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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Reflection: Dartmouth Essays That Worked

One writer looks back on her admissions process in light of The Dartmouth’s new book, “50 Dartmouth Application Essays That Worked.”

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Five years ago, I began my Common Application essay with the following sentence: “To quote Ferris Bueller, ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.’ I don’t intend to miss my life.” Half a decade later, those words still ring true. 

Any college was taking a chance when they admitted a girl who quoted a film famous for encouraging students to play hooky. Not only did I open with this line, I hammered the point home as I described my disillusionment with valuing academic learning over personal experience — I was done running on the high school hamster wheel. When people ask me what essay got me into Dartmouth, I usually respond, “An essay about having a really fun summer.” While those words are true, there’s a deeper moral to the story — as incredible as Dartmouth’s academic resources are, and as academically rigorous as my high school had been, I wanted to learn outside of the classroom, to learn by doing, to learn from my friends. “As much as I value my academic identity and as far as my passion for learning goes, my interpersonal relationships teach me just as much,” I wrote.

I was honestly surprised when Dartmouth accepted me in April 2020. I had been deferred early decision, and the last student who had gotten into Dartmouth from my public Florida high school was a cross-country recruit in 2016. Like tens of thousands of high school seniors, I had the grades, test scores and extracurriculars, but I was full of self-doubt. I was also completely burnt out. Was I really “Ivy League material”? I certainly didn’t feel it. Looking over my statistics, I was just another data point. Not Ellie Anderson, but applicant 8,677. 

My “Why Dartmouth?”  and supplement essays allowed me to make my case. I crafted three versions of the former, and I could have kept going. I labored over my words carefully, drafting response after response, but it was challenging only having 250 words to respond, in some form, to a prompt that every Dartmouth applicant has read: “It is, Sir … a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” Other than the encouraging words and flamboyant edits from my high school English teacher, I didn’t know if they were any good. Where to begin …

I would have loved to understand what makes an admissions essay compelling when I was in the throes of applying to college. Recently, The Dartmouth published “50 Dartmouth Application Essays That Worked,” a compilation of successful admissions essays. Looking through this collection, I felt like I was stepping back into my 17-year-old self. The selection includes essays featuring many of the qualities Dartmouth seems to be looking for in its students, or at least those I’ve found in my friends: compassion, curiosity, humility and a collaborative spirit. 

The book opens with essays about environment and nature before progressing to the expected categories: academic interest, arts, heritage, identity, sports and, of course, “miscellaneous.” 

A few stories grabbed me for their honesty, especially one that begins, “I have a complicated relationship with the truth.” I was hooked — it was real and raw. Her father suffers from bipolar disorder even though, to the outside world, nothing appears to be wrong. She has a secret too — she’s seeing a girl. How is one supposed to apply to college when their entire world is being torn apart, “standing in the middle of the bridge and setting fire to both ends,” as she says. But she learns a valuable lesson — to live her own truth, not anyone else’s. 

When I was applying to colleges, I was given the following advice: “Don’t make your admissions essay a sob story.” But this essay certainly isn’t a pity party, which proves you can be honest and address your difficulties in the span of a few hundred words. These kinds of essays instead place their writers’ most beautiful strengths and flaws on full display.

Another such essay begins, “My feet live in infamy.” Yes, you can write your Common Application essay about your gnarled and calloused feet. Although the story begins with an anecdote of “ugly” feet, it becomes so much more — a toe-centric reflection. As the writer’s skin became thicker, she found her voice as well. She comes out of her shell in high school, learning to speak up after several tumultuous adolescent years as an introvert. By the end, she’s finally ready to bear her infamous feet and use her voice.

A deep current of intellectual curiosity runs across the essays, too. I laughed when I read a story about an applicant playing Super Mario Bros on a childhood road trip. The writer makes an in-game blunder, sending Mario hurdling into a turtle. “It was then that the terrible realization that curled my six-year-old toes hit me: Mario would return to play again, but when I die, I will not,” they said. What could have been a decade-long existential spiral instead drove the writer to philosophy and math, where they found solace in understanding the world rather than cowering at the unknown. 

These writers are brave — both for sharing their stories to the black-box admissions panel and for allowing us readers a peek years later. On a campus where we often interact in passing “Hey, what’s up”-isms, reading the diverse selection of essays has grounded me once more in an understanding of what makes Dartmouth, Dartmouth. Students here are radically courageous in their quests for knowledge, acts of kindness and pursuits of greatness. In these essays, 650 words no longer looks limiting but becomes the etchings of a beautiful cohort.

After re-reading my own essay alongside those published, it struck me. As a 17-year-old sending off a piece of yourself to a nebulous online portal, it can be difficult to envision your future — your story is a moment in time caught in between all that you’ve been and all that you hope to become. I’m asking myself this question again as I look forward to my senior year at Dartmouth and re-read my ambitions and fears from the essay I penned in 2019. It’s been a lot of laughing at my naïvete, cringing at a heavy-handed application of adjectives and finding pride in my values.

Not only is this book a tool for Dartmouth applicants, but it’s a time capsule from the Class of 2023 to the Class of 2026, whose essays are included. This is who we were at 17. Looking back at my essay, so much has changed between now and then. How could it have not? But I see the seeds of who I’ve become in my essay, like an incantation: “I learn to understand others and to understand myself.”