Can a Guinea Pig Be In a College Essay?

Last night my nephew Matt sent me his college essay to check out. We had talked a couple of weeks ago about what might make a compelling topic.
I told Matt that he needed to write an essay that conveyed in vivid detail what kind of teenager he is. You can write a college essay that’s humorous, reflective, inspiring…it doesn’t matter. But the essay has to reflect back on the teenager writing it.
I suggested that he focus on his love of animals. Matt, who wants to pursue a career working with animals, is a 21st century Dr. Dolittle. Horses, cats, dogs and other animals are drawn to this skinny vegetarian. One night, for example, while Matt was watching over his dying guinea pig, he dosed off and when he awoke an hour later that poor little critter had spent his last store of energy dragging himself over to collapse at Matt’s side. Who can’t be moved by that kind of devotion from a pet?
The essay that Matt emailed me last night while I was watching the St. Louis Cardinals botch Game 5 of the World Series (sigh) was well written. The grammar and flow of the essay was excellent. I wasn’t surprised since writing is Matt’s strong suit. The content of the essay, however, disappointed me.
Matt wrote about what a hard worker he is at high school and how he values education.  I can’t think of another teenager, who has worked harder at school, but this is hardly an appropriate subject for a college essay. An admissions rep can look at his transcript and conclude that he has applied himself.

College Essays Can Matter

I urged Matt to take another shot at the essay. Essays can matter, particularly at colleges, as opposed to universities, where students are evaluated holistically.
A story on National Public Radio earlier this year illustrates how a college essay can make a difference. The NPR reporter produced the piece after spending time with the admission committee members at Amherst College as they reviewed applicants’ files.
In the radio spot, the Amherst dean was heard reading a snippet of an applicant’s essay out loud and expressing her concern:
I’m troubled by one sentence in the first essay: I rarely get truly fascinated with a subject. And then he goes on – music is his exception. What am I supposed to do with that? My jaw dropped. I mean, that was flabbergasting.
Just one sentence in the essay — that prompted questions about the applicant’s intellectual curiosity — squashed any chance the teenager had of gaining entry into Amherst, which rejects 85% of its applicants.

Need Some Inspiration?

I am eager to see what Matt comes up with next. He is applying to Westminster College, a lovely liberal arts college in Fulton, MO, which is a school that I recommended he take a look at. He hopes to get his application in by Friday.
To provide him with some inspiration, I sent Matt the link to some of Connecticut College’s winning college essays that are posted on the school’s website. I read several of them and they are awesome.

Any Suggestions?

If you have suggestions on how to write a great college essay, please use the comment box below. I’d love to hear from you.

Read More on College Essays:

Winning College Admission Essays
No. 1 Tip for Writing a Great College Essay
6 College Essay Tips From a Pro
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for and US News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. I got into Tufts undergrad with an essay about a dairy goat and what I learned from taking care of her (that ultimately, a higher power is more in control despite our best efforts to control the minutae of our lives) and included a great quote from the original Bambi novel. If nothing else, the essay got their attention! I’d love to see your nephew bare his soul and write about what’s truly important to him and what really effects him. It’s too comfortable to be trite…

    1. Hi Stretchrun,
      Thanks for your comment about your college essay. It sounded great. Actually, my nephew did come through and I think write an excellent essay. I was very proud of him. He wrote about his experience volunteering at a rescue farm and he started out by explaining how he’s shoveled thousands of pounds of manure in recent years. I think it was a winner. Of course, it helped that he is a very good writer.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  2. I think looking for and eliminating clichés can be a great way to improve the essay. In this case, I think your nephew’s topic on how hard of a worker he is, although it may be true, could be a bit clichéd and overused as a topic, though of course there are ways to approach this uniquely and imply his hard working mentality. But as you said, admissions can see this from his transcript and other materials.
    As an Amherst alum, thanks for sharing that story about the Amherst admissions committee, very interesting! Shows why you really have to go over each sentence in your essay and think about the implications and what it says about you.

  3. What an adorable picture! I sent the link on to my daughter since she’s trying her best to avoid writing her essay. You’re right in the observation that often, kids have trouble writing about themselves.