Does a top college really want to admit a student who so easily compromises his values?

But let's think of the issue differently.

Does a college want to admit all those students whose essays present them as braggarts and egoists? Drew's essay has a pleasing level of self awareness and self criticism. We all make mistakes, and Drew owns up to his. He is disturbed by his decision, and his essay explores his inner conflicts. Drew is not perfect -- none of us are -- and he is refreshingly up front about this fact. Drew has room to grow and he knows it.

Also, Drew's essay isn't just about his faulty decision. It also presents his strengths -- he is passionate about mechanical engineering and has been for most of his life. The essay succeeds in showing off his strengths at the very time it examines his weaknesses.

Essay option #1 often leads to a bunch of predictable and conventional essays, but Drew's will stand out from the rest of the pile.

The Tone

Drew is a fairly serious and introspective guy, so we don't find much humor in his essay. At the same time, the writing isn't too heavy. The opening description of Drew's closet and the repeated mention of mowing lawns add a little lightness to the writing.

Most importantly, the essay manages to convey a level of humility that is refreshing. Drew comes across as a decent person, someone who we'd like to get to know better.

The Writing

Drew's essay has been carefully edited and revised. It contains no glaring problems with grammar and style. The language is tight and the details are well chosen. The prose is tight with a good variety of sentence structure. Immediately Drew's essay tells the admissions folks that he is in control of his writing and ready for the challenges of college-level work.

Drew's piece comes in around 730 words. The admissions officers have thousands of essays to process, so we want to keep the essay short. Drew's response gets the job done effectively without rambling on. The admissions folks are unlikely to lose interest. Like Carrie's essay, Drew's keeps it short and sweet.[Note: Drew wrote this essay in 2010, before the 500-word length limit; with the current guidelines, he would need to cut out a third of the essay]

Final Thoughts

As you write your essay, you should think about the impression you leave your reader with. Drew's does an excellent job on this front. Here's a student who already has great mechanical ability and a love for engineering. He is humble and reflective. He is willing to take risks, and even risks critiquing the source of funding for some college professors. We leave the essay understanding Drew's values, his doubts and his passions.

Most importantly, Drew comes across as the type of person who has a lot to gain from college as well as a lot to contribute. The admissions personnel are likely to want him to be part of their community.