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The Danger of Reading Real College Essay Examples

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apples real college essay examples“Real college essay examples” is one of the most commonly searched phrases in the college application Googleverse. Cloaked in mystery, the personal statement is an assignment that students rarely encounter before senior year. And yet the college-applying hordes are required to tackle this beast every year. “Surely the successful essays of my predecessors will hold the key to my own college admission,” the neophyte applicant thinks. While it may be comforting to believe that reading an entire binder’s worth of college essays will spark the inspiration you need to write a winning essay, we regret to inform you that this is not the case. In fact, more often than not, we recommend that you eschew obsessive example reading in favor of living your life and focusing on your own experiences with a keener, more observant eye.

But if you have already spent your entire summer poring over thousands of essays, don’t worry – you haven’t wasted your time. There is a way to learn from real essay examples, and these four essential strategies will help you distill the most valuable lessons from the admissions archives.

1. Don’t compare.

Remember, when you’re reading an example essay that has already been submitted to a college, you’re looking at a final product. The chances that the essay you’re reading came out fully formed on the first try are basically zero. So don’t let the quality of these essays intimidate you. If all you have right now is an idea, a Google doc full of random notes, or a pile of shredded Post-It notes, you’re right on track.

2. Be a reader, not a writer.

Turn off the part of your brain that wants to pluck ideas and phrases for your own essay. Stop thinking about your essay entirely. Better yet, imagine you’re an admissions officer, reading hundreds and thousands of essays every season. What about the essay you’re reading draws your attention or jolts you awake? What makes it completely different from any other essay in your pile? Sometimes it’s the creative structure; other times it’s the totally unique story; or maybe it’s just the authentic voice that comes through in the writing. Pay attention to these general qualities and think about how they might apply to your own idea or personality.

3. Strategies, not formulas.

EXAMPLE ESSAYS ARE NOT MAD LIBS. (Please tell us kids these days still do Mad Libs.) It will not work to simply take someone else’s structure or style and ape it in your own work. Students who write their essays this way often end up with a final product that feels forced, and worse, unoriginal. Instead of trying to compare your life to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich like someone else, examine the strategies writers use to showcase their unique personalities. What do you learn about each writer that you didn’t know before?

4. Everything in moderation.

While good essays can be fun to read because they are, well, good, it is very easy to overdo it. Oversaturating your brain with other people’s ideas can make it hard to develop your own unique essay concept. So maybe read one or two essays that seem up your alley, take a deep breath, and focus on your own amazing ideas. You can do this.

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