Sample Common Application Essay: A Significant Accomplishment

Teenager grooming horse, in front of barn.
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This essay, "Buck Up", was written in response to essay option three on the the pre-2013 Common Application: "Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence." An essay like this would also work well for the current Common Application essay option #5: "Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family."

Read the essay in its original wording, then continue on for analysis and critique. You can apply some of these lessons to your own writing.

Sample Common Application Essay

"Buck Up" by Jill

Susan Lewis is a woman that very few people would consider a role model for anything. A fifty-something high-school dropout, she has little more to her name than a beat-up truck, a Jack Russell Terrier and a ragtag herd of aging and/or neurotic horses with which she's run a largely unsuccessful riding lesson program for twenty years with no business plan to speak of and little hope of ever turning a profit. She curses like a sailor, is perpetually un-punctual, and has an erratic and often terrifying temper.

I've taken weekly riding lessons with Sue since middle school, often against my own better judgment. Because for all her seemingly unredeemable qualities, she inspires me - not necessarily as a person I'd strive to emulate, but simply for her unwavering perseverance. In the five years I've known her, I've never once seen her give up on anything. She would sooner go hungry (and sometimes does) than give up on her horses and her business. She sticks to her guns on every issue, from political views to hay prices to her (frankly terrible) business model. Sue has never once given up on herself or her horses or her business, and she never gives up on her students.

My dad lost his job not long after I started high school, and horseback riding quickly became a luxury we couldn't afford. So I called Sue to tell her that I wouldn't be riding for a while, at least until my father was back on his feet.

I hadn't expected an outpouring of sympathy (Sue, as you may have guessed, isn't an overwhelmingly sympathetic person), but I certainly wasn't expecting her to yell at me, either. Which was exactly what happened. She told me in no uncertain terms that I was ridiculous for thinking that money should stop me from doing something I loved, and she would see me bright and early Saturday morning regardless, and if she had to drive me to the barn herself that she would, and I'd better be wearing a good pair of boots because I'd be working off my lessons until further notice.

Her refusal to give up on me said more than I could ever put into words. It would have been easy for her to just let me leave. But Sue was never a person to take the easy way out, and she showed me how to do the same. I worked harder in Sue's barn that year than I'd ever worked before, earning every minute of my riding time, and I'd never felt more proud of myself. In her own stubborn way, Sue had shared with me an invaluable lesson in perseverance. She may not be much of a role model in any other respect, but Susan Lewis does not give up, and I strive every day to live by her example.

Analysis and Critique of Sample Common Application Essay

The Title: We'll begin with the first thing any reader will notice: the title. If you think titles don't matter, think again. A good title can immediately pique your readers' curiosity and grab their attention. The title frames and focuses the words that follow. A missing title is a lost opportunity and a weak title is an immediate handicap. Unfortunately, coming up with a good title can be remarkably difficult.

Jill's title "Buck Up" is good in some ways. For one, it's playful—Jill uses the phrase "buck up" in the idiomatic sense of "showing some courage or backbone," and the word "buck" also relates to a bucking horse trying to throw its rider.

Where the title falls a little short is with its clarity. We really don't know what the essay is about based on the title, and we can appreciate the title only after we have read the essay.

The Topic: Jill's essay has a great focus. So many essays on an influential person have a tone of hero worship as the writer tells us how wonderful Mom or Dad or dead Grandma or Coach or Uncle Harvey is. Jill, however, focuses on someone who in many ways isn't even likable. Susan Lewis is unreliable, rude, poorly educated, and terrible at running a business. She is, as Jill points out, an unlikely person to choose for an essay on an influential person.

By focusing on Susan Lewis, Jill has accomplished two important things: she has crafted an essay that isn't typical, and she has shown us that she can recognize the positive in a person who has a lot of negatives going for her.

Put into other words, Jill has shown that she (Jill) is a creative and open-minded thinker, two qualities that will impress the college admissions folks.

Finally, Jill successfully does all that the prompt asks: She doesn't just describe the influential person; she also explains the influence. We learn that through Susan Lewis's influence, Jill has grown to appreciate hard work and perseverance.

The Tone: Striking the right tone can be a big challenge in an essay like Jill's. Jill has focused on a rather ridiculous woman, so it would be easy to come across as mocking or condescending. Indeed, Jill is quick to point out many of Susan Lewis's shortcomings. The essay's light and playful tone, however, comes across as loving and appreciative, not deprecating. Jill is clearly a skillful writer, and she has managed to provide just the right balance of levity and seriousness.

The Writing: "Buck Up" is not a perfect essay, but the flaws are few. It would be a good idea, in a piece like this, to get rid of a couple of the cliché or tired phrases such as "sticks to her guns" and "back on his feet." The phrase "curses like a sailor" is also a bit overused, but in a way it adds a colorful touch to the description of Sue. In the first sentence of the essay, "that" should really be "who", since the relative pronoun refers to a person, and in the second paragraph, the "because" in the second sentence is confusing. These are all small issues, but the essay—like any essay—does have room for improvement.

In general, however, Jill has proven herself a talented writer. From the very first paragraph, the essay has a pleasing variety of sentence types ranging from short and punchy to long and complex. The language is playful and engaging, and Jill has done an admirable job painting a rich portrait of Susan Lewis in a few short paragraphs. Every sentence and paragraph adds important details to the essay, and the reader never gets the sense that Jill is wasting space with a bunch of unnecessary fluff.

This is important: with the 650-word limit on Common Application essays, there's no room for wasted words. At 478 words, Jill is safely within the length limit.

The most admirable thing about the writing here is that Jill's personality comes through. We get a sense of her humor, her power of observation, and her generosity of spirit. A lot of applicants feel like they need to brag about their accomplishments in the essay, yet Jill shows how those accomplishments can be conveyed in a pleasingly understated way.

Final Thoughts: It's always important to keep in mind why colleges ask applicants to write essays. On a simple level, they want to make sure you can write well, something that Jill has demonstrated effectively with "Buck Up." But more significantly, the admissions folks want to get to know the students they are considering for admission. Test scores and grades don't tell a college what type of person you are, other than one who works hard and tests well. What's your personality like? What do you truly care about? How do you communicate your ideas to others? And the big one: Are you the type of person we want to invite to become part of our campus community? The personal essay (along with the interview and letters or recommendation) is one of the few pieces of the application that helps the admissions folks get to know the person behind the grades and test scores.

Jill's essay, whether deliberately or not, answers these questions in ways that work in her favor. She shows that she is observant, caring, and funny. She demonstrates self-awareness as she narrates the ways in which she has grown as a person. She shows that she is generous and finds positive qualities in people who have a lot of negatives. And she reveals that she gets pleasure out of overcoming challenges and working hard to achieve her goals. In short, she comes across as the type of person who would enrich a campus community.