Sample Common App Essay #1 (attends Harvard University)
One muggy and oppressively hot summer afternoon in the 1950s, my Great Uncle Irwin and my Grandfather Leon knocked on the door of an inn in northwestern Massachusetts. Irwin had come from New York City because he wanted to hear Leonard Bernstein conduct Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony at Tanglewood. Leon was only there because he knew how to drive their Ukranian father’s car. The inn door was opened by a plump woman who informed the brothers that there were no available rooms, but they could sleep in the barn if they wanted to. They did. Two generations later, Irwin was the only person in my huge family who understood me, because he and I were the only two musicians of the bunch. So when I found out that I had been accepted into Tanglewood Institute’s Composition Program, I chose to spend the day before the program began in New York with Uncle Irwin before saying goodbye and heading north.
My days at Tanglewood were filled with ardent musical study. I sat in on master classes with visiting composers, studied music theory for hours on end, and wrote the most music I have ever been able to get out onto paper. I bonded with my fellow musicians in the program and created friendships that will last forever. On the evening of July 15th, I was sitting in the dining hall when I got the call that Uncle Irwin had passed away earlier that evening. I was devastated. It was as if, in such a place of creativity and collaboration, the music stopped. The only family member that I could deeply relate to was gone. It felt finite; the double bar had been etched in black ink.
The following week, when the ideas for final projects were due, I decided that I was going to write a surrealist memorial to my uncle—a requiem of sorts—to commemorate his beginnings in the very place where I was now studying. I named the piece “hot summer night [requiem for a passed new england evening]” and wrote it in about ten days as the music flowed from the ether of my imagination onto the page. It was both the hardest and easiest piece I have ever written. It took the form of three movements, which included electronically sampled crickets, a male choir, a string quartet, percussion, and a barbershop quartet that aimed to create a sonic world that would fulfill the memory of a man who found the greatest joy in music. Although I faced many challenges with the practical production of the piece—scheduling rehearsals, convincing people to show up, even finding rehearsal space in a rain storm—there was nothing like the sound of the thirty-five musicians performing it at the final concert. It culminated in a feeling of fulfillment like nothing else in the entire world.
Participating in Tanglewood Institute’s Composition Program was an amazing opportunity. I learned how to be firm in my intention but flexible in my execution. I was dealing with other musicians my age who had busy schedules in addition to my rehearsals. I figured out how to coordinate and inspire people to give it their all while creating something significant. I practiced humility while treating the piece as a living breathing creation, which fostered even more collaboration, eventually leading to a successful performance.
Though Uncle Irwin never lived to hear the piece performed, he continues to live on in the music. He began his musical journey at Tanglewood and metaphorically ended it with the closing notes of my piece in the very same place. The piece sings of joy, hope, and fond memory as well as sadness and the resolute finality of death. My summer, and the piece itself, confirmed that music will always be a unifying and grounding force in my life and a way to explore and share my truth with the world.
Sample Common App Essay #2 (attends Amherst College)
To feel a part of something bigger than yourself is one of the most empowering emotions ever. I experienced this when walking in a Black Lives Matter protest in New York City. While growing up in New York, I had never personally encountered blatant or violent racism like these victims of police brutality had, but I had experienced the long-term effect of micro-aggressions and interracial misunderstanding. So when I stood shoulder to shoulder with thousands of New Yorkers who looked nothing like me, I was filled with hope because my immediate community recognized the urgent call to all for social action.
My own call to action began years earlier as I made the transition from middle to high school. Before freshman year, I was only familiar with the Upper West Side and Harlem. So when I travelled a mere 3.7 miles to Chapin, my new school on the Upper East Side, I was stunned to encounter a completely foreign culture.
During the first weeks of school, I felt like an outsider amongst my new friends because of the color of my skin. In one conversation, we compared the small changes we’d have to make to our appearances to look more like actress Blake Lively, our image of physical perfection. One friend commented on changing the shape of her nose. Another mentioned lightening her eyes one shade of blue. Then I realized I must be the least beautiful of all because I would have to endure the most drastic changes. Over time, I observed my classmates’ carefully constructed facades and materialistic mindsets and started to lose faith in the possibility of true friendships here. But I am not one to give up easily. By continuing to meet the girls with my innate curiosity and open mind, I eventually discovered our common humanity and formed authentic, gratifying, and invaluable relationships. I now recognize that going to Chapin was one of the most challenging and beneficial experiences of my life. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and strengthened my abilities as a student, friend, and leader.
Last summer I sought out an opportunity to pay forward these hard-earned skills as I helped develop and worked as a counselor at Fun and Friends, a camp for students of color, ages 5-12, who attend private schools in New York City. The counselors–all private high school students of color–cultivated an environment where campers could see role models who looked like them.
As a counselor, I facilitated a lesson on education activist Malala Yousafzai. With the younger campers, we brainstormed traits we shared with Malala, and many kids walked away feeling more confident that they too possess leadership qualities. With the older campers, we explored Malala’s perseverance in the face of violence and discussed oppression and gender inequality. It was incredibly rewarding to successfully create a safe space where campers made powerful connections between the struggles in Malala’s life and the events and difficulties of their own.
After thirteen years of attending predominantly white, private schools, I wish a program like Fun and Friends had been around when I was younger. Getting to know other kids at school who looked like me would have eased the small doubt I felt of whether or not I belonged in the classes I had been a part of my entire childhood. And yet I can’t help but feel grateful for the lessons I learned while facing these hardships, because they inspired me to persevere through tough situations, reach past differences to commonalities, and act on my deep passion for racial equality.
Bob Dylan once sang, “Some people feel the rain, others just get wet.” When it comes to the painful obstacles I will face in my life, I am determined not to feel that rain. Rather, I will only allow it to get me wet as I work to help my community survive, thrive, and grow.
Sample Common App Essay #3 (attends Sonoma State University)
I am cruising down the freeway in the green ‘71 Nova I just bought with my entire life’s savings when I hear a loud pop followed by banging. Right off, I know my tire has blown. Though I have not had the Nova for long, she is not lovin’ me tonight.
When the tow truck arrives, the Hispanic driver sees my car and smiles from ear to ear.
“Oh man, is that a Nova?”
I nod and smile back.
“My cousin had the same exact car, same exact color.”
As he opens my trunk to check the spare tire, a huge smile spreads across his face.
“It smells like my childhood.”
As the driver tows me, he laughs as he explains that in Spanish “no va” means “no go,” and then I get his entire life story. As he reminisces, I see how a small thing like my car can take someone back to such a happy time.
Before the driver leaves, he tells me I made his day, and I tell him he made mine as well. Just like that, a terrible night turns into one I will never forget. And I realize that all it takes is a good attitude.
Not long after that night, I work my first shift at a little pizza joint called Tonino’s Place. When I arrive, I expect the owner to hand me a manual. Instead, she says, “Make yourself busy!” So I do. I throw on an apron, scrub a mountain of pots and pans, and get soaking wet in the process. I teach myself how to bus tables, clean windows, and pack To Go orders. Then I get very good at loading and unloading the dishwasher.
Over time, I come to love my job because there is always something to do or something new to learn. Sometimes when I have a moment, I get Mario, the pizza chef, to teach me how to knead the dough. If Yuri, the cashier, feels lazy, I take over and learn how to ring up customers. When the time comes to deliver pizzas, I pack the bags, load the address into my GPS, and away I go. No matter how much I enjoy working in rhythm with the team in the kitchen, nothing tops the feeling of handing someone a hot pizza after they’ve had an obviously tough day.
At the end of each shift, I put the chairs up, sweep, and mop. The toughest part of my shift comes last: the trash. I take a deep breath and hold it, carry three giant bags into the alley, open the dumpster filled with rotting meat, and fling the bags in.
It’s true that my job is not glamorous, and the average person might think it stinks. But I love it. Because during every single shift, I turn something bad into something good and make every situation fun for everyone.
When I go to college, I know I won’t arrive with 4.0 GPA. But I will arrive with other valuable qualities. If I walk into a room full of strangers, I can talk to anyone and make friends with everyone. Of the roughly 700 kids in my graduating class, I can say with supreme confidence that I can name ninety percent of them. When I have a job to get done, I give it my all. I am capable and curious, smart and motivated.
For as long as I can remember, my classes and goals have been assigned by the adults in my life. But college will be my chance to choose my own classes and goals based on my real interests and passions. I can’t wait to work hard, make the most of my time and abilities, and pursue the knowledge and ambitions that matter to me. With my positive attitude, I know I will take the world by storm.