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Why You Absolutely SHOULD be Reading Essays that Worked

In Essays.

I've seen a lot of posts online that emphasize the same message again and again: avoid 'essays that worked' like the plague.

There are usually a few reasons people give. Some say it will impair your own true voice. Others warn that it's hard to attribute success to the essaysโ€”that some "essays that worked" were actually pretty bad, and it's hard to distinguish quality.

I have to disagree.

Read college essays to improve your own

I believe that reading successful essays is probably the single best way to improve your college essay if you struggle with writing. In fact, it's probably the best way to improve your entire application. I think that, at some point, EVERYONE should read at least one high-quality version of a common app and a supplemental essay written by someone else.

Let me tell you a story.

After my first post-college job (Democratic organizer in the 2016 election, yikes), I decided that I wanted to go to MFA programs to write fiction. But there was one problem. To apply to grad school I had to submit a manuscript with about 40 pages of short stories.

Now, I had never written a proper short story in my life. Even though I was (and am) a voracious writer, I majored in political science in college, not English. I had no "final version" creative works that I could bend to fit the requirements, and my knowledge of what made a short story admission-quality was extremely low. And yet, I needed to produce four high-quality short stories in a matter of three months.

So I did the only thing I could do: I started reading short stories. Tons of them. I read Alice Munroe and John Cheever and Fitzgerald. In a month, I read and took notes on over 50 short stories written between 1910-2014.

From that exercise I took the basic operating principles for writing a passable story. The ones I ended up producing were alright, nothing special. But they worked: I got into a few fairly selective writing programs.

(Ultimately I decided not to go to grad school for writing at all lol. /s)

Read, improve, then write

The point is this: Short stories, like college essays, have their own rules and conventions. They are something that can be learned. They are NOT something that you can conjure ex nihilio, out of thin air. I think it's totally wrong to suggest that they can be, because it makes students feel like their writing isn't up to par. In reality, students' just haven't had the time, inclination, or guidance to understand the unwritten rules that make good college essays work.

There is a narrative out there that college essays are some kind pure ethereal thing that everyone can ace if they just "speak truthfully." No! College essays are just one component of an over-bloated admissions process.

At their best, college essays can be amazing, cathartic opportunities for students to clarify their values and reconcile with their lives so far. But more often than not, they're about impression-management. They are a balancing act: distinguish yourself just enough while staying inside pre-prescribed boundaries that you may not be aware of.

I have taught many people how to write better. But the principles and rules of good writing are all embedded most clearly in good writing itself. They can be unearthed and deployed by anyone who makes a careful study of them.

So I say to you: Go read others' essays, read them and learn from them.

Diagram opening sentences. Write a research paper about how great openings and conclusions unfold. Live in the skin of another's writing for a day. All writers do it. Let me say that again: ALL. WRITERS. DO. IT.

But there's a difference between learning from another's work and stealing from it. You're mature enough, smart enough to know the difference.

Now go write. Or better yet, go read.

Example Essays: A few personal picks 

Here are two New York Times articles with essays that might make a good starting place.

About Alex McNeil

Alex is the CEO of McNeil Admissions and the moderator of r/ApplyingToCollege. But most of all, he believes in helping every student access college resources.

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