From Example to Exemplary #1: Identifying the Ingredients of a Winning Essay

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Lesson #1 of a five-part series for drafting exemplary essays.

As you gear up to write your application essays, you may have looked at some sample essays only to ask yourself afterward, “Sure, these are great, but what do these essays have to do with me?” This series of blog posts will help you go from example to exemplary, showing you how to identify what makes these essays work. Then, you can apply the winning ingredients to your own writing. You will learn how to develop a theme, include the essential elements for the MBA career goals essay, and offer tips on revising and editing for the final polish.

Today we will start by looking at two sample essays on to see what makes them so effective. The first essay, The Public Health Student, opens with a question:

"What if people lived healthier lives, practiced preventive medicine, and took precautions against illness and disease?"

The “what if?” opening immediately engages the reader and at the same time tells us that the writer’s career aspiration is in the health care sector. We do not have to wait to discover the theme of the essay; it’s right there in the first sentence.

In terms of structure, notice how every sentence in that first paragraph builds on the sentence that precedes it. In the second sentence, the writer begins to present his background in the health care field, making his opening question understandable. In the third sentence, additional background about his professional experience gives context for his choice of career path. By the end of the first paragraph, the reader understands the applicant’s motivations for moving from work as a physical therapist to the broader sphere of public health management.

As the essay develops, notice how this applicant continues to build his case for admission by linking his prior work and education to their relevance to the public health field. Specifically, he writes about coursework he has taken in public health, followed immediately by a succinct discussion of his field work experience. When writing about his internship experiences, he doesn’t simply list what he did; he talks about what he learned and how these experiences have solidified his commitment to getting the MPH degree. His conclusion is also very effective because he returns to his opening “what if?” theme. He asks, What if an aspirin a day could prevent heart attacks?” emphasizing that everything he has learned and done so far so far keeps him riveted by the challenge of finding answers to significant questions in public health.

While the writing is not especially colorful in this essay, the prose is clear and active. Every sentence offers new or additional information; there is no fluff. This clarity and momentum keeps the essay interesting and the pace moving, effectively building the writer’s profile as a promising and serious MPH applicant.

Now let’s take a brief look at the Returning to School essay from's law school section. This essay opens with a colorful, compelling scene that immediately places the reader in the story:

“Fourteen grumpy doctors stare across an enormous oak conference table at me. It is seven o'clock in the morning, and most of the group are still wearing wrinkled green scrubs indicating they worked through the night. None of the doctors looks ready to digest the extremely technical information contained in the eight studies stacked neatly in front of them. My job is to present each study, review all relevant economic data, and answer any questions in such a way that the audience will conclude the new drug I am selling is better than the one they have been prescribing. One of the physicians gruffly informs me, through a mouthful of Danish, that he is leaving in ten minutes so I had better start my pitch.”

Don’t you already feel for this writer and her formidable challenge? I don’t know about you, but she had me hooked right away, and I was rooting for her to win over this very tough audience.

This essay, about half of the length of the MPH essay, still contains the same winning elements: specific highlights of career achievements and clear and convincing reasons for a career change. The last sentence refers once again to the “grumpy physicians” we met at the beginning. Both writers brought their essays full circle.

Having reviewed these essays, you will have a better idea of the types of experiences you can pull from your life that can help build a case for your candidacy for grad school. Start thinking about experiences you have had that will create a compelling anecdote that can grab your readers’ attention from the first sentence and not let it go until they have reached the final, satisfying conclusion.

In our next lesson, we will look at how to find and develop a theme for a statement of purpose essay.

Summary Tips:

  1. Open with a colorful anecdote or a question to engage the reader's interest right from the beginning.
  2. Hold the reader’s interest by building on your story, sentence by sentence, adding new information and avoiding repetition.
  3. Refer back to your opening when you conclude your essay, bringing your story full circle

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