How Great College Essays Can Do More Than Just Get You Accepted

By on August 22, 2011

This post is by Claire Sullivan, a recent Amherst College graduate, whose creative college essay earned her instant notoriety at her new school.

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When I arrived at Amherst College for first-year orientation four years ago, I was ready to put the application process behind me. SATs, transcripts, and recommendation letters – I buried these relics under course catalogues and my orientation schedule. I was at college – my dream college – and I wanted to forget the stressful and complex road that had gotten me there. Little did I know that one ghost of my recent past would come back to haunt me: my college application essay.

On the second day of orientation I joined a herd of first-years to meander down to Kirby Theater and see a production called Voices of the Class. Members of the student improv troupe organize this Amherst orientation tradition every year. They read snippets of the incoming class’s actual college essays, poking fun at the often cliché and self-important things students write. The audience of anxious and excited first-years delight in making light of a process that tortured them for the past months.

I vaguely remembered getting a letter from the students behind Voices of the Class and signing something earlier that summer, but put it out of my mind as I laughed along with my classmates. I discovered, among other things, that several of them held deep fondness for the oboe and considered their mothers their biggest influences.

Then one of the funniest male performers took centerstage alone and began the longest monologue of the entire show. He put on a nerdy, stage-whispered lisp and as he spoke I began to recognize the essay: it was mine?!?

Granted, it had been cleverly edited, but there was no mistaking it. In the Amherst supplement to the Common App I had responded to a prompt: “Stereotypes are self-fulfilling prophesies for the future.” I had written about a character that I had created in a theater class and performed to entertain my friends and family. Stereotypes would not define my future, because even though I was a middle class white girl from the suburbs, I defied those labels by sometimes becoming a foul-mouthed, eccentric 80-year-old named Gladys Myrtle McFarland. I had thought it was pretty clever and unconventional. But in the hands of this stranger onstage, it came out as the wacky delusions of someone with a multiple personality disorder!

The audience roared and hooted with laughter. They apparently found my college essay the most hilarious and absurd of the evening. I managed to laugh along with them, all the while breaking into a cold sweat. Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. What had I written? What had I been thinking?

A girl from my dorm who was sitting to my right turned to me and whispered with genuine curiosity in her voice, “How did this person get into Amherst College?” I slumped even further down in my seat and prayed that in the dim theater lighting no one could see my cheeks flush. When the show ended and the lights went up, everyone started talking about this Gladys person. Who was he or she? This question popped up in the dining hall and even on our class’s Facebook page for weeks to come. I changed the subject whenever it came up and told my secret to no one.

But after orientation turned into first semester and freshman year turned into sophomore year, the sting of my private humiliation wore off and I pondered the question my new classmate had inadvertently posed to me. How did I get into Amherst College? I will never be able to answer with much certainty, but I think that my kooky college application essay actually helped. Although odd and easily mocked, it revealed my unique point of view. Since admissions officers read thousands of college essays every year, it does not hurt to be different. Even though I had accidentally jeopardized my reputation at Amherst in the process, I had still written something authentic and original. My college essay certainly stood out from the rest.

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3 Comments

  1. Samantha Reilly

    August 27, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    This post was so fun to read and has inspired me to take more risks as a writer, especially because you showed both the good and bad parts of this experience. Thanks!

  2. Andre Tarquinio

    August 27, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    This is a great example of what, often, colleges are looking for. Rather than writing cliches and what you think they want to hear it is always about giving the best representation of what makes you who you are. Great story!

  3. Josie Yang

    August 31, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    This post was very encouraging! I used to be afraid of writing something too “out there” and being scoffed at by colleges, but at the same time I didn’t want to sound cliche or disingenuous. It’s good to know that showing your true self won’t deter the colleges from accepting you!

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