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Guide to The NY Times’ Five Best College Essays on Work, Money and Class

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Every year, The New York Times issues an open call for college application essays on the subject of money, work, and class. Money becomes a lens through which identity, family, and dreams, can be glimpsed. Out of the many submissions they received this year, The Times published the five best essays (four were published in the newspaper, and one in The Times’s new Snapchat Discover Feature). You can read them all here: 4 Standout College Application Essays on Work, Money and Class.

So, you might ask, “What can I learn from this year’s crop of college essays about money, work and class? And how can they help me craft my own memorable, standout essays?” To help get to the bottom of what made the Times‘ featured essays so exceptional, we made you a guide on what worked, and what you can emulate in your own essays to make them just as memorable for admissions.

  1. Contradictions are the stuff of great literature. “I belong to the place where opposites merge in a…heap of beautiful contradictions,” muses Tillena Treborn in her lyrical essay on straddling rural and urban life in Flagstaff, AZ, one of the five pieces selected by the Times this year. Each of the highlighted essays mined contradictions: immigrant versus citizen; service worker versus client; insider versus outsider; urban versus rural; poverty versus wealth; acceptance versus rebellion; individual versus family. Every day, we navigate opposing forces in our lives. These struggles—often rich, and full of tension—make for excellent essay topics. Ask yourself this: Do you straddle the line between ethnicities, religions, generations, languages, or locales? If so, how? In what ways do you feel like you are stuck between two worlds, or like you are an outsider? Examining the essential contradictions in your own life will provide you with fodder for a fascinating, insightful college essay.  
  2. The magic is in the details — especially the sensory ones. Sensory details bring writing to life by allowing readers to experience how something looks, sounds, smells, tastes, or feels. In his American dream-themed essay about his immigrant mother cleaning the apartment of two professors, Jonathan Ababiy describes “the whir,” “suction,” and “squeal” of her “blue Hoover vacuum” as it leaps across “miles of carpet.” These descriptions allow us to both hear and see the symbolic vacuum in action. The slice-of-life familial essay by Idalia Felipe–the only essay to be published in The Times’ Snapchat Discover feature–opens with a scene: “As I sit facing our thirteen-year old refrigerator, my stomach growls at the scent of handmade tortillas and meat sizzling on the stove.” Immediately, we are brought inside Felipe’s home with its distinctive smells and sounds; our stomach seems to growl alongside hers. Use descriptive, sensory language to engage your reader, bring them into your world, and make your writing shine.
  3. One-sentence paragraphs are catchy. A one-sentence paragraph, as I’m sure you’ve gleaned, is a paragraph that is only one sentence long. The form has been employed by everyone from Tim O’Brien to Charles Dickens and, now, the writers of this year’s featured Times college essays. “I live on the edge,” Ms. Treborn declares at the beginning of her poetic essay on the differences between her mother and father’s worlds. “The most exciting part was the laptop,” asserts Zoe Sottile, the recipient of the Tang Scholarship at Phillips Academy in her essay about the mutability and complexity of class identity. Starting your essay with a one-sentence paragraph—a line of description, a scene, or a question, for example—is a great way to hook the reader. You could also use a one-sentence paragraph mid-essay to emphasize a point, as Ms. Treborn does, or in your conclusion. A one-sentence paragraph is one of many tricks that you have in your writing toolkit to make your reader pause and take notice.
  4. The Familiar Can Be Fascinating. The most daring essay this year, a rant on the imbalances of power embedded in the service industry by Caitlin McCormick, delivers us into the world of a family bed and breakfast with its clinking silverware and cantankerous guests demanding twice-a-day room cleanings. In Ms. Felipe’s more atmospheric piece, we enter her home before dinnertime where we see her attempting to study while her sisters giggle and watch Youtube cat videos. These are the environments these students grew up in, and they inspired everything from frustration at glaring class inequalities to gratitude for the dream of a better life. Rather than feeling like you have to write about something monumental, focus on the familiar, and consider how your environment has shaped you. How did you grow up—in the restaurant business, on a farm, in a house full of artists, construction workers, or judges? Bring us into your world, describing it meticulously and thoughtfully. Tease out the connection between your environment and who you are/what you strive for today and you will be embarking on the path of meaningful self-discovery, which is the key to college essay success.
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