These are actual admissions essays from real Carleton students.
Carleton Essay #1:
Everything is beautiful in Old Town of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The weather is perfect for me: hot and dry. The food is delicious, always zippy and flavorful. Meat, beans, and rice are complimented by mouth-watering sopapillas fresh from frying, hot enough to scald my hands and give the honey I drizzle on them the consistency of water. Art abounds, in forms both traditional and contemporary. Pottery in all sizes, from many pueblos, seems so perfect as to be inhuman. Jewelry sellers line the square, each displaying a multitude of finely-crafted ornaments that glow against the coarse blankets on which they lay. Every merchant has at least one design that uses my namesake, mother of pearl.
That is what my Indian name means, and in Kiresan (the language of the Laguna pueblo) it is Wah-puh-ñee. It was given to me by my paternal great-grandmother, the former matriarch of our family. She’s my tie to Albuquerque, the root of the family who lives or lived there. Over time, her children and their children dispersed, pursuing education, employment, love, and adventure. Now it’s only my great-aunt and her husband who remain, and even they have moved off the reservation. Although we live far away now, we all come back occasionally, glad to once again see the place which innately feels like home.
This summer, my mother and I were once again brought to New Mexico by my father. His health was tenuous most of my life, and before he died in April of 2004, he told us that he wanted his ashes spread on Mt. Taylor, a low peak a few hours outside of Albuquerque. Though it took us more than four years to prepare for the event, we finally accomplished it in July. On the way to the mountain, we got lost several times, our little compact unsuited to the rugged roads of the most direct route. Eventually, though, we were winding our way upwards, nearing the place considered sacred by the tribe. After hunting a little while for the perfect spot, rejecting several that weren’t just right, we found the site. Shaded by thin conifers and overlooking a shallow gorge, my mother and I let my father go at last. A mellow breeze scattered his ashes farther than our hands could reach, and earth still damp from an unusual rain two nights before soaked him in. While we both mourned this final loss, at the same time, we knew how right it was that he had been returned to nature.
This was the first time I’ve been to New Mexico since he died. Our return brought so much back for me. I remembered all the times we’d visited when I was younger, certain events highlighted by the things we did: Dad haggling with the jewelry sellers, his minute examination of pots at a trading post, the affection he had for chilies. I was scared that my love for the place would be tainted by his death, diminished without him there as my guide. That fear was part of what kept my mother and me away for so long. Once there, though, I was relieved to realize that Albuquerque still brings me closer to my father. I thought I’d feel his absence too acutely to enjoy myself, but instead his memory only enhanced our days. And most importantly, I have no begun to gain a sense both of finality and continuity. That he is truly gone in a physical sense is at last hitting me, but this has given me a renewed perception of his “spirit,” as many would term it. Though I’ve always been a skeptic in matters both religious and supernatural, I cannot and do not want to deny that my father will always be with me. Perhaps I’ll never speak with his ghost or encounter him in heaven, but I will always have his memory to help steer me through the rest of my life.
Carleton Essay #2
I can’t even write this essay because I keep thinking about the piano. Now, I wouldn’t know a pentatonic from a hole in the wall. I don’t play piano. But for about four minutes I bet I could fool you.
I did take lessons when I was a kid, but I was always exceedingly terrible. My own mother admitted later that she was shocked a child as bright as I was could be so backwards. One hour a week for unending months I would sit in the living room on the bench of glowing dark wood, looking at the shining keys, and consistently massacre whatever stripped-down, simplistic piece was in front of me.
I forget quite how it happened, but somehow my mother, my teacher and I can together to put the piano lessons to a merciful end. And yet years and years later, I find myself not writing this essay, because I can’t stop thinking about the piano.
I did volunteer for piano, way back when. And I remember exactly why. Such a great deal of sound could come from that giant instrument. It was fascinating, irresistible. And it was so rich, both in sound and image. There was something luxurious about the deep wood and contrasting white and black keys that lured me. Opulent words like mahogany, ebony, and ivory belonged to that instrument, whether it was made from such materials or not. And even when the piano stood silent, I could feel the music waiting inside, if you just knew how to bring it out. It was complex, magnificent, larger than life – and that was quite appealing to a very small person.
After the lessons slipped away I forgot about the whole thing for years on end. I think I was the one third-grader who could not play at least half of “Heart and Soul.” But in the summer before my senior year piano notes were echoing in my mind, and I couldn’t make them stop. I was being called, and since I had no mast to which I could tie myself, the only choice was to jump. I dived in to the piano bench – another of the piano’s magical features is that its bench opens up to store sheet music. I toyed with a few folk songs and pop songs, and even had a delicious dig through choral music from the second grade, but eventually I stumbled upon it. The One, my love-at-first-sight. And that’s how I fell head over heels for Johann Pachelbel.
I could never practice when I took lessons, but I’m constantly at it now. My rendition of the Canon in D is getting more complex, and more polished, by the day. In the beginning it took me half an age to painstakingly decipher the black circles and lines, laboriously converting them into notes into fingering into sound. Now I’m getting much faster at interpreting, and just today I got the last line on page three. Pachelbel and I have been together for four months now. I hope my parents don’t mind him.
I’m not quite sure what this love affair is all about. (I’m finding it hard to type because my hands are thinking about how to get from that awkward F-sharp-and-B bit to the part where my fourth finger needs to be on C.) But if I can focus for just a little bit longer, I’ll try to articulate. It’s independence, patience, self-control, learning. It’s something to be engaged in, something to strive for, something to love. I’m fine with my snail’s pace and my complete lack of knowledge – it just doesn’t matter, because I love what I am doing. I love that I can now play the first page seamlessly, even well enough to improvise – change up the fingering, try a new rhythm. I love turning my mind off and making music, and also turning my mind on to search out the meaning of the notes on the page. I love both the journey and the result.
But it’s really eating into my ability to sit down and write an essay.
How does an agnostic Jew living in the Diaspora connect to Israel? The whole of the summer I spent in Israel was an ongoing exploration of this question, but there was one particular experience that helped me resolve the bundle of internal contradictions the thought provoked inside me.
I was in the Yemin Orde Youth Village, just thirty miles from Israel’s border with Lebanon, on July 16, 2008 when Israel and Hezbollah performed the swap. To Hezbollah: five live militants, including Samir Kantar, and 199 killed guerilla soldiers. To Israel: Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two soldiers only subsequently known to be dead. The group I was with consisted of thirty-some high school students, two thirds of whom were American and one third of whom were Israeli. All Jews.
I will never forget how over my Israeli breakfast wafted the foreign words of a newscaster gravely reporting the day’s events. Everyone rushed to the TV. Confusion, tears, and angry faces around me reflected on the national hysteria I saw on the screen.
The entire day was one of mourning – an unfortunate introduction into the reality of the Israeli, and probably Lebanese, way of life. The counselors of our group facilitated discussions about the exchange, but what began as a dialogue on the Jewish commandment of Pidyon Shvuyim (redemption of captives) soon devolved into heated outcries, political arguments, and more tears. At one point a friend of mine said ‘what else can we do? We can’t go into Lebanon and kill others to get the bodies back’.
That was the moment when it clicked for me. Though I don’t think I’ll ever forget the events of the day, what has had a greater impact on me is the conflict within myself that this sparked and for which it has come to embody.
In my head I retorted that that’s exactly what ‘we’ did in the Second Lebanese War. No one wanted to hear that. Myself included.
That I don’t support Israel’s actions the summer of ’06 was followed by equally startling realizations: I don’t support the exchange of prisoners we were discussing, I don’t support the way the Israeli government treats Israeli Arabs as second class citizens, I don’t support the virtual expulsion of Palestinians from Israel in the so called ’48 Palestinian Exodus, and I don’t support new Israeli settlements in the West Bank. While my political views had far from solidified, this was enough to create an identity crisis.
How can I reconcile my belief in a Jewish nation in the Middle East with my dismay at actions she takes in the region? As a secular Jew, I began the summer program with the troubling dilemma of how I can be Jewish without being religious. This question had now morphed into its political equivalent of how I can be pro-Israel without supporting her on so many issues. If I’m neither religious nor politically supportive of Israel, then what can she possibly mean to me?
While to some extent I’ve yet to fully unravel this quandary, the events, discussions, and personal convictions that followed the exchange with Hezbollah have allowed me to find partial answers to these cumbersome questions. I disagree with the exchange because it encourages further kidnappings and mistreatment of captured soldiers, increases Arab support for Hezbollah, and returns violent criminals to the streets. At the same time, I can still deeply appreciate, on an emotional level, the return of the soldiers back home to their families. Just as I can disagree with the exchange with Hezbollah, but have this heartfelt bond with those who support it, I can disagree with many of Israel’s decisions without disowning the nation as a whole. For me, Israel is far more than a nation with whose actions one agrees or disagrees. It is an idea; a human hope. If I learned anything from my experience that day at Yemin Orde and from my summer travels in Israel, it’s that unlike ‘nations’, which in the Middle East can never be wholly supported for their actions, ‘ideas’ are universal. It is precisely because I believe so strongly in human hope that I can distinguish between the nation of Israel and the idea for which she lives. It is thus in the concept of a democratic Jewish state that I, an American agnostic, find my connection to Israel.
The college essay is often the most difficult part of preparing your application. To help you get off to a good start, we've put together the following tips and hints. These are comments from our admissions staff who actually read your essays and evaluate them in the admission process. We can't guarantee results, but this advice might help you get started.
Essay Tips from The Readers
- Treat it as an opportunity, not a burden. The essay is one of the few things that you've got complete control over in the application process, especially by the time you're in your senior year. Use it to tell us a part of your story.
- Take the time to go beyond the obvious. Especially if you're recounting an event, take it beyond the chronological storytelling. Include some opinion or reflection.
- Don't try to take on too much. Focus on one event, one activity, or one "most influential person." Tackling too much tends to make your essay too watered down or disjointed.
- Brainstorm the things that matter to you. Don't be afraid to reveal yourself in your writing. We want to know who you are and how you think.
- Write thoughtfully and with authenticity. It'll be clear who believes in what they are saying versus those who are simply saying what they think we want to hear.
- Be comfortable showing your vulnerability. We don't expect you to be perfect. Feel free to tell us about a time you stumbled, and what happened next.
- Essays should have a thesis that is clear to you and to the reader. Your thesis should indicate where you're going and what you're trying to communicate from the outset.
- Don't do a history report. Some background knowledge is okay, but do not re-hash what other authors have already said or written.
- Answer the prompt. We're most interested in the story you're telling, but it's important to follow directions, too.
- Be yourself. If you are funny, write a funny essay; if you are serious, write a serious essay. Don't start reinventing yourself with the essay.
- Ignore the urge for perfection. There's no such thing as the perfect college essay. Just be yourself and write the best way you know how.
- Tell us something different from what we'll read on your list of extracurricular activities or transcript.
- Proofread, proofread, proofread. There's a difference between "tutoring children" and "torturing children" and your spell-checker won't catch that.
- Keep it short.
- Limit the number of people who review your essay. Too much input usually means your voice is lost in the writing style.
- Appearances count. Formatting and presentation cannot replace substance, but they can certainly enhance the value of an already well-written essay.