Sample Common Application Essay: A Significant Accomplishment

Analysis of a College Application Influential Person Essay

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 see 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

What can you learn from how this essay was written? The essay is interesting and written in an engaging style, but how well does this work for the purpose of the Common Application essay?

The Title

The title is the first thing a reader sees. A good title can immediately pique your reader's curiosity and grab his 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.

A title such as "Buck Up" is good in that it is playful and uses the sense of "showing some courage or backbone." Where the title falls a little short is with its clarity. You don't know what the essay is about based on the title, and you can appreciate the title only after reading the essay.

The Topic

This essay has a great focus. Too often, essays have a tone of hero worship of a parent, coach, or family member. This essay focuses instead on someone who in many ways isn't even likable. By focusing on Susan Lewis, the essay isn't typical, and it shows that the author can recognize the positive in a person who has a lot of negatives going for her. The college admission reader will be impressed that the author has shown she is a creative and open-minded thinker. The essay fully explains the influence Susan Lewis has on the author, leading her to appreciate hard work and perseverance. This was an important step into adulthood for the author.

The Tone

Striking the right tone can be a big challenge in an essay.

It would be easy to come across as mocking or condescending. The essay points out many of Susan Lewis's shortcomings but keeps a light an playful tone. This comes across as loving and appreciative, not deprecating. However, it takes a skillful writer to provide just the right balance of levity and seriousness. This is a danger zone, and you will need to ensure you don't fall into a negative tone.

The Writing

"Buck Up" is not a perfect essay, but the flaws are few. Try to avoid cliché or tired phrases such as "sticks to her guns" and "back on his feet." There are also some grammatical mistakes. It can pay you to use a grammar checker to avoid most of those.

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 add 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.

Why Colleges Ask Applicants to Write Essays

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.