“What was the best essay you ever read?”
That’s the most common question I get asked at the college essay writing workshops I lead for high schools students and their parents. Was this Best Essay hilarious? Heart wrenching? Harvard worthy?
My answer usually disappoints the questioner: I don’t have a favorite essay. Some excel in their humor, others in their imagery, and others simply because the author knew how to spin a good story. But I do have favorite types of essays, which can be much more valuable to dissect. After all, you can’t copy another essay’s subject matter – but you can mimic its technique.
One of my favorite essay types, which I’ve dubbed the A/B essay, reveals the interconnectedness of two separate events in a student’s life. (“First A happened, which led to B.”) Here’s an example of how it works, and just as importantly, why it wows an application reviewer.
The A/B Essay: Spark Plugs
A senior named Patrick must answer a common essay prompt for his college application: “Who has impacted your life most?” Patrick thinks back to his childhood and the many weekends he spent in his parents’ garage helping his dad rebuild cars. At the time, Patrick’s duties felt mind-numbing: he might hand his dad a wrench every few minutes, hold a part in place while his dad hunted for the screws, or tighten bolts on a new tire.
Patrick had resented his automotive apprenticeship as a kid. While his friends played video games or slept past noon, Patrick was stuck in a humid, windowless garage.
But one evening in the fall of senior year, Patrick’s friend called him in a panic. Her car wouldn’t start, and she was stranded 20 minutes from home. Patrick quickly diagnosed the problem: bad spark plugs. He found an auto parts store that was still open, bought new plugs, and drove out to fix his friend’s car. She poured out compliments and admitted a little envy. When and where did Patrick learn to be so handy?
In that moment, Patrick realized the value of those weekends spent in his dad’s garage. Sure, he learned practical skills like changing oil and replacing flat tires. But he learned a bigger lesson, too. Although Patrick dismissed his dad’s expertise as irrelevant at the time – after all, Patrick was only 10 and could barely even reach a car’s brake pedals – those skills became precious as he aged. Patrick learned from his dad to always pay attention to what someone can teach you, even if it doesn’t seem immediately useful.
By uncovering the thread that connects these two memories, Patrick has now outlined a winning A/B essay.*
Why It Works
The A/B essay’s strength comes from its overall message: the student learned a valuable lesson from someone (or something) and then applied the lesson to his or her own life.
That’s exactly what a college hopes you will do on campus, too. Professors don’t just want their students to memorize the periodic table or future-tense conjugations of French verbs; they want students to use those lessons in new, real-world situations. Prove to a college that you apply what you learn to your own life, and you assure the college that you’ll continue to do it on campus– and four years later as an alumnus, too.
You can practice now by applying this lesson to your own college essay. Who knows? Maybe it will turn out to be the best college essay I’ve ever read.
* I normally discourage students from writing about their parents for this kind of prompt because so many applicants will choose to do the same. In this case, Patrick’s narrative feels strong enough to justify the risk of several hundred (or thousand) other applicants writing about their parents, too.
Photo credit: D. Nettleton, Flickr