The lengthy sample essays showcase writers who, to varying degrees, took chances or simply reached higher. Not only did these writers compose lengthy essays (still within prescribed word-count limits), but in many cases they did something bold with content, form, or personality.
In these samples, length can readily be justified by the fact that these are writers who don’t necessarily fall into “typical” student categories but nevertheless are applying to graduate programs or for scholarships. To be competitive, these writers decided to stand out by telling their stories in a way that they hoped would set them apart from, and above, the crowd. A common thread linking these diverse writers is their obvious confidence that:
In the first sample essay from mechanical engineering, what stands out immediately are the length and the photographs. In this case, the student was applying for an engineering scholarship, so he was given room to flesh out technical material as well as address issues such as personal motivations one would expect to read in a personal statement. Much of the essay is given to a discussion of his thesis work, which involves the examination of “the propagation of a flame in a small glass tube.” The figures depict the experimental work and represent the success of preliminary thesis results, visually indicating the likely point at which the flame reached detonation.
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The three-page personal statement by the liberal arts student is interesting in that it is often intentionally abstract and a bit philosophical. This student attended a small liberal arts school that promotes a “Think, Evolve, Act” theme to its students, and this reflects on this theme and embraces it in his own life from the beginning of the essay. In his curriculum, he has taken a course on Gandhi and Nonviolence, studied abroad in Belgium, and self-designed a program of “Peace and Conflict Studies with an emphasis in Technological Revolution.” He has also taken a ten-day service learning trip to Costa Rica, studied at the Institute of Gandhian Studies in India, served part-time as an assistant to a member of the European Parliament, and written a paper entitled “A Knowledge-Based Society and the Digital Divide.” Meanwhile, he plans to graduate with distinction in both of his majors. In jazz terms, this certainly does seem to have the chops.
One way to get a sense of the daring of this personal statement, written by a student who aims to study film at Columbia University, is simply to consider the allusions he makes throughout his statement. With neither apology nor obvious humility, this writer makes references to Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Vigo, Terrence Malick, and David Gordon Green. Further, this writer takes the unusual step of using section headings in his personal statement, including, on his first page “Poetry,” “Plastics,” and “Children.” But no matter how creative this writer is, of course, we must ultimately judge him on his evidenced ability as a filmmaker. In that regard, he showcases his ease with talking about films and directors, posits an analogy about filmmaking (“directing your own material is like parenting”), and discusses the success of his nineteen-minute senior project, “Burying Dvorak”—a film he promoted by taking a year off after graduation, successfully landing it in more than 20 film festivals. As he closes his essay, he makes a specific pitch for Columbia University, where he hopes to continue “to discover my own voice, my own poetry.”
For the lengthy sample essay from the student in biological science, the extensive length and scientific depth are necessary because the student is applying for the highly competitive STAR Fellowship. The STAR (Science to Achieve Results) program offers graduate fellowships through the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), funding several years of study. Given the competitiveness of the process and the EPA’s mission of environmental protection, it is vital that this student presents a viable, environmentally important project in a persuasive, professional manner. To achieve this, the writer successfully approaches the essay as she would a thesis proposal, using science-related section heads, providing original figures and data, focusing heavily on future research goals, and essentially performing a literature review, citing 19 sources ranging from basic textbooks to refereed journals. The result is a powerful essay with scientific depth.