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Home  /  News  /  Why Is Education Important? The Power Of An Educated Society

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Why Is Education Important? The Power Of An Educated Society

Looking for an answer to the question of why is education important? We address this query with a focus on how education can transform society through the way we interact with our environment. 

Whether you are a student, a parent, or someone who values educational attainment, you may be wondering how education can provide quality life to a society beyond the obvious answer of acquiring knowledge and economic growth. Continue reading as we discuss the importance of education not just for individuals but for society as a whole. 

a student graduating from university while showing the time and impact their education provides

Harness the power of education to build a more sustainable modern society with a degree from  Unity Environmental University .

How Education Is Power: The Importance Of Education In Society

Why is education so important? Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” An educated society is better equipped to tackle the challenges that face modern America, including:

  • Climate change
  • Social justice
  • Economic inequality

Education is not just about learning to read and do math operations. Of course, gaining knowledge and practical skills is part of it, but education is also about values and critical thinking. It’s about finding our place in society in a meaningful way. 

Environmental Stewardship

A  study from 2022 found that people who belong to an environmental stewardship organization, such as the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, are likely to have a higher education level than those who do not. This suggests that quality education can foster a sense of responsibility towards the environment.

With the effects of climate change becoming increasingly alarming, this particular importance of education is vital to the health, safety, and longevity of our society. Higher learning institutions can further encourage environmental stewardship by adopting a  framework of sustainability science .

jars filled with money showing the economic growth after going to a university

The Economic Benefits Of Education

Higher education can lead to better job opportunities and higher income. On average, a  person with a bachelor’s degree will make $765,000 more  in their lifetime than someone with no degree. Even with the rising costs of tuition, investment in higher education pays off in the long run. In 2020, the return on investment (ROI) for a college degree was estimated to be  13.5% to 35.9% . 

Green jobs  like environmental science technicians and solar panel installers  have high demand projections for the next decade. Therefore, degrees that will prepare you for one of these careers will likely yield a high ROI. And, many of these jobs only require an  associate’s degree or certificate , which means lower overall education costs. 

Unity  helps students maximize their ROI with real-world experience in the field as an integral part of every degree program. 

10 Reasons Why School Is Important

Education is not just an individual pursuit but also a societal one.  In compiling these reasons, we focused on the question, “How does education benefit society?” Overall, higher education has the power to transform:

  • Individuals’ sense of self
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Social communities
  • Professional communities

Cognitive Development

Neuroscience research  has proven that the brain is a muscle that can retain its neuroplasticity throughout life. However, like other muscles, it must receive continual exercise to remain strong. Higher education allows people of any age to improve their higher-level cognitive abilities like problem-solving and decision-making. This can make many parts of life feel more manageable and help society run smoothly. 

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is key to workplace success.  Studies  show that people with emotional intelligence exhibit more:

  • Self-awareness
  • Willingness to try new things
  • Innovative thinking
  • Active listening
  • Collaboration skills
  • Problem-solving abilities

By attending higher education institutions that value these soft skills, students can improve their emotional intelligence as part of their career development in college.

Technological Literacy

Many careers in today’s job market use advanced technology. To prepare for these jobs, young people likely won’t have access to these technologies to practice on their own. That’s part of why so many STEM career paths require degrees. It’s essential to gain technical knowledge and skills through a certified program to safely use certain technologies. And, educated scientists are  more likely to make new technological discoveries .

Cultural Awareness

Education exposes individuals to different cultures and perspectives. Being around people who are different has the powerful ability to foster acceptance. Acceptance benefits society as a whole. It increases innovation and empathy. 

College also gives students an opportunity to practice feeling comfortable in situations where there are people of different races, genders, sexualities, and abilities. Students can gain an understanding of how to act respectfully among different types of people, which is an important skill for the workplace. This will only become more vital as our world continues to become more globalized.

Ethical and Moral Development

Another reason why school is important is that it promotes ethical and moral development. Many schools require students to take an ethics course in their general education curriculum. However, schools can also encourage character development throughout their programs by using effective pedagogical strategies including:

  • Class debates and discussions
  • Historical case studies
  • Group projects

Unity’s distance learning programs  include an ethical decision-making class in our core curriculum. 

Communication Skills

Effective written and verbal communication skills are key for personal and professional success. Higher education programs usually include at least one communication course in their general education requirements. Often the focus in these classes is on writing skills, but students can also use college as an opportunity to hone their presentation and public speaking skills. Courses such as  Multimedia Communication for Environmental Professionals  provide many opportunities for this. 

Civic Engagement

According to a  Gallup survey , people with higher education degrees are:

  • More likely to participate in civic activities such as voting and volunteering
  • Less likely to commit crimes
  • More likely to get involved in their local communities

All these individual acts add up to make a big difference in society. An educated electorate is less likely to be swayed by unethical politicians and, instead, make choices that benefit themselves and their community. Because they are more involved, they are also more likely to hold elected officials accountable.

Financial Stability

The right degree can significantly expand your career opportunities and improve your long-term earning potential. Not all degrees provide the same level of financial stability, so it’s important to research expected salary offers after graduation and job demand outlook predictions for your desired field. Consider the return on investment for a degree from an affordable private school such as  Unity Environmental University .

Environmental Awareness

We have already discussed why education is important for environmental stewardship. Education can also lead to better environmental practices in the business world. By building empathy through character education and ethics courses, institutions can train future business leaders to emphasize human rights and sustainability over profits. All types and sizes of businesses can incorporate sustainable practices, but awareness of the issues and solutions is the first step.

Lifelong Learning

The reasons why education is important discussed so far focus on institutional education. However, education can happen anywhere. Attending a university that values all kinds of learning will set students up with the foundation to become lifelong learners.  Research  demonstrates that lifelong learners tend to be healthier and more fulfilled throughout their lives. When societies emphasize the importance of education, they can boost their overall prosperity.

Unity Environmental University Commencement diploma covers

The Role Of Unity Environmental University In Society

Environmentally conscious education is extremely valuable and should be accessible to all.   Unity Environmental University  offers tuition prices that are comparable to public universities, and financial aid is available to those who qualify. Courses last five weeks so that students can focus on only one class at a time. This ensures all learners are set up for academic success. 

Unity believes in supporting students holistically to maximize the power of education. This includes mental health services,  experiential learning opportunities , and  job placement assistance . Students in our  hybrid programs  can take classes at several field stations throughout Maine and enjoy the beautiful nature surrounding the campus for outdoor recreation.

Sustainable Initiatives

Some highlights from Unity Environmental University’s many sustainable initiatives:

  • All programs include at least one sustainability learning outcome
  • All research courses are focused on sustainability research
  • Reduced building energy use by 25% across campus
  • 100% of food waste is recycled into energy 
  • Campus features a  net-zero LEED Platinum-certified classroom/office building

While many schools value sustainability, Unity stands out because  everything  we do is about sustainability. We also recognize our responsibility to model how a sustainable business can operate in a manner that’s fiscally viable and socially responsible.

Make An Impact At Unity Environmental University

While the phrase ‘education is power’ may sound cliche, it is also resoundingly true. Higher education has the power to transform individuals and societies. Unity Environmental University understands its power to make a positive impact on the world. That’s why we were the first university to divest from fossil fuels. 

This year, we celebrated our  largest incoming class ever , showing that students want an education system that aligns with their values. In addition to our commitment to sustainability, we offer flexibility to students with start dates all year round for our  online degree programs .

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Admit-a-bull // official admissions blog, why a college education is important.

By Joe Emerson | Last Updated: Jul 15, 2022

benefits of college education essay

Defining why a college education is important involves more than just identifying the superficial benefits of more career opportunities. At a deeper level, college is where you will map a path through life that can take you to places you never expected to go.

The beauty of postsecondary education is that college can yield tangible and intangible benefits for you that in turn benefit others – even if school doesn’t awaken your sleeping Pablo Picasso, Stephen Hawking, or Bill Gates.

Tangible Benefits of a College Education

It’s well established that a college education delivers measurable material benefits. If you were to rattle off the list of reasons you’re attending school, chances are these are the first ones you’ll mention.

College Education and Wages

A handful of money definitely qualifies as a tangible benefit, and research has matched levels of education to payroll expectations and the ability to find a job:

  • In 2015, bachelor’s degree holders earned 64 percent more than those with a high school diploma.
  • Bachelor’s degree recipients can expect to earn about $1 million more over a lifetime than a person who doesn’t go to college.
  • A postsecondary education is expected to be required for about two-thirds of available jobs by 2020.

A recent study broke the higher education benefits down even further, finding among other things, that a bachelor’s degree now means the holder will earn 84 percent more than someone with no postsecondary education. The report went even further, projecting lifetime earnings based on virtually all education levels:

  • Lifetime wages of a high school dropout – $973,000
  • Lifetime wages of a high school graduate – $1.3 million
  • Lifetime wages of someone with some college but no degree – $1.5 million
  • Lifetime wages of an associate degree holder – $1.7 million
  • Lifetime wages of a bachelor’s degree holder – $2.3 million
  • Lifetime wages of a master’s degree holder – $2.7 million
  • Lifetime wages of a person with a doctorate – $3.3 million
  • Lifetime wages of a professional degree holder –$3.6 million

Based on U.S. Census Bureau data , the usual median weekly earnings in 2017 for people of varying education levels was:

  • Doctoral degree holder’s median weekly earnings – $1,743
  • Professional degree holder’s median weekly earnings – $1,836
  • Master’s degree holder’s median weekly earnings – $1,401
  • Bachelor’s degree holder’s median weekly earnings – $1,173
  • Associate degree holder’s median weekly earnings – $836
  • Person with some college (no degree) median weekly earnings – $774
  • High school diploma (only) holder’s median weekly earnings – $712
  • Person without high school diploma median weekly earnings – $520

The unemployment rates in 2017 for people in those education categories was 1.5 percent for doctoral degree holders, 1.5 percent for professional degree holders, 2.2 percent for master’s degree holders, 2.5 percent for bachelor’s degree holders, 3.4 percent for associate degree holders, 4 percent for people with some college, 4.6 percent for people with a high school diploma, and 6.5 percent for people without a high school diploma.

Better Jobs Equal Better Benefits, Perks

A college education also usually translates to great benefits and perks as well:

  • Typical white-collar benefits: health insurance, eyecare insurance, vacation and other paid time off, dental insurance, maternity/paternity leave, pension plan, 401(k)
  • Potential white-collar perks: transportation and parking reimbursement and/or company car, free food and beverages, flexible schedules and freedom to work from home (or elsewhere), concierge services, golden parachutes (high-dollar severance packages)

For Some, College Is the First Real Adventure

College takes you out of familiar surroundings and presents new challenges. But college doesn’t only pave the way for intangible experiences. Adapting to new faces in a fresh place is just the start. The education process can mean internships, overseas travel, exciting research opportunities, and exploration of multiple career paths, all of which can lead to some very tangible results when you start working.

And academic success opens doors to careers where, quite literally in some cases, even the sky and moon aren’t the limits. Think aerospace engineering.

Connections that Can Last a Lifetime

The thousands of people you meet, study with, and work alongside in college will range from peers to mentors, along with power players in your chosen field and others. These are connections you will make note of and potentially use to advance yourself and your ideas.

And as far as relationships go, the only romantic label as common as “high school sweetheart” is “college sweetheart.”

USF students at graduation.

Intangible Benefits of a College Education

A college education can open doors for your career and your own personal growth. For example, college helps develop many important skills, such as self-awareness, global-mindedness, critical thinking, and more.

People by Nature Desire Knowledge

That is a paraphrase of a premise that the Greek philosopher Aristotle states in his Metaphysics . It is affirmed by the connection of head and heart when the study of history helps you forecast the future, when math adds up to real-life solutions, and when the development of skills allows you to produce a masterpiece worthy of the Library of Congress, Metropolitan Museum of Art, or U.S. Patent Office.

In Pursuit of Critical Thinking

Results are in on colleges and critical thinking. During one recent study , researchers began with the notion that everyone wants colleges to teach critical-thinking skills and that the challenge routinely is accepted. Here’s a key finding: Data show that a student who begins college with critical thinking skills in the 50 th percentile can expect to be in the 72 nd percentile after four years.

Critical thinking is, according to the Foundation for Critical Thinking , “that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it.” Developing that skill yields endless opportunities to enrich your life both personally and professionally.

College Advances Self-Realization

A college education, if pursued honestly and earnestly, gives you the knowledge and skills needed to pursue a career and your passions. The degree also can bring hard-to-match personal satisfaction. A huge part of ensuring that self-realization process is finding a school that is right for you , where you’ll feel safe and comfortable enough to let yourself grow and explore.

Our USF admissions advisors are happy to answer your questions about the USF admissions process, so contact us online or by phone at 813-974-3350 .

Joe Emerson

About Joe Emerson

Joe Emerson spent 30 years as a magazine and newspaper reporter, editor and copyeditor who turned to freelancing after 20 years with The Tampa Tribune, which closed in 2016 after 125 years of serving the Tampa Bay area. Writing and delivering valuable information remain his passion.

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5. the value of a college education.

An extensive body of research has argued that obtaining a college diploma is a good deal for graduates on almost any measure – from higher earnings to lower unemployment rates. By the same token, those without a college degree can find their upward mobility in the job market limited by a lack of educational credentials: This survey finds that one-third of Americans who lack a four-year college degree report that they have declined to apply for a job they felt they were qualified for, because that job required a bachelor’s degree.

But despite the potential benefits and opportunities available to college graduates – and the potential challenges faced by those who lack a college diploma – Americans have somewhat mixed attitudes about the effectiveness of traditional four-year colleges and other higher education institutions. On a personal level, many college graduates describe their own educational experience as having a generally positive impact on their personal and professional development. Roughly six-in-ten (62%) college graduates with two- or four-year degrees think their degree was very useful for helping them grow personally and intellectually, while roughly half think it was very useful for opening up job opportunities (53%) or for providing them with useful job-related skills and knowledge (49%).

Yet even as many college graduates view their own educational experience in positive terms, the public as a whole – including a substantial share of college graduates – expresses reservations about the extent to which various higher education institutions prepare students for the workforce more generally. Just 16% of Americans think that a four-year degree prepares students very well for a well-paying job in today’s economy, and 51% say this type of degree prepares students “somewhat well” for the workplace. Some 12% think that a two-year associate degree prepares students very well (46% say somewhat well), and 26% feel that certification programs in a professional, technical, or vocational field prepare students very well (52% say somewhat well).

The purpose of college: Americans view workforce-relevant skills and knowledge as more important than personal and intellectual growth

Americans’ views of what a college education should be tend to prioritize specific, workplace-related skills and knowledge rather than general intellectual development and personal growth. Half of Americans say that the main purpose of college should be to teach specific skills and knowledge that can be used in the workplace, while 35% think its main purpose should be to help students grow and develop personally and intellectually and 13% volunteer that these objectives are equally important. The public’s views on this issue have shifted slightly in favor of skills development since the last time Pew Research Center asked this question in 2011. At that point, 47% said main purpose of college should be to teach specific skills and knowledge and 39% said it should be to promote personal and intellectual growth.

benefits of college education essay

Americans who have engaged in additional schooling beyond a bachelor’s degree are especially likely to say that the main purpose of college should be personal and intellectual growth, rather than the acquisition of specific skills and knowledge. Some 47% of those with a postgraduate or professional degree think the main purpose of college should be personal and intellectual growth, while 35% think it should be teaching workplace-relevant skills.

In contrast, those with limited college experience (or no college experience at all) are more likely to prioritize the development of specific skills over general intellectual improvement. For instance, 56% of Americans with a high school diploma or less say college should be primarily a place to develop specific work-oriented knowledge and skills, while just 31% see it primarily as a place for personal and intellectual growth.

There is also a partisan element to these views, with Republicans and Democrats expressing highly differing opinions on the purpose of college. Democrats (including Democratic-leaning independents) are about evenly split on which of these objectives is more important: 42% say colleges should prioritize personal and intellectual growth, while 43% say they should prioritize the development of workforce-relevant skills. But among Republicans and Republican leaners, 58% say that the main purpose of college should be teach specific skills – while just 28% feel that the main purpose should be general personal and intellectual growth.

These partisan differences hold true even after accounting for differences in educational attainment. Democrats and Democratic leaners with high levels of educational attainment are more likely to prioritize personal and intellectual growth relative to Democrats and Democratic leaners with lower levels of educational attainment.

benefits of college education essay

But Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents at all educational levels are more likely than Republicans and Republican-leaning independents with similar levels of education to believe that personal and intellectual growth should be the main purpose of college.

Along with Democrats and those who have progressed beyond a bachelor’s degree, younger adults (those ages 18 to 29) are more likely than older adults to feel that personal and intellectual growth should be the primary purpose of college: some 43% of 18- to 29-year olds feel this way, compared with roughly one-third of those in older age groups.

In addition, Americans who themselves work in the education field tend to place a greater emphasis on personal and intellectual growth as the primary purpose of college: 46% believe that this should be the main purpose of a college degree, while 35% believe that college should mainly be a place to develop specific skills and knowledge (19% of those who work in the education industry consider them equally important).

Most college graduates regard their college experience as very useful for intellectual growth; views are more mixed when it comes to job opportunities and marketable skills

When asked to assess certain aspects of their own educational experience, about six-in-ten (62%) college graduates (including those who graduated from a two-year degree program) feel that their time in college was very useful in helping them grow personally and intellectually. About half say their college experience was very useful in helping them access job opportunities (53%) or in helping them develop skills and knowledge they could use in the workplace (49%).

benefits of college education essay

The further people have progressed in their college career, the more likely they are to consider their experience very useful. Those with a postgraduate or professional degree are more likely to say that their college education was very useful in each of these respects compared with four-year degree holders, who are in turn more likely than those with a two-year associate degree to say that their education was very useful across each of these measures. For example, while two-thirds of those with a postgraduate or professional degree say their college education was very useful in opening doors to job opportunities, 56% of those with a four-year degree, and an even smaller share (40%) among those with a two-year degree, say the same. And while 57% of those with more than a bachelor’s degree say college was very useful in helping them develop marketable skills, about half or a smaller share among those with a four- or two-year degree hold this view (49% and 43%, respectively).

benefits of college education essay

When it comes to helping them grow professionally and intellectually, majorities of those with a postgraduate or professional degree (77%) and those with a bachelor’s degree (64%) say college was very useful, compared with 46% of those with a two-year college degree.

Americans have mixed views about the extent to which college prepares students for a well-paying job in today’s economy

When asked a broader set of questions about the impact of college more generally, the public expresses somewhat mixed views about the extent to which a college education prepares students for success in the workforce.

Two-thirds of Americans (67%) think that a traditional four-year degree prepares students for a well-paying job in today’s economy at least somewhat well, but just 16% think it prepares them very well, and 29% think it does not prepare them well. A somewhat smaller share of Americans (58%) think that a two-year community college degree prepares students for a well-paying job either very (12%) or somewhat (46%) well, while 38% think that these programs do not prepare students well.

benefits of college education essay

Interestingly, Americans with a four-year college degree are generally no more positive – or negative – than those with less education about the relationship between a four-year degree and a well-paying job: 13% of those with a bachelor’s degree or more education say a four-year degree prepares people very well, as do 11% of those with a two-year associate degree, 12% of those with some college experience but no degree, and 17% of those with a high school diploma. Among those who did not complete high school, however, 40% believe that a four-year college degree does a very good job of preparing people for a well-paying job.

When it comes to assessments of a two-year college degree, about one-in-six (16%) Americans who hold this type of degree say it prepares workers very well for a well-paying job. This is considerably larger than the share of those with at least a bachelor’s degree (7%) who say a two-year degree prepares people very well, but not necessarily more positive than the views of those with less education.

Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to say four- and two-year degrees prepare people very well for a job in today’s economy. For example, about three-in-ten (29%) Hispanics and about a quarter (24%) of blacks say this about a four-year degree, compared with 12% of whites. And while about one-in-five blacks and Hispanics (18% each) say a two-year associate degree prepares people very well, one-in-ten whites share this view.

These findings are consistent with previous Pew Research Center surveys that found that black and Latino parents view college as more essential for their children’s success than do white parents.

benefits of college education essay

A substantially larger share of the public has positive attitudes towards certification programs in a professional, technical or vocational field in the context of workforce development. Some 78% of Americans think that these programs prepare students well for a job in today’s economy, including 26% who think they prepare students very well. Just roughly one-in-five (19%) think they do not prepare students well. It is important to note, however, that respondents were not asked about the effectiveness of certification programs instead of a college education.

Positive assessments of certificate programs as a way to prepare workers for jobs in today’s economy are particularly widespread among those who did not complete high school; 44% in this group say these types of programs prepare people very well, compared with about a quarter (27%) of those with a high school diploma and a similar share of those with some college, but no degree (22%), a two-year degree (28%), or a four-year degree or more education (22%). Certificate programs are also particularly well-regarded among Hispanics, 39% of whom say they prepare people very well for a good job in today’s economy. About a quarter of blacks (25%) and whites (23%) say the same.

One-third of Americans without a bachelor’s degree have elected to not apply for a job they felt they were qualified for because it required a four-year degree

benefits of college education essay

Recent research has argued that there is a “ credentials gap ” in today’s workforce, as employers increasingly require a bachelor’s degree for positions that did not demand this level of schooling in the past. And the survey finds that 33% of Americans who do not have a four-year college degree report that they have declined to apply for a job they felt they were qualified for, because it required a bachelor’s degree.

Americans who have engaged in some type of formal education beyond high school (short of obtaining a bachelor’s degree) are particularly likely to believe they’ve been adversely affected by credentialing requirements as they work their way up the educational ladder. Some 25% of Americans with a high school diploma or less and no additional schooling beyond that have not applied for a job because of a bachelor’s degree requirement. But that figure rises to 34% among those with a high school diploma plus additional vocational schooling, to 38% among those with some college experience but no degree, and to 44% among those with a two-year associate degree. Put somewhat differently, as people receive additional formal education without actually obtaining a bachelor’s degree, they may develop relevant skills without the on-paper credentials to match.

In addition, adults younger than 50 are much more likely than older adults to have refrained from applying to a job they felt they were qualified for because they didn’t meet the formal educational requirements. About four-in-ten non-college graduates ages 18 to 29 (41%) and ages 30 to 49 (44%) say this has happened, compared with 31% of those ages 50 to 64 and just 12% of those 65 and older.

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About Pew Research Center Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts .

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How to Write a College Essay | A Complete Guide & Examples

The college essay can make or break your application. It’s your chance to provide personal context, communicate your values and qualities, and set yourself apart from other students.

A standout essay has a few key ingredients:

  • A unique, personal topic
  • A compelling, well-structured narrative
  • A clear, creative writing style
  • Evidence of self-reflection and insight

To achieve this, it’s crucial to give yourself enough time for brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.

In this comprehensive guide, we walk you through every step in the process of writing a college admissions essay.

Table of contents

Why do you need a standout essay, start organizing early, choose a unique topic, outline your essay, start with a memorable introduction, write like an artist, craft a strong conclusion, revise and receive feedback, frequently asked questions.

While most of your application lists your academic achievements, your college admissions essay is your opportunity to share who you are and why you’d be a good addition to the university.

Your college admissions essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s total weight一and may account for even more with some colleges making the SAT and ACT tests optional. The college admissions essay may be the deciding factor in your application, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.

What do colleges look for in an essay?

Admissions officers want to understand your background, personality, and values to get a fuller picture of you beyond your test scores and grades. Here’s what colleges look for in an essay :

  • Demonstrated values and qualities
  • Vulnerability and authenticity
  • Self-reflection and insight
  • Creative, clear, and concise writing skills

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

It’s a good idea to start organizing your college application timeline in the summer of your junior year to make your application process easier. This will give you ample time for essay brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.

While timelines will vary for each student, aim to spend at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing your first draft and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Remember to leave enough time for breaks in between each writing and editing stage.

Create an essay tracker sheet

If you’re applying to multiple schools, you will have to juggle writing several essays for each one. We recommend using an essay tracker spreadsheet to help you visualize and organize the following:

  • Deadlines and number of essays needed
  • Prompt overlap, allowing you to write one essay for similar prompts

You can build your own essay tracker using our free Google Sheets template.

College essay tracker template

Ideally, you should start brainstorming college essay topics the summer before your senior year. Keep in mind that it’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic.

If you want to write about a common essay topic, such as a sports injury or volunteer work overseas, think carefully about how you can make it unique and personal. You’ll need to demonstrate deep insight and write your story in an original way to differentiate it from similar essays.

What makes a good topic?

  • Meaningful and personal to you
  • Uncommon or has an unusual angle
  • Reveals something different from the rest of your application

Brainstorming questions

You should do a comprehensive brainstorm before choosing your topic. Here are a few questions to get started:

  • What are your top five values? What lived experiences demonstrate these values?
  • What adjectives would your friends and family use to describe you?
  • What challenges or failures have you faced and overcome? What lessons did you learn from them?
  • What makes you different from your classmates?
  • What are some objects that represent your identity, your community, your relationships, your passions, or your goals?
  • Whom do you admire most? Why?
  • What three people have significantly impacted your life? How did they influence you?

How to identify your topic

Here are two strategies for identifying a topic that demonstrates your values:

  • Start with your qualities : First, identify positive qualities about yourself; then, brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities.
  • Start with a story : Brainstorm a list of memorable life moments; then, identify a value shown in each story.

After choosing your topic, organize your ideas in an essay outline , which will help keep you focused while writing. Unlike a five-paragraph academic essay, there’s no set structure for a college admissions essay. You can take a more creative approach, using storytelling techniques to shape your essay.

Two common approaches are to structure your essay as a series of vignettes or as a single narrative.

Vignettes structure

The vignette, or montage, structure weaves together several stories united by a common theme. Each story should demonstrate one of your values or qualities and conclude with an insight or future outlook.

This structure gives the admissions officer glimpses into your personality, background, and identity, and shows how your qualities appear in different areas of your life.

Topic: Museum with a “five senses” exhibit of my experiences

  • Introduction: Tour guide introduces my museum and my “Making Sense of My Heritage” exhibit
  • Story: Racial discrimination with my eyes
  • Lesson: Using my writing to document truth
  • Story: Broadway musical interests
  • Lesson: Finding my voice
  • Story: Smells from family dinner table
  • Lesson: Appreciating home and family
  • Story: Washing dishes
  • Lesson: Finding moments of peace in busy schedule
  • Story: Biking with Ava
  • Lesson: Finding pleasure in job well done
  • Conclusion: Tour guide concludes tour, invites guest to come back for “fall College Collection,” featuring my search for identity and learning.

Single story structure

The single story, or narrative, structure uses a chronological narrative to show a student’s character development over time. Some narrative essays detail moments in a relatively brief event, while others narrate a longer journey spanning months or years.

Single story essays are effective if you have overcome a significant challenge or want to demonstrate personal development.

Topic: Sports injury helps me learn to be a better student and person

  • Situation: Football injury
  • Challenge: Friends distant, teachers don’t know how to help, football is gone for me
  • Turning point: Starting to like learning in Ms. Brady’s history class; meeting Christina and her friends
  • My reactions: Reading poetry; finding shared interest in poetry with Christina; spending more time studying and with people different from me
  • Insight: They taught me compassion and opened my eyes to a different lifestyle; even though I still can’t play football, I’m starting a new game

Brainstorm creative insights or story arcs

Regardless of your essay’s structure, try to craft a surprising story arc or original insights, especially if you’re writing about a common topic.

Never exaggerate or fabricate facts about yourself to seem interesting. However, try finding connections in your life that deviate from cliché storylines and lessons.

Admissions officers read thousands of essays each year, and they typically spend only a few minutes reading each one. To get your message across, your introduction , or hook, needs to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to read more..

Avoid starting your introduction with a famous quote, cliché, or reference to the essay itself (“While I sat down to write this essay…”).

While you can sometimes use dialogue or a meaningful quotation from a close family member or friend, make sure it encapsulates your essay’s overall theme.

Find an original, creative way of starting your essay using the following two methods.

Option 1: Start with an intriguing hook

Begin your essay with an unexpected statement to pique the reader’s curiosity and compel them to carefully read your essay. A mysterious introduction disarms the reader’s expectations and introduces questions that can only be answered by reading more.

Option 2: Start with vivid imagery

Illustrate a clear, detailed image to immediately transport your reader into your memory. You can start in the middle of an important scene or describe an object that conveys your essay’s theme.

A college application essay allows you to be creative in your style and tone. As you draft your essay, try to use interesting language to enliven your story and stand out .

Show, don’t tell

“Tell” in writing means to simply state a fact: “I am a basketball player.” “ Show ” in writing means to use details, examples, and vivid imagery to help the reader easily visualize your memory: “My heart races as I set up to shoot一two seconds, one second一and score a three-pointer!”

First, reflect on every detail of a specific image or scene to recall the most memorable aspects.

  • What are the most prominent images?
  • Are there any particular sounds, smells, or tastes associated with this memory?
  • What emotion or physical feeling did you have at that time?

Be vulnerable to create an emotional response

You don’t have to share a huge secret or traumatic story, but you should dig deep to express your honest feelings, thoughts, and experiences to evoke an emotional response. Showing vulnerability demonstrates humility and maturity. However, don’t exaggerate to gain sympathy.

Use appropriate style and tone

Make sure your essay has the right style and tone by following these guidelines:

  • Use a conversational yet respectful tone: less formal than academic writing, but more formal than texting your friends.
  • Prioritize using “I” statements to highlight your perspective.
  • Write within your vocabulary range to maintain an authentic voice.
  • Write concisely, and use the active voice to keep a fast pace.
  • Follow grammar rules (unless you have valid stylistic reasons for breaking them).

You should end your college essay with a deep insight or creative ending to leave the reader with a strong final impression. Your college admissions essay should avoid the following:

  • Summarizing what you already wrote
  • Stating your hope of being accepted to the school
  • Mentioning character traits that should have been illustrated in the essay, such as “I’m a hard worker”

Here are two strategies to craft a strong conclusion.

Option 1: Full circle, sandwich structure

The full circle, or sandwich, structure concludes the essay with an image, idea, or story mentioned in the introduction. This strategy gives the reader a strong sense of closure.

In the example below, the essay concludes by returning to the “museum” metaphor that the writer opened with.

Option 2: Revealing your insight

You can use the conclusion to show the insight you gained as a result of the experiences you’ve described. Revealing your main message at the end creates suspense and keeps the takeaway at the forefront of your reader’s mind.

Revise your essay before submitting it to check its content, style, and grammar. Get feedback from no more than two or three people.

It’s normal to go through several rounds of revision, but take breaks between each editing stage.

Also check out our college essay examples to see what does and doesn’t work in an essay and the kinds of changes you can make to improve yours.

Respect the word count

Most schools specify a word count for each essay , and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit.

Remain under the specified word count limit to show you can write concisely and follow directions. However, don’t write too little, which may imply that you are unwilling or unable to write a thoughtful and developed essay.

Check your content, style, and grammar

  • First, check big-picture issues of message, flow, and clarity.
  • Then, check for style and tone issues.
  • Finally, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.

Get feedback

Get feedback from 2–3 people who know you well, have good writing skills, and are familiar with college essays.

  • Teachers and guidance counselors can help you check your content, language, and tone.
  • Friends and family can check for authenticity.
  • An essay coach or editor has specialized knowledge of college admissions essays and can give objective expert feedback.

The checklist below helps you make sure your essay ticks all the boxes.

College admissions essay checklist

I’ve organized my essay prompts and created an essay writing schedule.

I’ve done a comprehensive brainstorm for essay topics.

I’ve selected a topic that’s meaningful to me and reveals something different from the rest of my application.

I’ve created an outline to guide my structure.

I’ve crafted an introduction containing vivid imagery or an intriguing hook that grabs the reader’s attention.

I’ve written my essay in a way that shows instead of telling.

I’ve shown positive traits and values in my essay.

I’ve demonstrated self-reflection and insight in my essay.

I’ve used appropriate style and tone .

I’ve concluded with an insight or a creative ending.

I’ve revised my essay , checking my overall message, flow, clarity, and grammar.

I’ve respected the word count , remaining within 10% of the upper word limit.

Congratulations!

It looks like your essay ticks all the boxes. A second pair of eyes can help you take it to the next level – Scribbr's essay coaches can help.

Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.

Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending

While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay , and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don’t forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage.

You should already begin thinking about your essay the summer before your senior year so that you have plenty of time to try out different topics and get feedback on what works.

Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.

You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.

If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.

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12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay

College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.

Pamela Reynolds

When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.

Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.

So, what does this mean for you?

Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.

A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.

A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.

Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.

Be Authentic

More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.

Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.

Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.

Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.

Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.

Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.

Grab the Reader From the Start

You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.

Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.

Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.

Focus on Deeper Themes

Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.

College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.

They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.

Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?

Show Don’t Tell

As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.

The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.

Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.

Try Doing Something Different

If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?

If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.

You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.

However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.

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Write With the Reader in Mind

Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.

Use transitions between paragraphs.

Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?

Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?

Write Several Drafts

Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.

Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.

Read It Aloud

Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.

Don’t Repeat

If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.

Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.

Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.

Ask Others to Read Your Essay

Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.

Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.

Pay Attention to Form

Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at about 650 words.

“While we won’t as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you’d hoped it would,” the Common App website states.

In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.

End Your Essay With a “Kicker”

In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.

It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.

So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.

While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.

Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!

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About the Author

Pamela Reynolds is a Boston-area feature writer and editor whose work appears in numerous publications. She is the author of “Revamp: A Memoir of Travel and Obsessive Renovation.”

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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, 177 college essay examples for 11 schools + expert analysis.

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College Admissions , College Essays

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The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.

In this article, I'll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 11 different schools. Finally, I'll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 177 full essays and essay excerpts , this article is a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!

What Excellent College Essays Have in Common

Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.

Visible Signs of Planning

Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You'll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author's present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.

Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author's world, and for how it connects to the author's emotional life.

Stellar Execution

A killer first sentence. You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don't take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don't want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!

A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don't bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.

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Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you're in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.

And if you need more guidance, connect with PrepScholar's expert admissions consultants . These expert writers know exactly what college admissions committees look for in an admissions essay and chan help you craft an essay that boosts your chances of getting into your dream school.

Check out PrepScholar's Essay Editing and Coaching progra m for more details!

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Want to write the perfect college application essay? Get professional help from PrepScholar.

Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We'll learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay that you'll proudly submit to your top choice colleges.

Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now :

Craft Your Perfect College Essay

Links to Full College Essay Examples

Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these.

Common App Essay Samples

Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts. 

Connecticut college.

  • 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025

Hamilton College

  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026
  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022
  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2018
  • 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2012
  • 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2007

Johns Hopkins

These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Coalition Application (which Johns Hopkins used to accept).

  • 1 Common Application or Coalition Application essay from the class of 2026
  • 6 Common Application or Coalition Application essays from the class of 2025
  • 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2024
  • 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2023
  • 7 Common Application of Universal Application essays from the class of 2022
  • 5 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2021
  • 7 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2020

Essay Examples Published by Other Websites

  • 2 Common Application essays ( 1st essay , 2nd essay ) from applicants admitted to Columbia

Other Sample College Essays

Here is a collection of essays that are college-specific.

Babson College

  • 4 essays (and 1 video response) on "Why Babson" from the class of 2020

Emory University

  • 5 essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) from the class of 2020 along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on why the essays were exceptional
  • 5 more recent essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on what made these essays stand out

University of Georgia

  • 1 “strong essay” sample from 2019
  • 1 “strong essay” sample from 2018
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2023
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2022
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2021
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2020
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2019
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2018
  • 6 essays from admitted MIT students

Smith College

  • 6 "best gift" essays from the class of 2018

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Books of College Essays

If you're looking for even more sample college essays, consider purchasing a college essay book. The best of these include dozens of essays that worked and feedback from real admissions officers.

College Essays That Made a Difference —This detailed guide from Princeton Review includes not only successful essays, but also interviews with admissions officers and full student profiles.

50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by the Staff of the Harvard Crimson—A must for anyone aspiring to Harvard .

50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and 50 Successful Stanford Application Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe—For essays from other top schools, check out this venerated series, which is regularly updated with new essays.

Heavenly Essays by Janine W. Robinson—This collection from the popular blogger behind Essay Hell includes a wider range of schools, as well as helpful tips on honing your own essay.

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Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked

I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.

Example 1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 636 words long)

I had never broken into a car before.

We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.

Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.

"Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?"

"Why me?" I thought.

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. "The water's on fire! Clear a hole!" he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I'm still unconvinced about that particular lesson's practicality, my Dad's overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.

Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don't sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don't expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.

But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.

Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"

The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.

Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It's family. It's society. And often, it's chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.

What Makes This Essay Tick?

It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!

An Opening Line That Draws You In

In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).

Great, Detailed Opening Story

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.

It's the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren't going to get food or dinner; they're going for "Texas BBQ." The coat hanger comes from "a dumpster." Stephen doesn't just move the coat hanger—he "jiggles" it.

Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn't just uncomfortable or nervous; he "takes a few steps back"—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.

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Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight

Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.

Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word "click."

Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.

"Unpredictability and chaos" are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like "family of seven" and "siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing," Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.

Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice

My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.

Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: "in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed."

The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase "you know," so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father's strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn't occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.

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An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future

But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"

The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen's life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad's approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can't control.

This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.

What Could This Essay Do Even Better?

Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could?

Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don't sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring.

Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.

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Example 2: By Renner Kwittken, Tufts Class of '23 (Common App Essay, 645 words long)

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.

Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.

I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.

In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn't allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).

I hadn't expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find -- with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials "RK-1" -- thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.

A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.

It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry's book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I'm learning that it isn't the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek -- I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.

Renner takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but their essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of this essay.

One Clear Governing Metaphor

This essay is ultimately about two things: Renner’s dreams and future career goals, and Renner’s philosophy on goal-setting and achieving one’s dreams.

But instead of listing off all the amazing things they’ve done to pursue their dream of working in nanomedicine, Renner tells a powerful, unique story instead. To set up the narrative, Renner opens the essay by connecting their experiences with goal-setting and dream-chasing all the way back to a memorable childhood experience:

This lighthearted–but relevant!--story about the moment when Renner first developed a passion for a specific career (“finding the goldbug”) provides an anchor point for the rest of the essay. As Renner pivots to describing their current dreams and goals–working in nanomedicine–the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” is reflected in Renner’s experiments, rejections, and new discoveries.

Though Renner tells multiple stories about their quest to “find the goldbug,” or, in other words, pursue their passion, each story is connected by a unifying theme; namely, that as we search and grow over time, our goals will transform…and that’s okay! By the end of the essay, Renner uses the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” to reiterate the relevance of the opening story:

While the earlier parts of the essay convey Renner’s core message by showing, the final, concluding paragraph sums up Renner’s insights by telling. By briefly and clearly stating the relevance of the goldbug metaphor to their own philosophy on goals and dreams, Renner demonstrates their creativity, insight, and eagerness to grow and evolve as the journey continues into college.

body_fixers

An Engaging, Individual Voice

This essay uses many techniques that make Renner sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know them.

Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.

I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Renner gives a great example of how to use humor to your advantage in college essays. You don’t want to come off as too self-deprecating or sarcastic, but telling a lightheartedly humorous story about your younger self that also showcases how you’ve grown and changed over time can set the right tone for your entire essay.

Technique #2: intentional, eye-catching structure. The second technique is the way Renner uses a unique structure to bolster the tone and themes of their essay . The structure of your essay can have a major impact on how your ideas come across…so it’s important to give it just as much thought as the content of your essay!

For instance, Renner does a great job of using one-line paragraphs to create dramatic emphasis and to make clear transitions from one phase of the story to the next:

Suddenly the destination of my pickle car was clear.

Not only does the one-liner above signal that Renner is moving into a new phase of the narrative (their nanoparticle research experiences), it also tells the reader that this is a big moment in Renner’s story. It’s clear that Renner made a major discovery that changed the course of their goal pursuit and dream-chasing. Through structure, Renner conveys excitement and entices the reader to keep pushing forward to the next part of the story.

Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Renner emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.

Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research.

In the examples above, Renner switches adeptly between long, flowing sentences and quippy, telegraphic ones. At the same time, Renner uses these different sentence lengths intentionally. As they describe their experiences in new places, they use longer sentences to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of those experiences. And when it’s time to get a big, key idea across, Renner switches to a short, punchy sentence to stop the reader in their tracks.

The varying syntax and sentence lengths pull the reader into the narrative and set up crucial “aha” moments when it’s most important…which is a surefire way to make any college essay stand out.

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Renner's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.

Connecting the research experiences to the theme of “finding the goldbug.”  The essay begins and ends with Renner’s connection to the idea of “finding the goldbug.” And while this metaphor is deftly tied into the essay’s intro and conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear what Renner’s big findings were during the research experiences that are described in the middle of the essay. It would be great to add a sentence or two stating what Renner’s big takeaways (or “goldbugs”) were from these experiences, which add more cohesion to the essay as a whole.

Give more details about discovering the world of nanomedicine. It makes sense that Renner wants to get into the details of their big research experiences as quickly as possible. After all, these are the details that show Renner’s dedication to nanomedicine! But a smoother transition from the opening pickle car/goldbug story to Renner’s “real goldbug” of nanoparticles would help the reader understand why nanoparticles became Renner’s goldbug. Finding out why Renner is so motivated to study nanomedicine–and perhaps what put them on to this field of study–would help readers fully understand why Renner chose this path in the first place.

4 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay

How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.

#1: Get Help From the Experts

Getting your college applications together takes a lot of work and can be pretty intimidatin g. Essays are even more important than ever now that admissions processes are changing and schools are going test-optional and removing diversity standards thanks to new Supreme Court rulings .  If you want certified expert help that really makes a difference, get started with  PrepScholar’s Essay Editing and Coaching program. Our program can help you put together an incredible essay from idea to completion so that your application stands out from the crowd. We've helped students get into the best colleges in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale.  If you're ready to take the next step and boost your odds of getting into your dream school, connect with our experts today .

#2: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own

As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
  • Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
  • Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
  • Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?

Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it . Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.

body-gears-cogs-puzzle-cc0

#3: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment

All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.

Check out essays by authors like John Jeremiah Sullivan , Leslie Jamison , Hanif Abdurraqib , and Esmé Weijun Wang to get more examples of how to craft a compelling personal narrative.

#4: Start Early, Revise Often

Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.

Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!

For more editing tips, check out a style guide like Dreyer's English or Eats, Shoots & Leaves .

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What's Next?

Still not sure which colleges you want to apply to? Our experts will show you how to make a college list that will help you choose a college that's right for you.

Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application , some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay , and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities .

Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .

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The recommendations in this post are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links PrepScholar may receive a commission.

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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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Home — Essay Samples — Education — Why Is College Important — Benefits of Having College Education

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Benefits of Having College Education

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Published: Aug 30, 2022

Words: 811 | Pages: 2 | 5 min read

Bibliography

  • “Unemployment Rates and Earnings by Educational Attainment.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 Sept. 2019
  • “Unemployment Rate 2.1 Percent for College Grads, 4.3 Percent for High School Grads in April 2018.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10 May 2018
  • “Earnings.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 22 Nov. 2019
  • Owen, Stephanie, and Isabel V. Sawhill. “Should Everyone Go To College?” Brookings, Brookings, 28 July 2016

Should follow an “upside down” triangle format, meaning, the writer should start off broad and introduce the text and author or topic being discussed, and then get more specific to the thesis statement.

Provides a foundational overview, outlining the historical context and introducing key information that will be further explored in the essay, setting the stage for the argument to follow.

Cornerstone of the essay, presenting the central argument that will be elaborated upon and supported with evidence and analysis throughout the rest of the paper.

The topic sentence serves as the main point or focus of a paragraph in an essay, summarizing the key idea that will be discussed in that paragraph.

The body of each paragraph builds an argument in support of the topic sentence, citing information from sources as evidence.

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Most high school students don’t get a lot of experience with creative writing, so the college essay can be especially daunting. Reading examples of successful essays, however, can help you understand what admissions officers are looking for.

In this post, we’ll share 16 college essay examples of many different topics. Most of the essay prompts fall into 8 different archetypes, and you can approach each prompt under that archetype in a similar way. We’ve grouped these examples by archetype so you can better structure your approach to college essays.

If you’re looking for school-specific guides, check out our 2022-2023 essay breakdowns .

Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized. 

Note: the essays are titled in this post for navigation purposes, but they were not originally titled. We also include the original prompt where possible.

The Common App essay goes to all of the schools on your list, unless those schools use a separate application platform. Because of this, it’s the most important essay in your portfolio, and likely the longest essay you’ll need to write (you get up to 650 words). 

The goal of this essay is to share a glimpse into who you are, what matters to you, and what you hope to achieve. It’s a chance to share your story. 

Learn more about how to write the Common App essay in our complete guide.

The Multiple Meanings of Point

Prompt: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (250-650 words)

Night had robbed the academy of its daytime colors, yet there was comfort in the dim lights that cast shadows of our advances against the bare studio walls. Silhouettes of roundhouse kicks, spin crescent kicks, uppercuts and the occasional butterfly kick danced while we sparred. She approached me, eyes narrowed with the trace of a smirk challenging me. “Ready spar!” Her arm began an upward trajectory targeting my shoulder, a common first move. I sidestepped — only to almost collide with another flying fist. Pivoting my right foot, I snapped my left leg, aiming my heel at her midsection. The center judge raised one finger. 

There was no time to celebrate, not in the traditional sense at least. Master Pollard gave a brief command greeted with a unanimous “Yes, sir” and the thud of 20 hands dropping-down-and-giving-him-30, while the “winners” celebrated their victory with laps as usual. 

Three years ago, seven-thirty in the evening meant I was a warrior. It meant standing up straighter, pushing a little harder, “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am”, celebrating birthdays by breaking boards, never pointing your toes, and familiarity. Three years later, seven-thirty in the morning meant I was nervous. 

The room is uncomfortably large. The sprung floor soaks up the checkerboard of sunlight piercing through the colonial windows. The mirrored walls further illuminate the studio and I feel the light scrutinizing my sorry attempts at a pas de bourrée, while capturing the organic fluidity of the dancers around me. “Chassé en croix, grand battement, pique, pirouette.” I follow the graceful limbs of the woman in front of me, her legs floating ribbons, as she executes what seems to be a perfect ronds de jambes. Each movement remains a negotiation. With admirable patience, Ms. Tan casts me a sympathetic glance.   

There is no time to wallow in the misery that is my right foot. Taekwondo calls for dorsiflexion; pointed toes are synonymous with broken toes. My thoughts drag me into a flashback of the usual response to this painful mistake: “You might as well grab a tutu and head to the ballet studio next door.” Well, here I am Master Pollard, unfortunately still following your orders to never point my toes, but no longer feeling the satisfaction that comes with being a third degree black belt with 5 years of experience quite literally under her belt. It’s like being a white belt again — just in a leotard and ballet slippers. 

But the appetite for new beginnings that brought me here doesn’t falter. It is only reinforced by the classical rendition of “Dancing Queen” that floods the room and the ghost of familiarity that reassures me that this new beginning does not and will not erase the past. After years spent at the top, it’s hard to start over. But surrendering what you are only leads you to what you may become. In Taekwondo, we started each class reciting the tenets: honor, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, courage, humility, and knowledge, and I have never felt that I embodied those traits more so than when I started ballet. 

The thing about change is that it eventually stops making things so different. After nine different schools, four different countries, three different continents, fluency in Tamil, Norwegian, and English, there are more blurred lines than there are clear fragments. My life has not been a tactfully executed, gold medal-worthy Taekwondo form with each movement defined, nor has it been a series of frappés performed by a prima ballerina with each extension identical and precise, but thankfully it has been like the dynamics of a spinning back kick, fluid, and like my chances of landing a pirouette, unpredictable. 

The first obvious strength of this essay is the introduction—it is interesting and snappy and uses enough technical language that we want to figure out what the student is discussing. When writing introductions, students tend to walk the line between intriguing and confusing. It is important that your essay ends up on the intentionally intriguing side of that line—like this student does! We are a little confused at first, but by then introducing the idea of “sparring,” the student grounds their essay.

People often advise young writers to “show, not tell.” This student takes that advice a step further and makes the reader do a bit of work to figure out what they are telling us. Nowhere in this essay does it say “After years of Taekwondo, I made the difficult decision to switch over to ballet.” Rather, the student says “It’s like being a white belt again — just in a leotard and ballet slippers.” How powerful! 

After a lot of emotional language and imagery, this student finishes off their essay with very valuable (and necessary!) reflection. They show admissions officers that they are more than just a good writer—they are a mature and self-aware individual who would be beneficial to a college campus. Self-awareness comes through with statements like “surrendering what you are only leads you to what you may become” and maturity can be seen through the student’s discussion of values: “honor, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, courage, humility, and knowledge, and I have never felt that I embodied those traits more so than when I started ballet.”

Sparking Self-Awareness

Prompt: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (250-650 words)

Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire. 

Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family. 

Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt. 

“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame. 

In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him. 

Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses. 

That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.

First things first, this Common App essay is well-written. This student is definitely showing the admissions officers her ability to articulate her points beautifully and creatively. It starts with vivid images like that of the “rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free.” And because the prose is flowery (and beautiful!), the writer can get away with metaphors like “I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms” that might sound cheesy without the clear command of the English language that the writer quickly establishes.

In addition to being well-written, this essay is thematically cohesive. It begins with the simple introduction “Fire!” and ends with the following image: “When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.” This full-circle approach leaves readers satisfied and impressed.

While dialogue often comes off as cliche or trite, this student effectively incorporates her family members saying “Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” This is achieved through the apt use of the verb “taunted” to characterize the questioning and through the question’s thematic connection to the earlier image of the student as a rustic princess. Similarly, rhetorical questions can feel randomly placed in essays, but this student’s inclusion of the questions “Was I so dainty?” and “Was I that incapable?” feel perfectly justified after she establishes that she was pondering her failure.

Quite simply, this essay shows how quality writing can make a simple story outstandingly compelling. 

Why This College?

“Why This College?” is one of the most common essay prompts, likely because schools want to understand whether you’d be a good fit and how you’d use their resources.

This essay is one of the more straightforward ones you’ll write for college applications, but you still can and should allow your voice to shine through.

Learn more about how to write the “Why This College?” essay in our guide.

Prompt: How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying (650 words).

Sister Simone Roach, a theorist of nursing ethics, said, “caring is the human mode of being.” I have long been inspired by Sister Roach’s Five C’s of Caring: commitment, conscience, competence, compassion, and confidence. Penn both embraces and fosters these values through a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum and unmatched access to service and volunteer opportunities.

COMMITMENT. Reading through the activities that Penn Quakers devote their time to (in addition to academics!) felt like drinking from a firehose in the best possible way. As a prospective nursing student with interests outside of my major, I value this level of flexibility. I plan to leverage Penn’s liberal arts curriculum to gain an in-depth understanding of the challenges LGBT people face, especially regarding healthcare access. Through courses like “Interactional Processes with LGBT Individuals” and volunteering at the Mazzoni Center for outreach, I hope to learn how to better support the Penn LGBT community as well as my family and friends, including my cousin, who came out as trans last year.

CONSCIENCE. As one of the first people in my family to attend a four-year university, I wanted a school that promoted a sense of moral responsibility among its students. At Penn, professors challenge their students to question and recreate their own set of morals by sparking thought- provoking, open-minded discussions. I can imagine myself advocating for universal healthcare in courses such as “Health Care Reform & Future of American Health System” and debating its merits with my peers. Studying in an environment where students confidently voice their opinions – conservative or liberal – will push me to question and strengthen my value system.

COMPETENCE. Two aspects that drew my attention to Penn’s BSN program were its high-quality research opportunities and hands-on nursing projects. Through its Office of Nursing Research, Penn connects students to faculty members who share similar research interests. As I volunteered at a nursing home in high school, I hope to work with Dr. Carthon to improve the quality of care for senior citizens. Seniors, especially minorities, face serious barriers to healthcare that I want to resolve. Additionally, Penn’s unique use of simulations to bridge the gap between classroom learning and real-world application impressed me. Using computerized manikins that mimic human responses, classes in Penn’s nursing program allow students to apply their emergency medical skills in a mass casualty simulation and monitor their actions afterward through a video system. Participating in this activity will help me identify my strengths and areas for improvement regarding crisis management and medical care in a controlled yet realistic setting. Research opportunities and simulations will develop my skills even before I interact with patients.

COMPASSION. I value giving back through community service, and I have a particular interest in Penn’s Community Champions and Nursing Students For Sexual & Reproductive Health (NSRH). As a four-year volunteer health educator, I hope to continue this work as a Community Champions member. I am excited to collaborate with medical students to teach fourth and fifth graders in the city about cardiology or lead a chair dance class for the elders at the LIFE Center. Furthermore, as a feminist who firmly believes in women’s abortion rights, I’d like to join NSRH in order to advocate for women’s health on campus. At Penn, I can work with like-minded people to make a meaningful difference.

CONFIDENCE. All of the Quakers that I have met possess one defining trait: confidence. Each student summarized their experiences at Penn as challenging but fulfilling. Although I expect my coursework to push me, from my conversations with current Quakers I know it will help me to be far more effective in my career.

The Five C’s of Caring are important heuristics for nursing, but they also provide insight into how I want to approach my time in college. I am eager to engage with these principles both as a nurse and as a Penn Quaker, and I can’t wait to start.

This prompt from Penn asks students to tailor their answer to their specific field of study. One great thing that this student does is identify their undergraduate school early, by mentioning “Sister Simone Roach, a theorist of nursing ethics.” You don’t want readers confused or searching through other parts of your application to figure out your major.

With a longer essay like this, it is important to establish structure. Some students organize their essay in a narrative form, using an anecdote from their past or predicting their future at a school. This student uses Roach’s 5 C’s of Caring as a framing device that organizes their essay around values. This works well!

While this essay occasionally loses voice, there are distinct moments where the student’s personality shines through. We see this with phrases like “felt like drinking from a fire hose in the best possible way” and “All of the Quakers that I have met possess one defining trait: confidence.” It is important to show off your personality to make your essay stand out. 

Finally, this student does a great job of referencing specific resources about Penn. It’s clear that they have done their research (they’ve even talked to current Quakers). They have dreams and ambitions that can only exist at Penn.

Prompt: What is it about Yale that has led you to apply? (125 words or fewer)

Coin collector and swimmer. Hungarian and Romanian. Critical and creative thinker. I was drawn to Yale because they don’t limit one’s mind with “or” but rather embrace unison with “and.” 

Wandering through the Beinecke Library, I prepare for my multidisciplinary Energy Studies capstone about the correlation between hedonism and climate change, making it my goal to find implications in environmental sociology. Under the tutelage of Assistant Professor Arielle Baskin-Sommers, I explore the emotional deficits of depression, utilizing neuroimaging to scrutinize my favorite branch of psychology: human perception. At Walden Peer Counseling, I integrate my peer support and active listening skills to foster an empathetic environment for the Yale community. Combining my interests in psychological and environmental studies is why I’m proud to be a Bulldog. 

This answer to the “Why This College” question is great because 1) the student shows their excitement about attending Yale 2) we learn the ways in which attending Yale will help them achieve their goals and 3) we learn their interests and identities.

In this response, you can find a prime example of the “Image of the Future” approach, as the student flashes forward and envisions their life at Yale, using present tense (“I explore,” “I integrate,” “I’m proud”). This approach is valuable if you are trying to emphasize your dedication to a specific school. Readers get the feeling that this student is constantly imagining themselves on campus—it feels like Yale really matters to them.

Starting this image with the Beinecke Library is great because the Beinecke Library only exists at Yale. It is important to tailor “Why This College” responses to each specific school. This student references a program of study, a professor, and an extracurricular that only exist at Yale. Additionally, they connect these unique resources to their interests—psychological and environmental studies.

Finally, we learn about the student (independent of academics) through this response. By the end of their 125 words, we know their hobbies, ethnicities, and social desires, in addition to their academic interests. It can be hard to tackle a 125-word response, but this student shows that it’s possible.

Why This Major?

The goal of this prompt is to understand how you came to be interested in your major and what you plan to do with it. For competitive programs like engineering, this essay helps admissions officers distinguish students who have a genuine passion and are most likely to succeed in the program. This is another more straightforward essay, but you do have a bit more freedom to include relevant anecdotes.

Learn more about how to write the “Why This Major?” essay in our guide.

Why Duke Engineering

Prompt: If you are applying to the Pratt School of Engineering as a first year applicant, please discuss why you want to study engineering and why you would like to study at Duke (250 words).

One Christmas morning, when I was nine, I opened a snap circuit set from my grandmother. Although I had always loved math and science, I didn’t realize my passion for engineering until I spent the rest of winter break creating different circuits to power various lights, alarms, and sensors. Even after I outgrew the toy, I kept the set in my bedroom at home and knew I wanted to study engineering. Later, in a high school biology class, I learned that engineering didn’t only apply to circuits, but also to medical devices that could improve people’s quality of life. Biomedical engineering allows me to pursue my academic passions and help people at the same time.

Just as biology and engineering interact in biomedical engineering, I am fascinated by interdisciplinary research in my chosen career path. Duke offers unmatched resources, such as DUhatch and The Foundry, that will enrich my engineering education and help me practice creative problem-solving skills. The emphasis on entrepreneurship within these resources will also help me to make a helpful product. Duke’s Bass Connections program also interests me; I firmly believe that the most creative and necessary problem-solving comes by bringing people together from different backgrounds. Through this program, I can use my engineering education to solve complicated societal problems such as creating sustainable surgical tools for low-income countries. Along the way, I can learn alongside experts in the field. Duke’s openness and collaborative culture span across its academic disciplines, making Duke the best place for me to grow both as an engineer and as a social advocate.

This prompt calls for a complex answer. Students must explain both why they want to study engineering and why Duke is the best place for them to study engineering.

This student begins with a nice hook—a simple anecdote about a simple present with profound consequences. They do not fluff up their anecdote with flowery images or emotionally-loaded language; it is what it is, and it is compelling and sweet. As their response continues, they express a particular interest in problem-solving. They position problem-solving as a fundamental part of their interest in engineering (and a fundamental part of their fascination with their childhood toy). This helps readers to learn about the student!

Problem-solving is also the avenue by which they introduce Duke’s resources—DUhatch, The Foundry, and Duke’s Bass Connections program. It is important to notice that the student explains how these resources can help them achieve their future goals—it is not enough to simply identify the resources!

This response is interesting and focused. It clearly answers the prompt, and it feels honest and authentic.

Why Georgia Tech CompSci

Prompt: Why do you want to study your chosen major specifically at Georgia Tech? (300 words max)

I held my breath and hit RUN. Yes! A plump white cat jumped out and began to catch the falling pizzas. Although my Fat Cat project seems simple now, it was the beginning of an enthusiastic passion for computer science. Four years and thousands of hours of programming later, that passion has grown into an intense desire to explore how computer science can serve society. Every day, surrounded by technology that can recognize my face and recommend scarily-specific ads, I’m reminded of Uncle Ben’s advice to a young Spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility”. Likewise, the need to ensure digital equality has skyrocketed with AI’s far-reaching presence in society; and I believe that digital fairness starts with equality in education.

The unique use of threads at the College of Computing perfectly matches my interests in AI and its potential use in education; the path of combined threads on Intelligence and People gives me the rare opportunity to delve deep into both areas. I’m particularly intrigued by the rich sets of both knowledge-based and data-driven intelligence courses, as I believe AI should not only show correlation of events, but also provide insight for why they occur.

In my four years as an enthusiastic online English tutor, I’ve worked hard to help students overcome both financial and technological obstacles in hopes of bringing quality education to people from diverse backgrounds. For this reason, I’m extremely excited by the many courses in the People thread that focus on education and human-centered technology. I’d love to explore how to integrate AI technology into the teaching process to make education more available, affordable, and effective for people everywhere. And with the innumerable opportunities that Georgia Tech has to offer, I know that I will be able to go further here than anywhere else.

With a “Why This Major” essay, you want to avoid using all of your words to tell a story. That being said, stories are a great way to show your personality and make your essay stand out. This student’s story takes up only their first 21 words, but it positions the student as fun and funny and provides an endearing image of cats and pizzas—who doesn’t love cats and pizzas? There are other moments when the student’s personality shines through also, like the Spiderman reference.

While this pop culture reference adds color, it also is important for what the student is getting at: their passion. They want to go into computer science to address the issues of security and equity that are on the industry’s mind, and they acknowledge these concerns with their comments about “scarily-specific ads” and their statement that “the need to ensure digital equality has skyrocketed.” This student is self-aware and aware of the state of the industry. This aptitude will be appealing for admissions officers.

The conversation around “threads” is essential for this student’s response because the prompt asks specifically about the major at Georgia Tech and it is the only thing they reference that is specific to Georgia Tech. Threads are great, but this student would have benefitted from expanding on other opportunities specific to Georgia Tech later in the essay, instead of simply inserting “innumerable opportunities.”

Overall, this student shows personality, passion, and aptitude—precisely what admissions officers want to see!

Extracurricular Essay

You’re asked to describe your activities on the Common App, but chances are, you have at least one extracurricular that’s impacted you in a way you can’t explain in 150 characters.

This essay archetype allows you to share how your most important activity shaped you and how you might use those lessons learned in the future. You are definitely welcome to share anecdotes and use a narrative approach, but remember to include some reflection. A common mistake students make is to only describe the activity without sharing how it impacted them.

Learn more about how to write the Extracurricular Essay in our guide.

A Dedicated Musician

My fingers raced across the keys, rapidly striking one after another. My body swayed with the music as my hands raced across the piano. Crashing onto the final chord, it was over as quickly as it had begun. My shoulders relaxed and I couldn’t help but break into a satisfied grin. I had just played the Moonlight Sonata’s third movement, a longtime dream of mine. 

Four short months ago, though, I had considered it impossible. The piece’s tempo was impossibly fast, its notes stretching between each end of the piano, forcing me to reach farther than I had ever dared. It was 17 pages of the most fragile and intricate melodies I had ever encountered. 

But that summer, I found myself ready to take on the challenge. With the end of the school year, I was released from my commitment to practicing for band and solo performances. I was now free to determine my own musical path: either succeed in learning the piece, or let it defeat me for the third summer in a row. 

Over those few months, I spent countless hours practicing the same notes until they burned a permanent place in my memory, creating a soundtrack for even my dreams. Some would say I’ve mastered the piece, but as a musician I know better. Now that I can play it, I am eager to take the next step and add in layers of musicality and expression to make the once-impossible piece even more beautiful.

In this response, the student uses their extracurricular, piano, as a way to emphasize their positive qualities. At the beginning, readers are invited on a journey with the student where we feel their struggle, their intensity, and ultimately their satisfaction. With this descriptive image, we form a valuable connection with the student.

Then, we get to learn about what makes this student special: their dedication and work ethic. The fact that this student describes their desire to be productive during the summer shows an intensity that is appealing to admissions officers. Additionally, the growth mindset that this student emphasizes in their conclusion is appealing to admissions officers.

The Extracurricular Essay can be seen as an opportunity to characterize yourself. This student clearly identified their positive qualities, then used the Extracurricular Essay as a way to articulate them.

A Complicated Relationship with the School Newspaper

My school’s newspaper and I have a typical love-hate relationship; some days I want nothing more than to pass two hours writing and formatting articles, while on others the mere thought of student journalism makes me shiver. Still, as we’re entering our fourth year together, you could consider us relatively stable. We’ve learned to accept each other’s differences; at this point I’ve become comfortable spending an entire Friday night preparing for an upcoming issue, and I hardly even notice the snail-like speed of our computers. I’ve even benefitted from the polygamous nature of our relationship—with twelve other editors, there’s a lot of cooperation involved. Perverse as it may be, from that teamwork I’ve both gained some of my closest friends and improved my organizational and time-management skills. And though leaving it in the hands of new editors next year will be difficult, I know our time together has only better prepared me for future relationships.

This response is great. It’s cute and endearing and, importantly, tells readers a lot about the student who wrote it. Framing this essay in the context of a “love-hate relationship,” then supplementing with comments like “We’ve learned to accept each other’s differences” allows this student to advertise their maturity in a unique and engaging way. 

While Extracurricular Essays can be a place to show how you’ve grown within an activity, they can also be a place to show how you’ve grown through an activity. At the end of this essay, readers think that this student is mature and enjoyable, and we think that their experience with the school newspaper helped make them that way.

Participating in Democracy

Prompt: Research shows that an ability to learn from experiences outside the classroom correlates with success in college. What was your greatest learning experience over the past 4 years that took place outside of the traditional classroom? (250 words) 

The cool, white halls of the Rayburn House office building contrasted with the bustling energy of interns entertaining tourists, staffers rushing to cover committee meetings, and my fellow conference attendees separating to meet with our respective congresspeople. Through civics and US history classes, I had learned about our government, but simply hearing the legislative process outlined didn’t prepare me to navigate it. It was my first political conference, and, after learning about congressional mechanics during breakout sessions, I was lobbying my representative about an upcoming vote crucial to the US-Middle East relationship. As the daughter of Iranian immigrants, my whole life had led me to the moment when I could speak on behalf of the family members who had not emigrated with my parents.

As I sat down with my congresswoman’s chief of staff, I truly felt like a participant in democracy; I was exercising my right to be heard as a young American. Through this educational conference, I developed a plan of action to raise my voice. When I returned home, I signed up to volunteer with the state chapter of the Democratic Party. I sponsored letter-writing campaigns, canvassed for local elections, and even pursued an internship with a state senate campaign. I know that I don’t need to be old enough to vote to effect change. Most importantly, I also know that I want to study government—I want to make a difference for my communities in the United States and the Middle East throughout my career. 

While this prompt is about extracurricular activities, it specifically references the idea that the extracurricular should support the curricular. It is focused on experiential learning for future career success. This student wants to study government, so they chose to describe an experience of hands-on learning within their field—an apt choice!

As this student discusses their extracurricular experience, they also clue readers into their future goals—they want to help Middle Eastern communities. Admissions officers love when students mention concrete plans with a solid foundation. Here, the foundation comes from this student’s ethnicity. With lines like “my whole life had led me to the moment when I could speak on behalf of the family members who had not emigrated with my parents,” the student assures admissions officers of their emotional connection to their future field.

The strength of this essay comes from its connections. It connects the student’s extracurricular activity to their studies and connects theirs studies to their personal history.

Overcoming Challenges

You’re going to face a lot of setbacks in college, so admissions officers want to make you’re you have the resilience and resolve to overcome them. This essay is your chance to be vulnerable and connect to admissions officers on an emotional level.

Learn more about how to write the Overcoming Challenges Essay in our guide.

The Student Becomes the Master

”Advanced females ages 13 to 14 please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.” Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to nearby coaches. The seconds ticked away in my head; every polite refusal increased my desperation.

Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees as a stream of competitors, coaches, and officials flowed around me. My dojang had no coach, and the tournament rules prohibited me from competing without one.

Although I wanted to remain strong, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help wondering: what was the point of perfecting my skills if I would never even compete? The other members of my team, who had found coaches minutes earlier, attempted to comfort me, but I barely heard their words. They couldn’t understand my despair at being left on the outside, and I never wanted them to understand.

Since my first lesson 12 years ago, the members of my dojang have become family. I have watched them grow up, finding my own happiness in theirs. Together, we have honed our kicks, blocks, and strikes. We have pushed one another to aim higher and become better martial artists. Although my dojang had searched for a reliable coach for years, we had not found one. When we attended competitions in the past, my teammates and I had always gotten lucky and found a sympathetic coach. Now, I knew this practice was unsustainable. It would devastate me to see the other members of my dojang in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result. My dojang needed a coach, and I decided it was up to me to find one. 

I first approached the adults in the dojang – both instructors and members’ parents. However, these attempts only reacquainted me with polite refusals. Everyone I asked told me they couldn’t devote multiple weekends per year to competitions. I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.

At first, the inner workings of tournaments were a mystery to me. To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I learned everything from motivational strategies to technical, behind-the-scenes components of Taekwondo competitions. Though I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, others did not share this faith.

Parents threw me disbelieving looks when they learned that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self-confidence was my armor, deflecting their surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded my resilience, it began to wear down. I grew unsure of my own abilities.

Despite the attack, I refused to give up. When I saw the shining eyes of the youngest students preparing for their first competition, I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was. The knowledge that I could solve my dojang’s longtime problem motivated me to overcome my apprehension.

Now that my dojang flourishes at competitions, the attacks on me have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent; at times, I am still tormented by doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang now only worry about competing to the best of their abilities.

Now, as I arrive at a tournament with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my teammates as we competed with one another to find coaches before the staging calls for our respective divisions. I open my eyes to the exact opposite scene. Lacking a coach hurt my ability to compete, but I am proud to know that no member of my dojang will have to face that problem again.

This essay is great because it has a strong introduction and conclusion. The introduction is notably suspenseful and draws readers into the story. Because we know it is a college essay, we can assume that the student is one of the competitors, but at the same time, this introduction feels intentionally ambiguous as if the writer could be a competitor, a coach, a sibling of a competitor, or anyone else in the situation.

As we continue reading the essay, we learn that the writer is, in fact, the competitor. Readers also learn a lot about the student’s values as we hear their thoughts: “I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was.” Ultimately, the conflict and inner and outer turmoil is resolved through the “Same, but Different” ending technique as the student places themself in the same environment that we saw in the intro, but experiencing it differently due to their actions throughout the narrative. This is a very compelling strategy!

Growing Sensitivity to Struggles

Prompt: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (650 words)

“You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.

Despite being twins, Max and I are profoundly different. Having intellectual interests from a young age that, well, interested very few of my peers, I often felt out of step in comparison with my highly-social brother. Everything appeared to come effortlessly for Max and, while we share an extremely tight bond, his frequent time away with friends left me feeling more and more alone as we grew older.

When my parents learned about The Green Academy, we hoped it would be an opportunity for me to find not only an academically challenging environment, but also – perhaps more importantly – a community. This meant transferring the family from Drumfield to Kingston. And while there was concern about Max, we all believed that given his sociable nature, moving would be far less impactful on him than staying put might be on me.

As it turned out, Green Academy was everything I’d hoped for. I was ecstatic to discover a group of students with whom I shared interests and could truly engage. Preoccupied with new friends and a rigorous course load, I failed to notice that the tables had turned. Max, lost in the fray and grappling with how to make connections in his enormous new high school, had become withdrawn and lonely. It took me until Christmas time – and a massive argument – to recognize how difficult the transition had been for my brother, let alone that he blamed me for it.

Through my own journey of searching for academic peers, in addition to coming out as gay when I was 12, I had developed deep empathy for those who had trouble fitting in. It was a pain I knew well and could easily relate to. Yet after Max’s outburst, my first response was to protest that our parents – not I – had chosen to move us here. In my heart, though, I knew that regardless of who had made the decision, we ended up in Kingston for my benefit. I was ashamed that, while I saw myself as genuinely compassionate, I had been oblivious to the heartache of the person closest to me. I could no longer ignore it – and I didn’t want to.

We stayed up half the night talking, and the conversation took an unexpected turn. Max opened up and shared that it wasn’t just about the move. He told me how challenging school had always been for him, due to his dyslexia, and that the ever-present comparison to me had only deepened his pain.

We had been in parallel battles the whole time and, yet, I only saw that Max was in distress once he experienced problems with which I directly identified. I’d long thought Max had it so easy – all because he had friends. The truth was, he didn’t need to experience my personal brand of sorrow in order for me to relate – he had felt plenty of his own.

My failure to recognize Max’s suffering brought home for me the profound universality and diversity of personal struggle; everyone has insecurities, everyone has woes, and everyone – most certainly – has pain. I am acutely grateful for the conversations he and I shared around all of this, because I believe our relationship has been fundamentally strengthened by a deeper understanding of one another. Further, this experience has reinforced the value of constantly striving for deeper sensitivity to the hidden struggles of those around me. I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story.

Here you can find a prime example that you don’t have to have fabulous imagery or flowery prose to write a successful essay. You just have to be clear and say something that matters. This essay is simple and beautiful. It almost feels like having a conversation with a friend and learning that they are an even better person than you already thought they were.

Through this narrative, readers learn a lot about the writer—where they’re from, what their family life is like, what their challenges were as a kid, and even their sexuality. We also learn a lot about their values—notably, the value they place on awareness, improvement, and consideration of others. Though they never explicitly state it (which is great because it is still crystal clear!), this student’s ending of “I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story” shows that they are constantly striving for improvement and finding lessons anywhere they can get them in life.

Community Service/Impact on the Community

Colleges want students who will positively impact the campus community and go on to make change in the world after they graduate. This essay is similar to the Extracurricular Essay, but you need to focus on a situation where you impacted others. 

Learn more about how to write the Community Service Essay in our guide.

Academic Signing Day

Prompt: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

The scent of eucalyptus caressed my nose in a gentle breeze. Spring had arrived. Senior class activities were here. As a sophomore, I noticed a difference between athletic and academic seniors at my high school; one received recognition while the other received silence. I wanted to create an event celebrating students academically-committed to four-years, community colleges, trades schools, and military programs. This event was Academic Signing Day.

The leadership label, “Events Coordinator,” felt heavy on my introverted mind. I usually was setting up for rallies and spirit weeks, being overlooked around the exuberant nature of my peers. 

I knew a change of mind was needed; I designed flyers, painted posters, presented powerpoints, created student-led committees, and practiced countless hours for my introductory speech. Each committee would play a vital role on event day: one dedicated to refreshments, another to technology, and one for decorations. The fourth-month planning was a laborious joy, but I was still fearful of being in the spotlight. Being acknowledged by hundreds of people was new to me.     

The day was here. Parents filled the stands of the multi-purpose room. The atmosphere was tense; I could feel the angst building in my throat, worried about the impression I would leave. Applause followed each of the 400 students as they walked to their college table, indicating my time to speak. 

I walked up to the stand, hands clammy, expression tranquil, my words echoing to the audience. I thought my speech would be met by the sounds of crickets; instead, smiles lit up the stands, realizing my voice shone through my actions. I was finally coming out of my shell. The floor was met by confetti as I was met by the sincerity of staff, students, and parents, solidifying the event for years to come. 

Academic students were no longer overshadowed. Their accomplishments were equally recognized to their athletic counterparts. The school culture of athletics over academics was no longer imbalanced. Now, every time I smell eucalyptus, it is a friendly reminder that on Academic Signing Day, not only were academic students in the spotlight but so was my voice.

This essay answers the prompt nicely because the student describes a contribution with a lasting legacy. Academic Signing Day will affect this high school in the future and it affected this student’s self-development—an idea summed up nicely with their last phrase “not only were academic students in the spotlight but so was my voice.”

With Community Service essays, students sometimes take small contributions and stretch them. And, oftentimes, the stretch is very obvious. Here, the student shows us that Academic Signing Day actually mattered by mentioning four months of planning and hundreds of students and parents. They also make their involvement in Academic Signing Day clear—it was their idea and they were in charge, and that’s why they gave the introductory speech.

Use this response as an example of the type of focused contribution that makes for a convincing Community Service Essay.

Climate Change Rally

Prompt: What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time? (technically not community service, but the response works)

Let’s fast-forward time. Strides were made toward racial equality. Healthcare is accessible to all; however, one issue remains. Our aquatic ecosystems are parched with dead coral from ocean acidification. Climate change has prevailed.

Rewind to the present day.

My activism skills are how I express my concerns for the environment. Whether I play on sandy beaches or rest under forest treetops, nature offers me an escape from the haste of the world. When my body is met by trash in the ocean or my nose is met by harmful pollutants, Earth’s pain becomes my own. 

Substituting coffee grinds as fertilizer, using bamboo straws, starting my sustainable garden, my individual actions needed to reach a larger scale. I often found performative activism to be ineffective when communicating climate concerns. My days of reposting awareness graphics on social media never filled the ambition I had left to put my activism skills to greater use. I decided to share my ecocentric worldview with a coalition of environmentalists and host a climate change rally outside my high school.

Meetings were scheduled where I informed students about the unseen impact they have on the oceans and local habitual communities. My fingers were cramped from all the constant typing and investigating of micro causes of the Pacific Waste Patch, creating reusable flyers, displaying steps people could take from home in reducing their carbon footprint. I aided my fellow environmentalists in translating these flyers into other languages, repeating this process hourly, for five days, up until rally day.  

It was 7:00 AM. The faces of 100 students were shouting, “The climate is changing, why can’t we?” I proudly walked on the dewy grass, grabbing the microphone, repeating those same words. The rally not only taught me efficient methods of communication but it echoed my environmental activism to the masses. The City of Corona would be the first of many cities to see my activism, as more rallies were planned for various parts of SoCal. My once unfulfilled ambition was fueled by my tangible activism, understanding that it takes more than one person to make an environmental impact.

Like with the last example, this student describes a focused event with a lasting legacy. That’s a perfect place to start! By the end of this essay, we have an image of the cause of this student’s passion and the effect of this student’s passion. There are no unanswered questions.

This student supplements their focused topic with engaging and exciting writing to make for an easy-to-read and enjoyable essay. One of the largest strengths of this response is its pace. From the very beginning, we are invited to “fast-forward” and “rewind” with the writer. Then, after we center ourselves in real-time, this writer keeps their quick pace with sentences like “Substituting coffee grounds as fertilizer, using bamboo straws, starting my sustainable garden, my individual actions needed to reach a larger scale.” Community Service essays run the risk of turning boring, but this unique pacing keeps things interesting.

Having a diverse class provides a richness of different perspectives and encourages open-mindedness among the student body. The Diversity Essay is also somewhat similar to the Extracurricular and Community Service Essays, but it focuses more on what you might bring to the campus community because of your unique experiences or identities.

Learn more about how to write the Diversity Essay in our guide.

A Story of a Young Skater

​​“Everyone follow me!” I smiled at five wide-eyed skaters before pushing off into a spiral. I glanced behind me hopefully, only to see my students standing frozen like statues, the fear in their eyes as clear as the ice they swayed on. “Come on!” I said encouragingly, but the only response I elicited was the slow shake of their heads. My first day as a Learn-to-Skate coach was not going as planned. 

But amid my frustration, I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater. At seven, I had been fascinated by Olympic performers who executed thrilling high jumps and dizzying spins with apparent ease, and I dreamed to one day do the same. My first few months on skates, however, sent these hopes crashing down: my attempts at slaloms and toe-loops were shadowed by a stubborn fear of falling, which even the helmet, elbow pads, and two pairs of mittens I had armed myself with couldn’t mitigate. Nonetheless, my coach remained unfailingly optimistic, motivating me through my worst spills and teaching me to find opportunities in failures. With his encouragement, I learned to push aside my fears and attack each jump with calm and confidence; it’s the hope that I can help others do the same that now inspires me to coach.

I remember the day a frustrated staff member directed Oliver, a particularly hesitant young skater, toward me, hoping that my patience and steady encouragement might help him improve. Having stood in Oliver’s skates not much earlier myself, I completely empathized with his worries but also saw within him the potential to overcome his fears and succeed. 

To alleviate his anxiety, I held Oliver’s hand as we inched around the rink, cheering him on at every turn. I soon found though, that this only increased his fear of gliding on his own, so I changed my approach, making lessons as exciting as possible in hopes that he would catch the skating bug and take off. In the weeks that followed, we held relay races, played “freeze-skate” and “ice-potato”, and raced through obstacle courses; gradually, with each slip and subsequent success, his fear began to abate. I watched Oliver’s eyes widen in excitement with every skill he learned, and not long after, he earned his first skating badge. Together we celebrated this milestone, his ecstasy fueling my excitement and his pride mirroring my own. At that moment, I was both teacher and student, his progress instilling in me the importance of patience and a positive attitude. 

It’s been more than ten years since I bundled up and stepped onto the ice for the first time. Since then, my tolerance for the cold has remained stubbornly low, but the rest of me has certainly changed. In sharing my passion for skating, I have found a wonderful community of eager athletes, loving parents, and dedicated coaches from whom I have learned invaluable lessons and wisdom. My fellow staffers have been with me, both as friends and colleagues, and the relationships I’ve formed have given me far more poise, confidence, and appreciation for others. Likewise, my relationships with parents have given me an even greater gratitude for the role they play: no one goes to the rink without a parent behind the wheel! 

Since that first lesson, I have mentored dozens of children, and over the years, witnessed tentative steps transform into powerful glides and tears give way to delighted grins. What I have shared with my students has been among the greatest joys of my life, something I will cherish forever. It’s funny: when I began skating, what pushed me through the early morning practices was the prospect of winning an Olympic medal. Now, what excites me is the chance to work with my students, to help them grow, and to give back to the sport that has brought me so much happiness. 

This response is a great example of how Diversity doesn’t have to mean race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, or ability. Diversity can mean whatever you want it to mean—whatever unique experience(s) you have to bring to the table!

A major strength of this essay comes in its narrative organization. When reading this first paragraph, we feel for the young skaters and understand their fear—skating sounds scary! Then, because the writer sets us up to feel this empathy, the transition to the second paragraph where the student describes their empathy for the young skaters is particularly powerful. It’s like we are all in it together! The student’s empathy for the young skaters also serves as an outstanding, seamless transition to the applicant discussing their personal journey with skating: “I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater.”

This essay positions the applicant as a grounded and caring individual. They are caring towards the young skaters—changing their teaching style to try to help the young skaters and feeling the young skaters’ emotions with them—but they are also appreciative to those who helped them as they reference their fellow staffers and parents. This shows great maturity—a favorable quality in the eyes of an admissions officer.

At the end of the essay, we know a lot about this student and are convinced that they would be a good addition to a college campus!

Finding Community in the Rainforest

Prompt: Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke (250 words).

I never understood the power of community until I left home to join seven strangers in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Although we flew in from distant corners of the U.S., we shared a common purpose: immersing ourselves in our passion for protecting the natural world.

Back home in my predominantly conservative suburb, my neighbors had brushed off environmental concerns. My classmates debated the feasibility of Trump’s wall, not the deteriorating state of our planet. Contrastingly, these seven strangers delighted in bird-watching, brightened at the mention of medicinal tree sap, and understood why I once ran across a four-lane highway to retrieve discarded beer cans. Their histories barely resembled mine, yet our values aligned intimately. We did not hesitate to joke about bullet ants, gush about the versatility of tree bark, or discuss the destructive consequences of materialism. Together, we let our inner tree huggers run free.

In the short life of our little community, we did what we thought was impossible. By feeding on each other’s infectious tenacity, we cultivated an atmosphere that deepened our commitment to our values and empowered us to speak out on behalf of the environment. After a week of stimulating conversations and introspective revelations about engaging people from our hometowns in environmental advocacy, we developed a shared determination to devote our lives to this cause.

As we shared a goodbye hug, my new friend whispered, “The world needs saving. Someone’s gotta do it.” For the first time, I believed that someone could be me.

This response is so wholesome and relatable. We all have things that we just need to geek out over and this student expresses the joy that came when they found a community where they could geek out about the environment. Passion is fundamental to university life and should find its way into successful applications.

Like the last response, this essay finds strength in the fact that readers feel for the student. We get a little bit of backstory about where they come from and how they felt silenced—“Back home in my predominantly conservative suburb, my neighbors had brushed off environmental concerns”—, so it’s easy to feel joy for them when they get set free.

This student displays clear values: community, ecoconsciousness, dedication, and compassion. An admissions officer who reads Diversity essays is looking for students with strong values and a desire to contribute to a university community—sounds like this student!  

Political/Global Issues

Colleges want to build engaged citizens, and the Political/Global Issues Essay allows them to better understand what you care about and whether your values align with theirs. In this essay, you’re most commonly asked to describe an issue, why you care about it, and what you’ve done or hope to do to address it. 

Learn more about how to write the Political/Global Issues Essay in our guide.

Note: this prompt is not a typical political/global issues essay, but the essay itself would be a strong response to a political/global issues prompt.

Fighting Violence Against Women

Prompt: Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation, title and author at the beginning of your essay. (250-650 words)

“One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.” 

– Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University. 

The air is crisp and cool, nipping at my ears as I walk under a curtain of darkness that drapes over the sky, starless. It is a Friday night in downtown Corpus Christi, a rare moment of peace in my home city filled with the laughter of strangers and colorful lights of street vendors. But I cannot focus. 

My feet stride quickly down the sidewalk, my hand grasps on to the pepper spray my parents gifted me for my sixteenth birthday. My eyes ignore the surrounding city life, focusing instead on a pair of tall figures walking in my direction. I mentally ask myself if they turned with me on the last street corner. I do not remember, so I pick up the pace again. All the while, my mind runs over stories of young women being assaulted, kidnapped, and raped on the street. I remember my mother’s voice reminding me to keep my chin up, back straight, eyes and ears alert. 

At a young age, I learned that harassment is a part of daily life for women. I fell victim to period-shaming when I was thirteen, received my first catcall when I was fourteen, and was nonconsensually grabbed by a man soliciting on the street when I was fifteen. For women, assault does not just happen to us— its gory details leave an imprint in our lives, infecting the way we perceive the world. And while movements such as the Women’s March and #MeToo have given victims of sexual violence a voice, harassment still manifests itself in the lives of millions of women across the nation. Symbolic gestures are important in spreading awareness but, upon learning that a surprising number of men are oblivious to the frequent harassment that women experience, I now realize that addressing this complex issue requires a deeper level of activism within our local communities. 

Frustrated with incessant cases of harassment against women, I understood at sixteen years old that change necessitates action. During my junior year, I became an intern with a judge whose campaign for office focused on a need for domestic violence reform. This experience enabled me to engage in constructive dialogue with middle and high school students on how to prevent domestic violence. As I listened to young men uneasily admit their ignorance and young women bravely share their experiences in an effort to spread awareness, I learned that breaking down systems of inequity requires changing an entire culture. I once believed that the problem of harassment would dissipate after politicians and celebrities denounce inappropriate behavior to their global audience. But today, I see that effecting large-scale change comes from the “small” lessons we teach at home and in schools. Concerning women’s empowerment, the effects of Hollywood activism do not trickle down enough. Activism must also trickle up and it depends on our willingness to fight complacency. 

Finding the solution to the long-lasting problem of violence against women is a work-in-progress, but it is a process that is persistently moving. In my life, for every uncomfortable conversation that I bridge, I make the world a bit more sensitive to the unspoken struggle that it is to be a woman. I am no longer passively waiting for others to let me live in a world where I can stand alone under the expanse of darkness on a city street, utterly alone and at peace. I, too, deserve the night sky.

As this student addresses an important social issue, she makes the reasons for her passion clear—personal experiences. Because she begins with an extended anecdote, readers are able to feel connected to the student and become invested in what she has to say.

Additionally, through her powerful ending—“I, too, deserve the night sky”—which connects back to her beginning— “as I walk under a curtain of darkness that drapes over the sky”—this student illustrates a mastery of language. Her engagement with other writing techniques that further her argument, like the emphasis on time—“gifted to me for my sixteenth birthday,” “when I was thirteen,” “when I was fourteen,” etc.—also illustrates her mastery of language.

While this student proves herself a good writer, she also positions herself as motivated and ambitious. She turns her passions into action and fights for them. That is just what admissions officers want to see in a Political/Global issues essay!

Where to Get Feedback on Your College Essays

Once you’ve written your college essays, you’ll want to get feedback on them. Since these essays are important to your chances of acceptance, you should prepare to go through several rounds of edits. 

Not sure who to ask for feedback? That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review resource. You can get comments from another student going through the process and also edit other students’ essays to improve your own writing. 

If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools.  Find the right advisor for you  to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

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Should College Be Free? The Pros and Cons

Should college be free? Understand the debate from both sides

benefits of college education essay

Types of Publicly Funded College Tuition Programs

Pros: why college should be free, cons: why college should not be free, what the free college debate means for students, how to cut your college costs now, frequently asked questions (faqs).

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Americans have been debating the wisdom of free college for decades, and more than 20 states now offer some type of free college program. But it wasn't until 2021 that a nationwide free college program came close to becoming reality, re-energizing a longstanding debate over whether or not free college is a good idea. 

And despite a setback for the free-college advocates, the idea is still in play. The Biden administration's proposal for free community college was scrapped from the American Families Plan in October as the spending bill was being negotiated with Congress.

But close observers say that similar proposals promoting free community college have drawn solid bipartisan support in the past. "Community colleges are one of the relatively few areas where there's support from both Republicans and Democrats," said Tulane economics professor Douglas N. Harris, who has previously consulted with the Biden administration on free college, in an interview with The Balance. 

To get a sense of the various arguments for and against free college, as well as the potential impacts on U.S. students and taxpayers, The Balance combed through studies investigating the design and implementation of publicly funded free tuition programs and spoke with several higher education policy experts. Here's what we learned about the current debate over free college in the U.S.—and more about how you can cut your college costs or even get free tuition through existing programs.

Key Takeaways

  • Research shows that free tuition programs encourage more students to attend college and increase graduation rates, which creates a better-educated workforce and higher-earning consumers who can help boost the economy. 
  • Some programs are criticized for not paying students’ non-tuition expenses, for not benefiting students who need assistance most, or for steering students toward community college instead of four-year programs.  
  • If you want to find out about free programs in your area, the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education has a searchable database. You’ll find the link further down in this article. 

Before diving into the weeds of the free college debate, it's important to note that not all free college programs are alike. Most publicly funded tuition assistance programs are restricted to the first two years of study, typically at community colleges. Free college programs also vary widely in the ways they’re designed, funded, and structured:

  • Last-dollar tuition-free programs : These programs cover any remaining tuition after a student has used up other financial aid , such as Pell Grants. Most state-run free college programs fall into this category. However, these programs don’t typically help with room and board or other expenses.
  • First-dollar tuition-free programs : These programs pay for students' tuition upfront, although they’re much rarer than last-dollar programs. Any remaining financial aid that a student receives can then be applied to other expenses, such as books and fees. The California College Promise Grant is a first-dollar program because it waives enrollment fees for eligible students.
  • Debt-free programs : These programs pay for all of a student's college expenses , including room and board, guaranteeing that they can graduate debt-free. But they’re also much less common, likely due to their expense.  

Proponents often argue that publicly funded college tuition programs eventually pay for themselves, in part by giving students the tools they need to find better jobs and earn higher incomes than they would with a high school education. The anticipated economic impact, they suggest, should help ease concerns about the costs of public financing education. Here’s a closer look at the arguments for free college programs.

A More Educated Workforce Benefits the Economy

Morley Winograd, President of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, points to the economic and tax benefits that result from the higher wages of college grads. "For government, it means more revenue," said Winograd in an interview with The Balance—the more a person earns, the more they will likely pay in taxes . In addition, "the country's economy gets better because the more skilled the workforce this country has, the better [it’s] able to compete globally." Similarly, local economies benefit from a more highly educated, better-paid workforce because higher earners have more to spend. "That's how the economy grows," Winograd explained, “by increasing disposable income."

According to Harris, the return on a government’s investment in free college can be substantial. "The additional finding of our analysis was that these things seem to consistently pass a cost-benefit analysis," he said. "The benefits seem to be at least double the cost in the long run when we look at the increased college attainment and the earnings that go along with that, relative to the cost and the additional funding and resources that go into them." 

Free College Programs Encourage More Students to Attend

Convincing students from underprivileged backgrounds to take a chance on college can be a challenge, particularly when students are worried about overextending themselves financially. But free college programs tend to have more success in persuading students to consider going, said Winograd, in part because they address students' fears that they can't afford higher education . "People who wouldn't otherwise think that they could go to college, or who think the reason they can't is because it's too expensive, [will] stop, pay attention, listen, decide it's an opportunity they want to take advantage of and enroll," he said.

According to Harris, students also appear to like the certainty and simplicity of the free college message. "They didn't want to have to worry that next year they were not going to have enough money to pay their tuition bill," he said. "They don't know what their finances are going to look like a few months down the road, let alone next year, and it takes a while to get a degree. So that matters." 

Free college programs can also help send "a clear and tangible message" to students and their families that a college education is attainable for them, said Michelle Dimino, an Education Senior Policy Advisor with Third Way. This kind of messaging is especially important to first-generation and low-income students, she said. 

Free College Increases Graduation Rates and Financial Security

Free tuition programs appear to improve students’ chances of completing college. For example, Harris noted that his research found a meaningful link between free college tuition and higher graduation rates. "What we found is that it did increase college graduation at the two-year college level, so more students graduated than otherwise would have." 

Free college tuition programs also give people a better shot at living a richer, more comfortable life, say advocates. "It's almost an economic necessity to have some college education," noted Winograd. Similar to the way a high school diploma was viewed as crucial in the 20th century, employees are now learning that they need at least two years of college to compete in a global, information-driven economy. "Free community college is a way of making that happen quickly, effectively and essentially," he explained. 

Free community college isn’t a universally popular idea. While many critics point to the potential costs of funding such programs, others identify issues with the effectiveness and fairness of current attempts to cover students’ college tuition. Here’s a closer look at the concerns about free college programs.

It Would Be Too Expensive

The idea of free community college has come under particular fire from critics who worry about the cost of social spending. Since community colleges aren't nearly as expensive as four-year colleges—often costing thousands of dollars a year—critics argue that individuals can often cover their costs using other forms of financial aid . But, they point out, community college costs would quickly add up when paid for in bulk through a free college program: Biden’s proposed free college plan would have cost $49.6 billion in its first year, according to an analysis from Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Some opponents argue that the funds could be put to better use in other ways, particularly by helping students complete their degrees.

Free College Isn't Really Free

One of the most consistent concerns that people have voiced about free college programs is that they don’t go far enough. Even if a program offers free tuition, students will need to find a way to pay for other college-related expenses , such as books, room and board, transportation, high-speed internet, and, potentially, child care. "Messaging is such a key part of this," said Dimino. Students "may apply or enroll in college, understanding it's going to be free, but then face other unexpected charges along the way." 

It's important for policymakers to consider these factors when designing future free college programs. Otherwise, Dimino and other observers fear that students could potentially wind up worse off if they enroll and invest in attending college and then are forced to drop out due to financial pressures. 

Free College Programs Don’t Help the Students Who Need Them Most

Critics point out that many free college programs are limited by a variety of quirks and restrictions, which can unintentionally shut out deserving students or reward wealthier ones. Most state-funded free college programs are last-dollar programs, which don’t kick in until students have applied financial aid to their tuition. That means these programs offer less support to low-income students who qualify for need-based aid—and more support for higher-income students who don’t.

Community College May Not Be the Best Path for All Students

Some critics also worry that all students will be encouraged to attend community college when some would have been better off at a four-year institution. Four-year colleges tend to have more resources than community colleges and so can offer more support to high-need students. 

In addition, some research has shown that students at community colleges are less likely to be academically successful than students at four-year colleges, said Dimino. "Statistically, the data show that there are poorer outcomes for students at community colleges […] such as lower graduation rates and sometimes low transfer rates from two- to four-year schools." 

With Congress focused on other priorities, a nationwide free college program is unlikely to happen anytime soon. However, some states and municipalities offer free tuition programs, so students may be able to access some form of free college, depending on where they live. A good resource is the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education’s searchable database of Promise Programs , which lists more than 120 free community college programs, though the majority are limited to California residents.

In the meantime, school leaders and policymakers may shift their focus to other access and equity interventions for low-income students. For example, higher education experts Eileen Strempel and Stephen Handel published a book in 2021 titled "Beyond Free College: Making Higher Education Work for 21st Century Students." The book argues in part that policymakers should focus more strongly on college completion, not just college access. "There hasn't been enough laser-focus on how we actually get people to complete their degrees," noted Strempel in an interview with The Balance. 

Rather than just improving access for low-income college students, Strempel and Handel argue that decision-makers should instead look more closely at the social and economic issues that affect students , such as food and housing insecurity, child care, transportation, and personal technology. For example, "If you don't have a computer, you don't have access to your education anymore," said Strempel. "It's like today's pencil."

Saving money on college costs can be challenging, but you can take steps to reduce your cost of living. For example, if you're interested in a college but haven't yet enrolled, pay close attention to where it's located and how much residents typically pay for major expenses, such as housing, utilities, and food. If the college is located in a high-cost area, it could be tough to justify the living expenses you'll incur. Similarly, if you plan to commute, take the time to check gas or public transportation prices and calculate how much you'll likely have to spend per month to go to and from campus several times a week. 

Now that more colleges offer classes online, it may also be worth looking at lower-cost programs in areas that are farther from where you live, particularly if they allow you to graduate without setting foot on campus. Also check out state and federal financial aid programs that can help you slim down your expenses, or, in some cases, pay for them completely. Finally, look into need-based and merit-based grants and scholarships that can help you cover even more of your expenses. Also consider applying to no-loan colleges , which promise to help students graduate without going into debt.

Should community college be free?

It’s a big question with varying viewpoints. Supporters of free community college cite the economic contributions of a more educated workforce and the individual benefit of financial security, while critics caution against the potential expense and the inefficiency of last-dollar free college programs. 

What states offer free college?

More than 20 states offer some type of tuition-free college program, including Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Michigan, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington State. The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education lists 115 last-dollar community college programs and 16 first-dollar community college programs, though the majority are limited to California residents.

Is there a free college?

There is no such thing as a truly free college education. But some colleges offer free tuition programs for students, and more than 20 states offer some type of tuition-free college program. In addition, students may also want to check out employer-based programs. A number of big employers now offer to pay for their employees' college tuition . Finally, some students may qualify for enough financial aid or scholarships to cover most of their college costs.

The White House. “ Build Back Better Framework ,” see “Bringing Down Costs, Reducing Inflationary Pressures, and Strengthening the Middle Class.”

The White House. “ Fact Sheet: How the Build Back Better Plan Will Create a Better Future for Young Americans ,” see “Education and Workforce Opportunities.”

Coast Community College District. “ California College Promise Grant .”

Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “ The Dollars and Cents of Free College ,” see “Biden’s Free College Plan Would Pay for Itself Within 10 Years.”

Third Way. “ Why Free College Could Increase Inequality .”

Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “ The Dollars and Cents of Free College ,” see “Free-College Programs Have Different Effects on Race and Class Equity.”

University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “ College Promise Programs: A Comprehensive Catalog of College Promise Programs in the United States .”

Is free college a good idea? Increasingly, evidence says yes

Subscribe to the brown center on education policy newsletter, douglas n. harris douglas n. harris nonresident senior fellow - governance studies , brown center on education policy , professor and chair, department of economics - tulane university @douglasharris99.

May 10, 2021

  • 10 min read

In just a few short years, the idea of free college has moved from a radical idea to mainstream Democratic thinking. President Biden made free college one of his core campaign planks , and one that the first lady has been promoting for years. In his recent address to Congress, the president also signaled that he is ready for legislative action on a scaled-back version of the idea as part of his American Families Plan .

Two weeks ago, the nonprofit College Promise (CP)—led by Martha Kanter, who served as President Obama’s undersecretary for education—also released a proposal that will influence the free college debate. (Full disclosure: I previously advised the Biden campaign and presently advise CP, but have received no compensation for these efforts.)

In today’s polarized environment, the free college idea stands out for its bipartisan support. A majority of self-identified Republicans has supported the notion of free college in some polls. In fact, one of the first such statewide programs was put in place by Bill Haslam, the former Republican governor of Tennessee. While this could go the way of Obamacare, which faced strong GOP congressional opposition despite the law’s origins with Republican Mitt Romney, free college seems different. Biden’s latest plan only applies to community colleges, which focus on career and vocational education of the sort Republicans support, as opposed to universities, which many Republicans view as hostile battlegrounds in a culture war.

But I am less interested in the politics than the evidence of effectiveness. I have studied college access for many years and run two randomized control trials of financial aid , which produced some of the first causal evidence on free college in Milwaukee. Two years ago, Brookings released the first installment of the Milwaukee work, which I carried out with a team of researchers. Since then, we have collected more data and learned more about how students responded over time. Below, I summarize our just-released study (co-authored with Jonathan Mills), compare our results to other financial aid programs, and then discuss implications for the Biden and CP proposals. Consequently, I conclude that the evidence increasingly favors free college and “open access aid” more generally.

What Did We Learn in Milwaukee?

I developed The Degree Project (TDP) in 2009 as a demonstration program in partnership between the nonprofit Ascendium (then known as the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation and Affiliates) and Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). TDP offered all first-time 9 th graders in half of MPS high schools $12,000 for college as “last-dollar” aid. Students could use the funds for college if they graduated from high school on time with a GPA of 2.5 and a class attendance rate of 90%. Also, as is the norm with free college programs, students had to fill out the FAFSA and have at least one dollar of unmet need. The aid could be used to attend any of the 66 public, in-state, two- or four-year colleges in Wisconsin. Ascendium provided up to $31 million to fund the grant and, as the main program administrator, sent regular letters to remind students about the program and its requirements. The organization also worked with school counselors to support students becoming eligible for the funds and preparing for college.

TDP was announced to students in the fall of 2011. Using anonymized data, we then tracked students’ high school, college, and life outcomes for eight years, and we recently received data extending through when students were roughly 22 years old. As a rare randomized trial, we could estimate the effects by comparing the control and treatment group outcomes. Here is what we found:

  • For students who met the performance requirements, the program increased graduation from two-year colleges by 3 percentage points . This might seem small, but the denominator here is comprised of low-income 9 th graders. Half of the control group did not even graduate from high school, let alone college. The effect amounts to a 25% increase in two-year degrees.
  • The framing and design of the program as free two-year college changed student decisions in ways consistent with what free college advocates suggest. The $12,000 maximum award amount was selected because it was sufficient to cover tuition and fees for a two-year college degree. The fact that TDP made two-year college free, but only reduced the cost of four-year college, was clearly communicated to students. This appears to explain one of our main results: Student enrollments shifted from four-year to two-year colleges. This is noteworthy given that students could use the funds at either two- or four-year colleges. In fact, students likely would have been able to use more of the $12,000 if they had shifted to four-year colleges. The only plausible reason for shifting to two-year colleges is that they were really attracted to the idea of free college.
  • The “early commitment” nature of the program had some modest positive effects on some high school outcomes . Students learned about TDP in their 9 th grade year, giving them time to change their high school behaviors and college plans. Although it did not improve high school academic achievement, we find that TDP increased college expectations and the steps students took to prepare for college. TDP recipients also reported working harder because of the program (even though this did not show up in the academic measures). This highlights the fact that free college might also help address not only college-going rates, but the long-term stagnancy in high school outcomes.
  • The merit requirements undermined the program’s effectiveness . Though the 2.5 GPA and 90% attendance and other requirements were arguably modest, only 21% of eligible students ended up meeting them. So, they ended up excluding many students. We also tested the two main ways that the merit requirements could have been helpful: (a) merit requirements might provide incentives for students to work hard during high school and better prepare for college, and (b) merit requirements might target aid to students who respond to it most. We find no evidence of either benefit. While students did work harder (see point [3] above), this appears to be due to other elements of the program, not the merit requirements.

Overall, these results suggest that aid is most effective when it is “open access”—that is, aid with early commitment and free college framing, but no merit requirements.

What about the evidence beyond Milwaukee?

Our study also reviews other research on financial aid, including federal aid, state merit aid programs, and the newer “promise scholarship” programs that mimic free college. Our study is not alone in finding that financial aid improves student outcomes. In fact, the vast majority of the most rigorous studies find positive effects on college attendance and college graduation. Given the strong average benefits of college, we can expect follow-up studies to show effects on employment earnings, voting, and other outcomes.

What about the costs? Open access aid is more expensive to be sure. More students receive aid and the aid levels per students are larger than traditional financial aid. Is it worth it? Our analysis suggests it is. We carried out new cost-benefit analyses of multiple programs, including TDP, but also other actively studied programs in: Kalamazoo, Michigan; Knox County, Tennessee; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and one statewide program in Nebraska. We also used estimates of the average effects of aid taken from prior literature reviews. All of these programs pass a cost-benefit test. That is, the effects on college outcomes, and the effects of college outcomes on future earnings, is much larger than the cost to the government and society as a whole. Moreover, it appears that benefits-per-dollar-of-cost are at least as high with open access aid as with more restricted programs. This means that open access aid provides greater total benefits to the community as a whole.

Back to the Free College Proposals

What do these results mean for President Biden’s and CP’s proposals? The table below provides a side-by-side comparison. The main difference is the level of detail. This reflects that the CP plan was designed to align with, and flesh out, the Biden campaign proposal. Perhaps the only substantive difference is that the CP proposal (and the Milwaukee program) includes private colleges. The Biden campaign documents exclude private colleges, though the American Families Plan just says “free community college,” signaling alignment with the CP plan. Both proposals are clearly in the category of open access aid.

There are numerous similarities between these provisions and the Milwaukee program that my team and I studied. All three programs make two-year college free (or nearly so) for all students without income requirements and through early commitment of aid. All three require the FAFSA and high school graduation. Importantly, unlike both the Biden and CP proposals, the Milwaukee program had merit requirements, which undermined its success. This is partly why our evidence is so relevant to the current debate.

Some might wonder why the president has scaled back the proposal to just free community college. This reflects that the idea of free college—even the “scaled back” version—is such a marked departure from past policy, especially at the federal level. Free community college alone would still be arguably the largest shift in federal higher education policy in the past half-century.

Caveats and Concluding Thoughts

We cannot make policy from evidence alone, but it can and should play a key role. Sometimes, policy ideas have such limited evidence of effectiveness that it is difficult to make any plausible case for a large-scale, national program. In other cases, there is enough promise for pilot studies and competitive grants to establish efficacy. With free college, we seem to be well beyond that point. In addition to decades of results on general financial aid programs, we have a growing number of studies on state and local programs that all show positive evidence—the “laboratory of democracy” at work. The idea of a large, federal free-college program therefore has more and more credibility.

A decade ago, it was not at all obvious that this is what the evidence would show. There was really no evidence on free college programs when we started this project back in 2009. Also, there were good reasons to expect that such a large increase in aid would suffer from “diminishing returns”—the idea that the next dollar is less effective than the previous one. This could have made free college more costly than the benefits could justify. Now, we know better.

I do still worry a bit about other factors and challenges. For example, the above analyses can only capture the immediate effects of financial aid, yet a federal free college program is such a marked departure in policy that it could alter political and market forces operating on higher education in unpredictable ways, perhaps even lowering college spending and quality. Also, if the proposal remains focused on community colleges, then this will shift students out of four-year colleges and into colleges that currently have very low completion rates. There are also other ways to increase college affordability and access that do not require free college (e.g., increased Pell Grants and income-based loan repayment), some of which target funds more narrowly to the most disadvantaged students. And there are many details to be worked out as the president’s allies in Congress try to generate sufficient support without (a) sacrificing core principles, or (b) creating new problems that can arise when grafting new federal programs on to widely varying state contexts.

Still, it is not often that an idea comes around that addresses a widely acknowledged problem and has both research support and a fair degree of bipartisan political support. The stars seem aligned to make some form of national free college a reality. The more evidence we see, the more that would seem to be a step forward.

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Opinion: The benefits of a college education may surprise you

With the value of a college education being questioned across our country, it’s worth remembering where we started in Utah.

Some of the earliest structures Utah’s pioneer settlers built were schools. While cultivating the region’s arid valleys for survival, they also wanted their children to cultivate their minds. The University of Deseret (precursor to the University of Utah) opened in a pioneer home in 1850, just three years after they arrived.

Education was no less a part of the pioneers’ survival than engineering irrigation canals, building forts, plotting streets and planting crops. And I’m here to tell you, that much hasn’t changed; Utah’s prosperity still depends on having an educated workforce. 

Now, more than ever, the economy of the future requires a broad spectrum of workers — teachers, social workers, engineers, nurses, bankers and ranchers. The education they’ll need to perform those essential jobs will vary, and the “high-value” areas of study may ebb and flow over time. But the benefits of graduating from a college or university are indisputable.

A new analysis by the economists at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute lays out the edge Utah’s college graduates gain: lower unemployment and lower rates of going without health insurance; less poverty and reliance on public assistance; and higher median incomes ($60,973 with a bachelor’s degree and $90,548 with a graduate or professional degree).

Higher education also supercharges income for Utahns of all races and ethnicities. Among Utahns with high income, 52% have a bachelor’s degree or higher. And 65% of Asians in Utah, 32% of Hispanics or Latinos and 29% of American Indians or Alaska Natives who qualify as high income have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

  • Opinion: What is the value of a college degree?

It turns out, higher education also benefits the communities its graduates live in, with stronger community ties, decreased crime, reduced health care costs and greater volunteerism and voter participation. These are not nameless, faceless workers. This is you and me, the people in the office next door, our neighbors — living better lives, taking care of ourselves and our families and contributing to our communities.

I believe Utahns understand these lesser-known benefits of higher education. Bucking the national sentiment of the past few years, most Utahns still believe in the value of education, as a recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found . More than half of Utahns — 52% — either had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education institutions. Another third, 31%, had “some” confidence in the state’s colleges and universities. Just 14% had very little confidence.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying every future Utah worker must have a college degree to succeed or make our state a better place. There are plenty of great jobs that don’t necessarily require a postsecondary education.

Still, I believe my own education enhances my ability to do my job well, to communicate well, to be thoughtful, to build partnerships and collaborate. Any level of postsecondary education is value added — for those working in hospitality and recreation, construction and landscaping.

Our world is only getting more complex. And Utah is changing — getting older, growing faster by in-migration than birth rate, becoming more diverse. We also have an “elite” economy, with best-in-the-nation job growth, low unemployment and a quick recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We got here by supporting higher education, but the journey is not complete. We know that the economy of the future will increasingly require more advanced education. For our “best in the nation” legacy to continue, we need an educated workforce and our higher education system is the engine that makes that happen. By supporting our colleges and universities, we enhance our state’s long-term prosperity.

Derek Miller is the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, Utah’s largest and longest-serving business association.

Students walk through campus at Utah Valley University in Orem on Jan. 10, 2023. Utah’s prosperity still depends on having an educated workforce.

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    The author of a randomized trial of free college program in Milwaukee argues that free college is a good idea and that it can help students from low-income backgrounds. He reviews the evidence from other financial aid programs and the Biden and CP proposals, and discusses the implications for the future of free college.

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