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The Main Takeaways From the NYT ‘Modern Love’ College Essay Winners

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“You can blame it all on Percocet.” This is the opening line of the winner of The New York Times “Modern Love” college contest. Out of 2,000 entries from college students from all across the country, there was one winner and four finalists; all of the essays were published in The New York Times.

The winning essay, “The Physics of Forbidden Love”, by Malcolm Conner of Trinity College, is a great resource for familiarizing yourself with what success looks like in an essay. The four finalists’ essays are great reads as well, and we encourage you to read, re-read, and learn from them before beginning the process of penning your own essay for college, the college admissions essay! One gem you can definitely glean from these essays is how to get the reader’s attention with your opening line. (See the first line of this blog. I want to know more; don’t you?!)

There are many takeaways from these essays. Here are just a few of them:

Tell the story only you can tell.

Your story should be unique and offer insight into your life and background. Admissions Officers are looking for students who authentically stand out from the crowd, and these teens did just that, stand out. For example:

The winning essay is about a transgender man who falls in love with an Indian heritage woman in his physics class. One of the finalists, “My (So-Called) Instagram Life”, is a story about a woman who tries unsuccessfully to live up to the image she’s created for herself online. Another essay, “White Shirt, Black Name Tag, Big Secret”, is about a Mormon missionary and his journey to reveal a secret, only to find that the other missionary carries the same secret, too.

Details, details (and more details, please).

These winning essays and your winning essay should be filled with specific details to help the reader see, hear, and feel what’s happening in the story. Here are a few examples from the college essay winner and finalists:

“Except for the pain in his eyes, he looked good: tan and wiry with wild blue eyes and an all-in smile. It was weird to see him not wearing his white shirt, tie and black name tag, but it was just as weird for me not to be wearing mine.”

“There was a time when I swore in front of my friends and said grace in front of my grandmother. When I wore lipstick after seeing “Clueless,” and sneakers after seeing “Remember the Titans.” When I flipped my hair every way, ate ice cream out of anything, and wore coats of all types and colors.”

“With my Midwest accent, ratty Packers sweater and frozen-tilapia complexion, I was the antithesis of the son-in-law they hoped for.”

We at CEA love helping you tell your best stories. The writing skills you hone when you write an admissions essay are useful far beyond the admissions process and go way beyond one essay. We’ve had students tell us that their grades improved in AP Literature or they had an easier time writing essays for classes. We’ve had students improve their grammar, structure, and syntax so that there are no distractions from telling their greatest stories. Also, these winning essays are a reminder that there are opportunities to submit and share your stories. Who knows, maybe you’ll be submitting to The New York Times in a few years as well.

In the meantime, take a deep breath, grab your favorite tea, and enjoy the essays written by current college students.

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