Quilts, Cows, Money and Meaning: College Essays That Stood Out

To his relatives in Kenya, however, he’s the young man with the braces. They want to know how many shillings it cost to fix his teeth that way and they mock him for his lack of soccer prowess. Mr. Muthondu will attend Harvard in the fall.

At Colgate, as with most of the colleges that see large piles of application essays each year, admissions staff don’t take off points for character flaws or stories about the mistakes their writers have made. In fact, they often seek people who can truly come into their own if they just get into the right school.

“With my father incarcerated, the women in my family went to work,” writes Kataryna Piña, who will attend Colgate in the fall. “At the age of 11, I started working for the very first time as a cleaning lady with my grandparents. Even though I wanted to help my family, I was ashamed to be a cleaning lady. I argued with my mother against living a life like that, a life in which I gave up my childhood for my family’s stability.”

Her family calls her ungrateful, and eventually her grandmother inspires her to get past her resentment. Much of the essay explores those feelings of shame and Ms. Piña’s feelings about those feelings. “It’s really mature, that level of metacognition,” said Jamiere Abney, senior assistant dean of admission at Colgate.

Mr. Abney was also taken with the thread that ran through Ms. Piña’s essay: a quilt that her grandmother began, patch by patch, and that Ms. Piña plans to complete now that her grandmother has grown ill. At the end, Ms. Piña’s grandmother tells her to go make her own quilt now. “The metaphor works very well when we think about how students will move through campus,” he said. “The things they might clean up or smooth out or add, all moving towards an end goal. But you don’t get there without that first piece.”

The single best sentence of the 2018 batch of essays was written by Alison Hess, an Illinois native who attends boarding school in Wisconsin. It is the last line of her essay about cows, farming, feminism and her father, and I won’t give it away here.

But it’s clear that every sentence charmed her readers at the University of Chicago, where she will begin college this fall. “There is no pretense or calculation in this essay,” said James G. Nondorf, dean of college admissions and financial aid. “There is loyalty and respect and deference but challenging ideas, too. That’s hard to do for a 17-year-old.”