This Year’s College-Bound Essayists and Their ‘Beautiful Contradictions’

Ms. Felipe, who plans to attend California State University, Fullerton, and wrote her essay for other colleges she applied to, described her crowded circus of a home. There is the “warm touch of a small palm” as a much younger sibling asks to play superheroes. Others challenge her to watch a funny video all the way through without laughing, while she tries to study phototransduction.

Her mother sings loudly, off key. “Somewhat sheepishly, she stops and asks me if doing my work in a quieter place would be better for me,” Ms. Felipe wrote. “I insist that it wouldn’t, that without all the noise from my siblings I would surely fall asleep.”

Most essays don’t sound like hers, and that, according to the college admissions directors who read many hundreds of them each year, ought to be the precise point of the exercise. Most essay prompts are open-ended enough that you can write about whatever you want, so a winning one speaks in a unique voice and tells a story that does not — cannot — appear in a high school transcript or a teacher’s recommendation letter.

How often does money, work and social class come up? Not often enough to feel overly familiar. “I don’t see a lot of them, that’s for sure,” said Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.

But this season, he saw an essay from Tillena Trebon of Flagstaff, Ariz. At her father’s house, Ms. Trebon hauls water. In her mother’s neighborhood, kids wage war with water guns.

“I live on the edge of an urban and rural existence,” she wrote. “On one side of me, nature is a hobby. On the other, it is a way of life.”

I detected a slight side-eyed glance at the Patagonia-wearing set here, and she added a subtle hint that her father drove a truck because he needed to. But she also seems to know the weekenders well and count herself among them, even.

“I belong at the place where opposites merge in a lumpy heap of beautiful contradictions,” she wrote.

Mr. Rawlins, who is also a musician, described her essay as a tone poem not unlike works by Romantic composers trying to evoke a particular mood. Indeed, I read it aloud over breakfast to my family, and even the toddler fell silent.

At Columbia University, the admissions staff also hopes for essays that beg to be read aloud, even though everyone around the table has the text. This time around, an essay by Zöe Sottile, a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., made the cut.

She wrote about her laptop — the Dell that she got free from the school as a full-ride scholarship student, and the Mac she didn’t realize she wanted until she discovered that most of the full-paying students had one.

That Dell was a tell, giving her away as an outsider. But she hadn’t arrived at Andover with…

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