And the winner is … from left: Poor Things, ET The Extra-Terrestrial, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Funny Girl, A Clockwork Orange and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

1946 … 1999 …1971 … 2024? What was the best ever year for film?

The current Oscars crop might be the best list in ages – but which was the best ever year for the movies? Guardian writers present their case

I n three weeks’ time, the credits will roll on the best cinema season in recent memory. Ten films are up for the best picture Oscar on 10 March and not a dud among them. That is unusual. Usually you will find an Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in there somewhere. Or maybe more than one (Babel, The Blind Side), or even a trio (Crash, Les Miserables, Bohemian Rhapsody). Often, it’s hard to get jazzed by the awards race; sometimes it’s tricky to feel strongly about any of the big contenders.

This year is different. Not only is the quality elevated; audience engagement has been sky-high. Much of that is down to the Barbenheimer juggernaut , giving brainy blockbusters their post-Covid event movie moment. But the watercooler would have been noisy nonetheless: The Zone of Interest , Anatomy of a Fall and Poor Things are all strikingly ambitious and singular works of art that have fuelled robust debate.

What else is on the list? American Fiction : a lovely, limber debut. The Holdovers : immaculate winter light. Past Lives : a Brief Encounter for the Skype generation. Maestro : a passion project with heart and fabulous prosthetic jowls. Plus, a massive masterpiece from Scorsese .

And these are just the movies the Academy has favoured. Their snubs include Passages , Monica , Showing Up and maybe the best movie of the titles in the mix: All of Us Strangers .

So: 2023 has a strong claim to be the best year in film since 2013 (The Act of Killing, 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, The Great Beauty, Frances Ha, A Touch of Sin, Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street, Under the Skin). But can it claim the overall crown? Our writers take to the soapbox to champion their favourite years in cinema history. Catherine Shoard

1971: an explosion of brilliant movies

The greatness of 1971 cinema is complicated by the nihilism, the pessimism, the violence, bleary despair and world-nausea that keeps on characterising the great pictures made that year. These were not films whose key moments could be cut together into a feelgood montage reel, with That’s Entertainment playing over them. They were routinely about being crazy, paranoid, disenchanted and tired of life. Even Norman Jewison’s crackingly good Fiddler on the Roof is about pogroms. When Dirk Bogarde’s humiliated, infatuated composer Gustav von Aschenbach is carried off the beach in Death in Venice, hair-dye running down his face, it’s a valedictory image of utter defeat: the defiantly morbid passion, artistry and decadence that preceded it were very 1971. So was the transgressive genius of Ken Russell’s continuingly suppressed The Devils. (Although Dušan Makavejev’s WR The Mysteries of the Organism had a 60s kind of eroticism, without the thanatotic darkness of 1971.) Peter Bogdanovich’s superb The Last Picture Show seemed (wrongly) to intuit the death of cinema itself, though the staggering naked-swim scene is as thrillingly alive as anything in that or any other year.

Tragic passion … Silvana Mangano, Bjorn Andresen and Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice.

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was a nightmarish vision of state surveillance and control, and loathing of the young. Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs was a horrifying evocation of violence in bucolic Britain and William Friedkin’s The French Connection was a viscerally powerful thriller about New York spiralling downwards into chaos, and Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry gave us a despotic lawman who gets every dirty job that comes along. Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place had Richard Attenborough as a sleazy, nasty, depressed serial killer for a sleazy, nasty depressed Britain and Mike Hodges’ superb noir Get Carter was a brilliant satirical assault on the British class-system, shame-system and spite-system. How was it that so many brilliant movies suddenly exploded out of the pipeline in 1971? In Britain, it happened to be the year of John Trevelyan’s retirement as a liberal chief of the British Board of Film Censors (as it was then known). He had helped to create the conditions for powerful and boundary-pushing films. Then there was the fact that 60s grooviness was souring into an angrier and more confrontational mood. Above all, film-makers were pushing for freedom to say what they wanted, a kind of violence in itself. It made 1971 a uniquely exciting vintage. Peter Bradshaw

1928: three Alfred Hitchcock films released

Out of chaos comes creativity, and contradiction. In its infancy, sound cinema charged like a bull into Hollywood’s china shop and the year 1928 saw studios thrown into confusion as they scrambled to incorporate synch-sound technology. Yet, some of US cinema’s greatest and most melancholic silent masterpieces emerged in this miraculous year. Take Victor Sjöström’s elemental The Wind, with Lillian Gish facing down a storm of male violence, King Vidor’s American epic of failed dreams The Crowd, Josef von Sternberg’s Hollywood exposé The Last Command, or Charlie Chaplin’s final silent film, The Circus, by turns heart-crushingly poignant and stomach-rattlingly hilarious. A sweet confection such as Paul Fejos’s Lonesome managed to rise even with a spoonful of dialogue folded in. On the Mississippi river, one era of American comedy concluded, and another began with two steamboats skippered respectively by a voiceless Buster Keaton and a vocal Mickey Mouse.

Elsewhere, Soviet cinema produced such monuments as Storm over Asia (Vsevolod Pudovkin) and October (Sergei Eisenstein) while Alexsandr Dovshenko conjured the eccentric visions of Zvenigora. Fritz Lang thrilled German audiences with his high-octane spy thriller Spione, René Clair finessed the art of French silent comedy with The Italian Straw Hat and Les Deux Timides, and in Britain Alfred Hitchcock released not one but three films in the space of 12 months. Revolution rumbled across Europe, in fact, as the rules of cinema were dismantled and reassembled by the surrealist imaginations of artists such as Germaine Dulac (The Seashell and the Clergyman) and Man Ray (The Star Fish) – while Luis Buñuel and Jean Epstein made the strangely delirious Gothic horror The Fall of the House of Usher.

Greater even than all these, a Danish director and an Italian star collaborated in France on the painful perfection of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), in which Carl Theodor Dreyer uncovered a universe of human emotion in intimate close-ups of Falconetti’s tear-stained face. Disruptive technique aligned with a timeless story, revealing the limitless power of the art form. This still unsurpassed film reveals, as Virginia Woolf had imagined in a recent essay, “what cinema might do if left to its own devices”. Pamela Hutchinson

1991: the past speaks to the present

It famously emerged from the checkerboard floor like a treacly slow-burning nightmare: the T-1000, a liquid metal killing machine that outskilled even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s seemingly invulnerable first iteration. Terminator had been a surprise hit. Terminator 2: Judgment Day upped the stakes, with a villain now capable of shapeshifting into anything it touched.

Street life … from left: Dedrick D Gobert, Baldwin C Sykes aIce Cube in Boyz N the Hood, 1991.

To choose 1991 might seem surprising, particularly given the more high-profile 90s years in film: the triumphant run of movies in 1994 (Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, Shawshank Redemption) or that year with another seminal James Cameron, 1997’s Titanic. But 1991’s films have a way of speaking to the present. Terminator 2 heralded the rise of CGI, leading David Foster Wallace to coin, in an essay that went against the grain (he hated it), the “inverse cost and quality law”: ie, “the larger a movie’s budget is, the shittier that movie is going to be”. Cue the debate about superhero movies decades later.

The throughlines continue. Amid recent global reckonings on racism and sexism, much joy has been found in rediscovering Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash’s beautiful story about three generations of Gullah women living on South Carolina’s sea islands. John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood depicted young Black men living against the backdrop of police intimidation and gentrification. Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise was a joyous, fun ode to female friendship out of the shadows of male violence. The big winner of the 1991 Oscars , Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, is the first and only horror film to win the award for best picture, a distinction that brings to mind the debate about “prestige horror” in recent years. And on the very contemporary topic of very long films: last year I had the pleasure of watching Edward Yang’s four-hour epic A Brighter Summer Day at the cinema. The story of student life in 1960s Taiwan is beautifully told and never dragged across the four hours; by the end, I was in tears. Rebecca Liu

1999: Y2K anxiety infects film industry with fear

The 90s might have shown a concerning, and ultimately, premonitory rise of franchise reliance but the decade was also capped off with a reminder of just what could be achieved outside more clearly set boundaries. Nineteen ninety-nine was, after all, the final act for a decade that saw the birth of a new independent film movement. The films it’s now best known for show an energy and sense of risk that have never felt quite as exciting in the years since.

Connected worlds … Keanu Reeves, left and Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix

We saw one-of-a-kind debuts from Sofia Coppola with her never-bettered heartbreaker The Virgin Suicides, her then partner Spike Jonze with Being John Malkovich, and Lynne Ramsay with the haunting coming-of-age drama Ratcatcher. The new wave of auteurs who had gained a foot earlier in the 90s flourished further with Paul Thomas Anderson’s audacious Magnolia, David Fincher’s incendiary Fight Club, Mike Judge’s soon-to-be-rediscovered Office Space, Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, Doug Liman’s Go and Alexander Payne’s brutally funny Election.

Even the more star-driven studio movies were better and smarter than usual: Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley, David O Russell’s Three Kings, Frank Oz’s Bowfinger and John McTiernan’s The Thomas Crown Affair. Horror was also on the upswing with The Sixth Sense, Audition and the subgenre-creating The Blair Witch Project while fears over our increasingly connected world also led to David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and The Matrix, the rare franchise-starter that felt genuinely original (remember those?).

I’m far from alone in this theory. In 2019, a book was published making this exact case at the same time as a live London panel discussed the same topic while this past month has seen Alamo Drafthouse cinemas in the US show some of that year’s very best, screenings of which have been mostly sold out. Maybe it was some sort of Y2K anxiety forcing fear into the industry before everyone decided to play it safe instead. Benjamin Lee

1968: one giant leap for film-making

It took a few years for the full effect of the counter-culture to emerge on to the big screen, but 1968 saw other (and perhaps more impressive) revolutionary acts. Most notable was that one giant leap in film-making, 2001: A Space Odyssey – a lodestar for technique and design that has never really been topped. That it dovetailed with psychedelia was a coincidence MGM rolled with for marketing purposes, branding the unorthodox experience “the ultimate trip”.

Another New Yorker (Kubrick was an expat who settled in Britain) made an indelible mark on pop culture the same year: Barbra Streisand in the bold, brilliant and unabashedly Jewish musical-comedy Funny Girl. While “daffy dames” were nothing new to cinema, few could carry a tune like Streisand and stay sexy enough to entice Omar Sharif.

Take the wheel … Steve McQueen in Bullitt

The Polish director Roman Polanski made his first American picture with the NYC-real estate satire Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, still one of the best films about paranoia and gaslighting since, well, Gaslight. Its co-star, director John Cassavetes, released his documentary-style 16mm picture Faces the same year, a mightily influential low-budget character drama. In Hollywood, Steve McQueen’s Bullitt rewired action sequences with the hilly San Francisco-set car chase that left audiences gasping. And elsewhere in outer space, in an action picture with some sly social commentary, Charlton Heston landed on the doomed Planet of the Apes … a planet that looked eerily familiar at the end. Jordan Hoffman

1955: a howl of young angst galvanises a generation

The mid-50s are often brushed off as an awkward transitional phase between Hollywood’s Golden Age and Italian neorealism on one end and the explosion of New Wave movements and counterculture cinema on the other. But with television as a looming threat to cinema, the movies responded with the alluring, eye-catching vibrancy of VistaVision, Technicolor and CinemaScope. Even the black-and-white popped.

In 1955, film noir darkened and expanded into the dreamy southern gothic of Charles Laughton’s one-and-done masterpiece The Night of the Hunter, with Robert Mitchum at his most seductive as a Biblical con man stalking the countryside. At the same time, the two-fisted grit of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly led the post-war genre into the cold war, with a glowing briefcase that intimated the apocalypse. Meanwhile, across the ocean, the French were raising the bar in other genres, too, with the twisted psychology of Diabolique and the standard-setting diamond heist of Rififi.

Preacher man … Robert Mitchum as a biblical con artist in The Night of the Hunter, 1955.

The colours in 1955 may have been hyper-real, but they were matched by emotional intensity. There’s Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, a romance between a widow and her gardener that blooms in an oppressive hothouse of gossip and class codes. There are the sensual wonders of Max Ophüls’ Lola Montes, which puts the tragic life of a 19th-century European dancer and courtesan in the middle of a literal three-ring circus. Even the year’s diversions swooned, from the Moulin Rouge of Jean Renoir’s French Cancan to Frank Tashlin’s premium Martin-and-Lewis vehicle Artists and Models to Katharine Hepburn tumbling into a Venice canal in David Lean’s Summertime.

All these trends coalesced in the beautiful, tragic year of James Dean, which started in the spring with Elia Kazan’s East of Eden and ended posthumously in the fall with Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause. Two CinemaScope pictures – one in black-and-white, the other in colour, both howling with a young angst that would galvanise a generation. Scott Tobias

1982: reactionary forces and subversiveness in the air

This was an annus mirabilis for cinema, though it didn’t seem it at the time. Thatcher and Reagan, Falklands War jingoism, Mary Whitehouse condemning newly minted Channel 4, and Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire screenwriter Colin Welland trumpeting “The British are coming!” suggested reactionary forces were on the rise. But subversiveness was also in the air: 1982 was a banner year for science fiction, horror and fantasy, genres still despised by many mainstream critics, but embraced by younger audiences. Though ET: The Extra-Terrestrial topped the box office, poor reviews or lacklustre takings meant other classics – The Thing, Blade Runner and Cat People among them – took longer to find their fandoms.

Tron and Koyaanisqatsi broke new ground, Poltergeist and Creepshow nudged horror into the mainstream, and Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster boosted heroic fantasy. First-rate sequels such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan heralded the ascent of blockbuster franchises. At the opposite end of the budgetary scale, Q: The Winged Serpent, Tenebrae, Liquid Sky, Android, Basket Case and other gems all benefited from the rep circuit and the proliferation of VHS.

Brad Davis, left, in Fassbinder’s Querelle

More “respectable” releases were not too shabby either: 1982 gave us First Blood, Moonlighting, 48 Hrs, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Year of Living Dangerously and Tootsie, to name just a few, while Diner and Fast Times at Ridgemont High ushered in a new wave of acting talent.

New German Cinema’s big three each released new films: Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, Wim Wenders’ The State of Things – and there was Veronika Voss and Querelle from Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who fatally overdosed in June 1982. Samuel Fuller proved he still had the right stuff with his provocative White Dog, Ingmar Bergman delivered his late masterpiece Fanny and Alexander, and British critics lambasted Lindsay Anderson’s satirical chef d’oeuvre, Britannia Hospital. Of course they did: it savaged everything the establishment held dear. Anne Billson

1960: aesthetic warning shots popping off

The watershed year between Old and New Hollywood earmarked by writer Mark Harris in his book Scenes from a Revolution is 1967. But seditious stirrings were already afoot in many countries at the start of the decade; 1960 saw so many unmistakeable aesthetic warning shots popping off that it has to be in the running for greatest film year. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was the big one, ear cupped to dark whisperings of the psyche that made further mockery of Hays Code niceties; and hand cocked to slash staid film grammar to pieces in the immortal shower scene.

It wasn’t a vintage Hollywood year, with only Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus hitting equal heights. That only served to highlight the richness and radical nature of what was on offer internationally. Hitchcock’s fellow film grammarian Jean-Luc Godard released Breathless, the French nouvelle vague’s flagship film, and François Truffaut and Louis Malle kept the momentum up with Shoot the Piano Player and Zazie dans le Métro. In the UK, Karel Reisz inaugurated the less self-conscious but equally modern British New Wave with his kitchen-sink class Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; meanwhile, cosy old Michael Powell trashed his own career, and the very motivations of cinema itself, in his serial-killer shocker Peeping Tom.

Restlessness … Monica Vitti, left, and Gabriele Ferzetti in L’Avventura

The likes of Village of the Damned, Eyes without a Face, L’Avventura, Purple Noon and The Housemaid all showcased a restlessness and dislocation that also said change was in the air. Ozu’s Late Autumn and Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers were more classicist achievements, but still very much part of the flood of captivating global cinema that profited from Hollywood’s exhaustion and laid the grounds for its transformation by the next generation of young guns. If broader significance is just as important as quantitative excellence, then 1960 opened many doors. Phil Hoad

1939: Hollywood’s Golden Age at its shiniest

The Oscar pack was led by Gone with the Wind, Mr Smith Goes to Washington and The Wizard of Oz. On top of his accomplished minor effort Drums Along the Mohawk, John Ford gave the world two unassailable masterpieces Stagecoach and Young Mr Lincoln, which is sort of like inventing the cure for polio the same year you set the world record for fastest mile. Whether ensconced in drama, comedy, or action, romance had never seen a more fruitful annus mirabilis, an embarrassment of riches spread among Ninotchka, The Women, Goodbye Mr Chips, Wuthering Heights, and Only Angels Have Wings. Basil Rathbone made his debut as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Even the forgotten B-pictures, marquee-fillers such as the cash-grabby three-quel Son of Frankenstein, display a level of artistry and conviction of performance alien to today’s franchise-industrial complex.

Golden year … James Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, 1939.

But if the distinction of the artform’s best year hinges on a deeper sense of significance, 1939 can still measure up, a prefab milestone pedestaled by an industry celebrating 50 years of motion picture technology and 25 since the biz went west. Each studio showcased its talent on either side of the camera with bigger budgets and ballooned ambitions, upping the ante on the inspired artifice the dream factory sold to an eager America. At the same time, 1939 embodied the currents of history in less choreographed, sometimes less flattering ways; Anatole Litvak’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy threw the United States’ isolationist policy prior to the second world war into unforgiving relief, while the India-set Gunga Din paired its gallivanting adventure with ethnocentric fantasies of the “Thuggee murder cult”. Glitzy and garish, politically forward-looking and blinkered, virtuosic and commercial, here was Hollywood during the shiniest glint of the Golden Age. Charles Bramesco

2013: the winds of change

We now have a very different film industry than we did a decade ago: Covid, streaming, MeToo and Black Lives Matter have seen to that. But if you were reading the runes, the winds of change were blowing earlier, none more evident in 2013. Leading the way has to be Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave: a forthright drama taken from Solomon Northup’s memoir that won the best picture Oscar and – although McQueen is British – sensationally changed the game for Black American film-makers. After all those decades of exclusion it felt like female directors were finally arriving in significant numbers – Sofia Coppola (Bling Ring), Clio Barnard (Selfish Giant), Joanna Hogg (Exhibition) – as well as an impressive sighting of still-more-an-actor Greta Gerwig in the Noah Baumbach-directed Frances Ha.

Michael Fassbender, left, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Years a Slave.

Established American heavyweights were still turning out great stuff though: Martin Scorsese scored an unexpected hit with The Wolf of Wall Street, the Coens made the brilliant Inside Llewyn Davis, and Jim Jarmusch made the hilarious vampire-rocker film Only Lovers Left Alive. Meanwhile non-US auteurs were making tremendous inroads: Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty knocked everyone’s socks off, Pawel Pawlikowski’s fabulous faith drama Ida won the best foreign language film Oscar, and Lars von Trier outflanked everyone with his bizarre four-hour erotic dreamscape Nymphomaniac.

It’s an astonishing list, which doesn’t even include two personal favourites, which pointed the way forward themselves. Gravity, with its complex light box trickery and considered attempt at space realism pushed the boundaries of what an effects movie could accomplish, while the astonishing Under the Skin, from Zone of Interest’s Jonathan Glazer, exuded a don’t-care idiosyncrasy from its opening frames, completely reformulating what could be acceptable in a big star vehicle. 2013 really was a year to savour. Andrew Pulver

1975: simply the best. Case closed

For quality, innovation and sheer shock and awe, it’s hard to look past 1975, the year that most accurately predicted Hollywood’s future direction of travel. This was the year where the ascendant cinema of the New Hollywood collided with the then-nascent blockbuster. There would only be one winner in that clash: a three-tonne great white shark with a hankering for sunbathers.

Jaws might have ultimately been the first crack in the dam that led to our current flood of thudding, uninspired mega-movies, but it remains a bravura piece of mass entertainment, a technological and storytelling marvel that more than merited its place among that year’s Oscar best picture nominees. By the way, has there ever been a better best picture shortlist? Even 1974 had a dud in there – the now horribly dated Towering Inferno – but 1975’s is all killer, no filler: joining Jaws were Kubrick’s picaresque masterpiece Barry Lyndon, Altman’s brilliant, sprawling, country music epic Nashville, Dog Day Afternoon, with Pacino in imperious form and John Cazale adding another entry to the greatest filmography of all time , and that year’s ultimate winner, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

All killer … Tina Turner in Tommy

Those five alone would make for an exemplary movie year, but below the fold there was plenty more going on. It was a great time for ambitious, often transgressive film-making: Ken Russell and The Who’s wild rock opera Tommy; Warren Beatty’s ripe political satire Shampoo; Pasolini’s arthouse shocker Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom; the giddy joys of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Rocky Horror’s gleeful rejection of sexual and gender norms made it a queer cinema landmark, but it wasn’t alone in moving the dial in 1975: Dog Day Afternoon featured a sympathetic portrayal of a trans character – Chris Sarandon’s gender-reassignment surgery-seeking Leon – decades before The Crying Game, Boys Don’t Cry or Tangerine. Black cinema too enjoyed landmark releases in 1975: the coming-of-age drama Cooley High, which helped nudge portrayals of black communities away from the cheap thrills of Blaxploitation and towards something more rounded and real; and, on this side of the Atlantic, Horace Ové’s pioneering account of Black British life, Pressure.

Still not convinced of 1975’s merits? I could point to nerve-shredding Robert Redford thriller Three Days of the Condor, or Fellini’s autobiographical classic Amarcord, or Gene Hackman repeating the trick of The Conversation in the great forgotten paranoid thriller Night Moves. But how about we leave it at this: the current reigning champ in Sight and Sound’s critics poll of the greatest films of all time hails from 1975: Chantal Akerman’s slow cinema gamechanger, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Case closed, your honour. Gwilym Mumford

1946: studio system in full fettle

The numbers do not lie: the biggest all-time movie year for attendance was 1946, with more than 90m weekly admissions —60% of the population of North America.

The studio system was in full fettle and John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks all at the height of their powers, with the dark currents of noir reaching the high-water mark of Hawk’s The Big Sleep, while Ford made one of his battle-weariest westerns, My Darling Clementine. It was Joan Crawford’s finest hour in Mildred Pierce, Rita Hayworth’s in Gilda, while Cary Grant gave a performance etched in charcoal in Hitchcock’s Notorious.

Post-war noir … Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, 1946.

In Europe, Italian neorealism was in full swing, with Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine, and Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà shot in the rubble of bombed Europe, while in France Jean Cocteau made his best film, La Belle et la Bête. America and Europe had never been closer, and for once, Hollywood was not the straightforward dream factory.

Flush with the victory against fascism, weary with the cost of the effort, Hollywood was more like a dreamer tossing and turning with vivid, turbulent dreams. William Wyler made one of the most disquieting Oscar winners ever made, about the experience of returning veterans, The Best Years of Our Lives. Even Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life plays much darker than you remember it, as befits a film made by two returning vets, confronting the heartlessness of slumlord capitalism before ushering George Bailey to his happy ending.

The boom did not last. Attendance dropped in 1947 as couples stayed home, turned on their TV sets and moviegoing went into the freefall from which it has never quite recovered. Tom Shone

2027: the best year is yet to come …

A tumultuous year I thought I’d not live to see. We begin with the dissolution of the Academy as its centenary event. At last, diminished audiences and the profusion of sub-categories and voting groups meet their destiny. “Give us a break!” says Spike Lee, final president, as he gets his directing prize for No One Asked Me.

Quentin Tarantino delivers his third final film, GloriUS. The SURveillance channel buys out Netflix and breaks viewing records with Chez the Kelces, a two-week coverage of you know who.

Daniel Day-Lewis returns to play in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Last Dream of a Dressmaker; 81% of filmgoers ask, “Who is Daniel Day-Lewis?”

Reports that the TRUMP media park has special effects problems. Trump announces: “It’s a done deal – Brad Pitt will be me.” Pitt leaves the country. Trump: “Who knew? He turned out so nasty.”

Stephen Frears wins the Palme d’Or at Cannes with a ruminative essay film, What I Decided Not to Make. Jane Campion opens Tender Will Be the Night, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Dick Diver and Margot Robbie as Nicole.

Martin Scorsese releases a four-hour cut of Big Horn, about the 1876 battle as a model of America’s wickedness. Leonardo Di Caprio is Custer, De Niro as Sitting Bull.

The old Academy Museum in Los Angeles is sold to Elon Musk. There are 211 operating movie theatres in the US. Peter Morgan agrees to continue The Crown, despite ongoing legal action between Princes Harry and William.

Seven cans of the lost The Magnificent Ambersons wash up on the shores of Puerto Vallarta. Frederick Wiseman, now 97, makes a four-hour film, Quiet, about the world as a panorama of silence. Walter Murch is the sound designer. Wiseman announces: “That’s all, folks!” David Thomson

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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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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.

best year essay

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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.

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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.

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#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 .

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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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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Nonfiction Books » Essays

The best essays: the 2021 pen/diamonstein-spielvogel award, recommended by adam gopnik.

Had I Known: Collected Essays by Barbara Ehrenreich

WINNER OF the 2021 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay

Had I Known: Collected Essays by Barbara Ehrenreich

Every year, the judges of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay search out the best book of essays written in the past year and draw attention to the author's entire body of work. Here, Adam Gopnik , writer, journalist and PEN essay prize judge, emphasizes the role of the essay in bearing witness and explains why the five collections that reached the 2021 shortlist are, in their different ways, so important.

Interview by Benedict King

The Best Essays: the 2021 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award - Had I Known: Collected Essays by Barbara Ehrenreich

Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader by Vivian Gornick

The Best Essays: the 2021 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award - Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays by Robert Michael Pyle

Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays by Robert Michael Pyle

The Best Essays: the 2021 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award - Terroir: Love, Out of Place by Natasha Sajé

Terroir: Love, Out of Place by Natasha Sajé

The Best Essays: the 2021 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award - Maybe the People Would be the Times by Luc Sante

Maybe the People Would be the Times by Luc Sante

best year essay

1 Had I Known: Collected Essays by Barbara Ehrenreich

2 unfinished business: notes of a chronic re-reader by vivian gornick, 3 nature matrix: new and selected essays by robert michael pyle, 4 terroir: love, out of place by natasha sajé, 5 maybe the people would be the times by luc sante.

We’re talking about the books shortlisted for the 2021 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay . As an essayist yourself, or as a reader of essays, what are you looking for? What’s the key to a good essay ?

I have very specific and, in some ways, old fashioned views on the essay—though I think that the books we chose tend to confirm the ‘relevance’, perhaps even the continuing urgency, of those views. I think that we always ought to distinguish the essay from a political editorial or polemic on the one hand, and from a straight memoir or confession on the other. The essay, for me, is always a form in which it’s significant—more than significant, it’s decisive—that it has some form of first-person address, a particular voice bearing witness at a particular time. An essay isn’t a common claim, it’s not an editorial ‘we’, it’s not a manifesto. It’s one writer, one voice, addressing readers as though face-to-face. At the same time, for me—and I think this sense was shared by the other judges, as an intuition about the essay—it isn’t simply What Happened to Me. It’s not an autobiographical memoir, or a piece taken from an autobiographical memoir, wonderful though those can be (I say, as one who writes those, too).

It’s a personal address that points to a larger theme. You’ve got to recognize the person on the page, as we do with Charles Lamb, Virginia Woolf, Max Beerbohm, Clive James and countless others. But we also want it to have a certain critical conscience, we want it to be more than an outpouring of emotion. I don’t think of Anaïs Nin, for instance, as an essayist in that sense. She’s a wonderful confessional writer, a wonderful memoirist and diarist—but we don’t think of Anaïs Nin as an essayist in quite the same way that we think of Virginia Woolf or Joan Didion as an essayist.

Let’s turn to the books that made the shortlist of the 2021 PEN Award for the Art of the Essay. The winning book was Had I Known: Collected Essays by Barbara Ehrenreich , whose books have been recommended a number of times on Five Books. Tell me more. 

One of the criteria for this particular prize is that it should be not just for a single book, but for a body of work. One of the things we wanted to honour about Barbara Ehrenreich is that she has produced a remarkable body of work. Although it’s offered in a more specifically political register than some essayists, or that a great many past prize winners have practised, the quiddity of her work is that it remains rooted in personal experience, in the act of bearing witness. She has a passionate political point to make, certainly, a series of them, many seeming all the more relevant now than when she began writing. Nonetheless, her writing still always depends on the intimacy of first-hand knowledge, what people in post-incarceration work call ‘lived experience’ (a term with a distinguished philosophical history). Her book Nickel and Dimed is the classic example of that. She never writes from a distance about working-class life in America. She bears witness to the nature and real texture of working-class life in America.

“One point of giving awards…is to keep passing the small torches of literary tradition”

We wanted to honor this lifelong commitment to serving the cause of reform: egalitarian measures, rights for working people and, above all, that great American tradition of listening to those who don’t get listened to, hearing and seeing people who don’t often get to speak or be seen—a tradition that extends back to Lewis Hine, Upton Sinclair and countless others. She seems to have both embodied that tradition and renewed it. What makes her work exceptional is that it comes to us both as a personal witness of a very moving kind, and as part of a broader political project of an admirably consistent sort.

Next up of the books on the 2021 PEN essay prize shortlist is Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader by Vivian Gornick.

Vivian Gornick is a writer who’s been around for a very long time. Although longevity is not in itself a criterion for excellence—or for this prize, or in the writing life generally—persistence and perseverance are. Writers who keep coming back at us, again and again, with a consistent vision, are surely to be saluted. For her admirers, her appetite to re-read things already read is one of the most attractive parts of her oeuvre , if I can call it that; her appetite not just to read but to read deeply and personally. One of the things that people who love her work love about it is that her readings are never academic, or touched by scholarly hobbyhorsing. They’re readings that involve the fullness of her experience, then applied to literature. Although she reads as a critic, she reads as an essayist reads, rather than as a reviewer reads. And I think that was one of the things that was there to honour in her body of work, as well.

Is she a novelist or journalist, as well?

She wrote a well-known book on what she called ‘ The Romance of American Communism’ , about the personal entanglements of American leftists during the long Stalinist nightmare, and she’s written novels, but I think that the core of her activity has been exactly this kind of extended critical essay, the classic form of the essay, where a personal exploration of experience is married to and meets an equally classic form of critical reading. And that’s a very rich American tradition. Hers is obviously a body of work that’s been highly influential on later generations of writers—not just on women writers, of course, but particularly on women writers. Her admirers find in her mix of deep reading and self-inspection, a template for engaged work, and they value, too, the acid and self-confident candour of her judgements.

Let’s move on to the next book which made the 2021 PEN essay shortlist. This is Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays by Robert Michael Pyle.

I have a special reason for liking this book in particular, and that is that it corresponds to one of the richest and oldest of American genres, now often overlooked, and that’s the naturalist essay. You can track it back to Henry David Thoreau , if not to Ralph Waldo Emerson , this American engagement with nature , the wilderness, not from a narrowly scientific point of view, nor from a purely ecological or environmental point of view—though those things are part of it—but again, from the point of view of lived experience, of personal testimony.

It seems to me that that’s been one of the richest of American genres, and largely overlooked in recent years. Pyle is a writer who has spent his entire life, all of his writerly activity, writing that kind of easily neglected and overlooked essay—including a wonderful study of the migration patterns of monarch butterflies, that marked my first acquaintance with his mind. It’s not the kind of thing you’re going to find in New York Magazine or, for that matter, often in The New Yorker   anymore, but is a vital part of a long, golden thread of American work. So honoring his work was a way both of honoring that tradition and the leading living American practitioner of that tradition. It was a way both of honoring the career of a remarkable but somewhat overlooked writer and also of reminding us that on the spectrum of the American essay, along with the political essays, it is just as important to pay attention to the non-political essay, the essay of natural life—which, of course, as with Thoreau so with Pyle, suggests a politics of its own.

Let’s look at the next book on the shortlist of the 2021 PEN Awards, which is Terroir: Love, Out of Place by Natasha Sajé. Why did these essays appeal?

One of the things that was appealing about this book is that’s it very much about, in every sense, the issues of the day: the idea of place, of where we are, how we are located on any map as individuals by ethnic identity, class, gender—all of those things. But rather than being carried forward in a narrowly argumentative way, again, in the classic manner of the essay, Sajé’s work is ruminative. It walks around these issues from the point of view of someone who’s an expatriate, someone who’s an émigré, someone who’s a world citizen, but who’s also concerned with the idea of ‘terroir’, the one place in the world where we belong. And I think the dialogue in her work between a kind of cosmopolitanism that she has along with her self-critical examination of the problem of localism and where we sit on the world, was inspiring to us.

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It’s a reminder—and I think this is generally true about the books in this sequence—that the special contribution the essayist makes to public debate is not to sharpen the arguments, nor necessarily to broaden the field of evidence as a social scientist might do, but to give us the intense particularism of individual witness on the issues that everyone is talking about. Nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation—she writes about them, not from a distance, but from an exquisite and micro-accented point of view.

Last of the books on the shortlist for the 2021 Pen essay award is Maybe the People Would Be the Times by Luc Sante.

Again, here’s a writer who’s had a distinguished generalised career, writing about lots of places and about lots of subjects. In the past, he’s made his special preoccupation what he calls ‘low life’, but I think more broadly can be called the marginalized or the repressed and abject. He’s also written acute introductions to the literature of ‘low life’, the works of Asbury and David Maurer, for instance.

But I think one of the things that was appealing about what he’s done is the sheer range of his enterprise. He writes about countless subjects. He can write about A-sides and B-sides of popular records—singles—then go on to write about Jacques Rivette’s cinema. He writes from a kind of private inspection of public experience. He has a lovely piece about tabloid headlines and their evolution. And I think that omnivorous range of enthusiasms and passions is a stirring reminder in a time of specialization and compartmentalization of the essayist’s freedom to roam. If Pyle is in the tradition of Thoreau, I suspect Luc Sante would be proud to be put in the tradition of Baudelaire—the flaneur who walks the streets, sees everything, broods on it all and writes about it well.

One point of giving awards, with all their built-in absurdity and inevitable injustice, is to keep alive, or at least to keep passing, the small torches of literary tradition. And just as much as we’re honoring the great tradition of the naturalist essay in the one case, I think we’re honoring the tradition of the Baudelairean flaneur in this one.

April 18, 2021

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Adam Gopnik

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Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1986. His many books include A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism . He is a three time winner of the National Magazine Award for Essays & Criticism, and in 2021 was made a chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur by the French Republic.

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Best of 2022: Personal Essays

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A close-up graphic of a pen against a solid blue-green background with text that reads" Longreads: The Best Personal Essays of 2022"

Today’s list compiles our editors’ picks for personal essays. While our team is small, we have a wide range of interests and are drawn to very different types of personal writing. It’s often hard for each of us to select a single “favorite” for these lists, but we enjoy coming together each December to look back on all the stories we’ve picked to create these year-end lists.

Similar to last year , we asked our writers, featured authors, and readers to share their favorite stories across categories. You’ll see their recommendations alongside ours in this list and others to come this month . Enjoy!

Does My Son Know You?

Jonathan Tjarks | The Ringer | March 3, 2022 | 2,738 words

Jonathan Tjarks was 33 years old when he learned he had cancer. Thirty-three. He had a wife and a baby son and a sportswriting career that was humming along, and then he had cancer. What he didn’t have was the willingness to go gently into that good night. So he wrote about his fear, and he wrote about his faith and his friendships; how difficult those things were, how important they were. He’d lost his own father when he was young, and he wanted more than anything for his son to avoid the slow erosion of community that he had known in the wake of his dad’s death. “I don’t want Jackson to have the same childhood that I did,” he wrote. “I want him to wonder why his dad’s friends always come over and shoot hoops with him. Why they always invite him to their houses. Why there are so many of them at his games. I hope that he gets sick of them.” Jonathan Tjarks was 34 years old when he died of cancer just a few short months after this essay was published. He’d done what he could to fight, and he’d done what he could to make sure that the friends he’d made would help his son navigate the world. To the rest of us, he left this spare, frank, moving essay. — Peter Rubin

On Metaphors and Snow Boots

Annie Sand | Guernica | May 23, 2022 | 2,821 words

“Only sometimes will the ice hold my weight,” writes Annie Sand in this powerful essay at  Guernica , in which she considers the meteorological metaphors she uses to understand and cope with mental illness. “Metaphor rushes in to fill gaps, to make meaning, and to conceal,” she says, as she attempts to assess the cost of a bout of anxiety in “hours of writing lost, hours of grading lost, hours of exercise lost, hours of sleep lost, hours of joy lost.” While metaphor can be a convenient way for us to attempt to understand the pain of others, language in all its power often comes up short, diminishing the complexities of human perception and experience with inadequate comparisons. “When we use metaphor to conceal the unknowable, we make symbols out of human beings and allegory out of experience. We reduce our own pain to a precursor, a line item, a weather report,” she says. The key, Sand suggests, is to define pain and suffering for yourself: “I wonder instead if the answer is not to abstain from metaphor, but rather, each time society tries to wheat-paste an ill-fitting metaphor over our lives, to offer one of our own.” If you’ve ever tried to explain how you really feel — mentally or physically — to someone, you’ll appreciate Sand’s thinking. — Krista Stevens

Annie Sand on the most impactful longform story she read this year:

For me it has to be “ Final Girl, Terrible Place ” by Lesley Finn. She talks about the concept of the final girl in horror: the young woman who makes it to the end of the movie, but is nonetheless objectified within the story. Her body is put on the line so the male psyche can experience threat from a distance. Reading the essay, I felt a flash of desperate recognition I hadn’t experienced since Leslie Jamison’s “ Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain .” Finn captures so much of the uncertainty of being a teenage (and even preteen) girl: the way you feel the noose of culture and power closing in on you but have no name for it. Now in my early 30s, I’m helping to raise a teenage girl who is obsessed with horror, I suspect for similar reasons as Finn. I think she sees herself in the final girl. Maybe over Christmas break we’ll read it together.

20 Days in Mariupol

Mstyslav Chernov | Associated Press | March 21, 2022 | 2,400 words

We tend to think of personal essays as marathons rather than sprints, feats of the written word that require time, training, and endurance to complete. But sometimes a brilliant essay is a mad dash because it has to be. Case in point, this harrowing piece that begins, “The Russians were hunting us down. They had a list of names, including ours, and they were closing in.” Video journalist Mstyslav Chernov’s account of witnessing and escaping the siege of Mariupol, Ukraine, is an essential first draft of history, penned in collaboration with Lori Hinnant, an AP colleague, and punctuated by photographer Evgeniy Maloletka’s chilling images. In spare, unflinching language, Chernov describes Russia’s campaign to suppress the truth about its brutal assault on civilians. What lingers most vividly in my memory, though, are the essay’s interior parts, where Chernov conveys a raw mix of shock, fear, anger, and guilt about what, as a journalist, he saw, did, and couldn’t do. These moments are what make such an otherwise immediate piece timeless: Chernov captures the essence of both conflict reporting and what it means to be the person doing it. — Seyward Darby

To Live in the Ending

Alyssa Harad | Kenyon Review | July 29, 2022 | 6,113 words

When it was time to select an essay for this category, I immediately knew the type of piece I wanted to highlight. Week after week, it’s so easy to get lost in #sadreads, especially about the state of the planet. I’ve found some comfort in writing about the Earth and the climate crisis that, while urgent and often dismal, ultimately challenges me to think in new ways — and which helps me see a path toward a better future. I count Alyssa Harad’s gorgeous braided essay about the end of the world and the language of the apocalypse as one of this kind of piece — I’ve kept thinking about it for months. Instead of relying on catastrophe narratives or thinking of the end as a singular event, Harad considers life as a series of “nested crises,” and explains that “worlds end all the time.” I love the way she artfully weaves her observations about the world with musings that trace her own thinking since she was a child, and reflects on how she’s come to make sense of the uncertain times in which we live. It’s an essay, but it’s also a journey, and it deeply inspired me, as both a writer and a human. — Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Alyssa Harad recommends a piece that made her smile this year:

“ Unconditional Death Is a Good Title ,” a selection in The Paris Review from the pandemic journal kept by the late-but-always-and-forever-great poet Bernadette Mayer, surges with the life and joy typical of Mayer’s work: “not growing old gracefully,” Mayer writes, “i’ve chosen to grow old awkwardly, like a teenager.”

14 Hours in the Queue to See Queen Elizabeth’s Coffin

Laurie Penny | British GQ | September 18, 2022 | 3,415 words

The Queue to see Queen Elizabeth’s coffin seems particularly bizarre now that the moment has passed. Looking back at it is akin to waking up after too many beers and analyzing the deep connection you thought you shared with the bartender. Laurie Penny found it awkward even at the emotional height of the time, and she approaches the Queue with a healthy amount of cynicism (and snacks). However, within the Queue, she finds incredible camaraderie and a shared sense of loss, not just for the Queen, for, as Penny states, “almost everyone I speak to turns out to have recently lost someone, or something important.” The loss from COVID-19 is also apparent as the Queue shuffles past the National COVID Memorial, naming the people who succumbed to the pandemic, and Penny realizes, “about as many people queued past that wall as there are names on it.” The passing of Elizabeth II created something that, for a brief moment, allowed people to come together and mourn and grieve in solidarity. Mourn and grieve for many things after some difficult years. With barriers down — for whatever reason — there can be tremendous release in shared emotion. This essay made me think about many things beyond the Queen: community, loss, and loneliness, to name a few. It also made me laugh, which is the splendid thing about Laurie Penny’s writing — she can make you ponder through a chuckle. — Carolyn Wells

You can also browse all of our year-end collections since 2011  in one place .

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The Best Reviewed Essay Collections of 2022

Featuring bob dylan, elena ferrante, zora neale hurston, jhumpa lahiri, melissa febos, and more.

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We’ve come to the end of another bountiful literary year, and for all of us review rabbits here at Book Marks, that can mean only one thing: basic math, and lots of it.

Yes, using reviews drawn from more than 150 publications, over the next two weeks we’ll be calculating and revealing the most critically-acclaimed books of 2022, in the categories of (deep breath): Fiction ; Nonfiction ; Memoir and Biography ; Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror ; Short Story Collections ; Essay Collections; Poetry; Mystery and Crime ; Graphic Literature ; and Literature in Translation .

Today’s installment: Essay Collections .

Brought to you by Book Marks , Lit Hub’s “Rotten Tomatoes for books.”

1. In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing  by Elena Ferrante (Europa)

12 Rave • 12 Positive • 4 Mixed

“The lucid, well-formed essays that make up In the Margins  are written in an equally captivating voice … Although a slim collection, there is more than enough meat here to nourish both the common reader and the Ferrante aficionado … Every essay here is a blend of deep thought, rigorous analysis and graceful prose. We occasionally get the odd glimpse of the author…but mainly the focus is on the nuts and bolts of writing and Ferrante’s practice of her craft. The essays are at their most rewarding when Ferrante discusses the origins of her books, in particular the celebrated Neapolitan Novels, and the multifaceted heroines that power them … These essays might not bring us any closer to finding out who Ferrante really is. Instead, though, they provide valuable insight into how she developed as a writer and how she works her magic.”

–Malcolm Forbes ( The Star Tribune )

2. Translating Myself and Others by Jhumpa Lahiri (Princeton University Press)

8 Rave • 14 Positive • 1 Mixed

“Lahiri mixes detailed explorations of craft with broader reflections on her own artistic life, as well as the ‘essential aesthetic and political mission’ of translation. She is excellent in all three modes—so excellent, in fact, that I, a translator myself, could barely read this book. I kept putting it aside, compelled by Lahiri’s writing to go sit at my desk and translate … One of Lahiri’s great gifts as an essayist is her ability to braid multiple ways of thinking together, often in startling ways … a reminder, no matter your relationship to translation, of how alive language itself can be. In her essays as in her fiction, Lahiri is a writer of great, quiet elegance; her sentences seem simple even when they’re complex. Their beauty and clarity alone would be enough to wake readers up. ‘Look,’ her essays seem to say: Look how much there is for us to wake up to.”

–Lily Meyer ( NPR )

3. The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster)

10 Rave • 15 Positive • 7 Mixed • 4 Pan

“It is filled with songs and hyperbole and views on love and lust even darker than Blood on the Tracks … There are 66 songs discussed here … Only four are by women, which is ridiculous, but he never asked us … Nothing is proved, but everything is experienced—one really weird and brilliant person’s experience, someone who changed the world many times … Part of the pleasure of the book, even exceeding the delectable Chronicles: Volume One , is that you feel liberated from Being Bob Dylan. He’s not telling you what you got wrong about him. The prose is so vivid and fecund, it was useless to underline, because I just would have underlined the whole book. Dylan’s pulpy, noir imagination is not always for the squeamish. If your idea of art is affirmation of acceptable values, Bob Dylan doesn’t need you … The writing here is at turns vivid, hilarious, and will awaken you to songs you thought you knew … The prose brims everywhere you turn. It is almost disturbing. Bob Dylan got his Nobel and all the other accolades, and now he’s doing my job, and he’s so damn good at it.”

–David Yaffe ( AirMail )

4.  Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative by Melissa Febos (Catapult)

13 Rave • 2 Positive • 2 Mixed Read an excerpt from Body Work here

“In her new book, Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative , memoirist Melissa Febos handily recuperates the art of writing the self from some of the most common biases against it: that the memoir is a lesser form than the novel. That trauma narratives should somehow be over—we’ve had our fill … Febos rejects these belittlements with eloquence … In its hybridity, this book formalizes one of Febos’s central tenets within it: that there is no disentangling craft from the personal, just as there is no disentangling the personal from the political. It’s a memoir of a life indelibly changed by literary practice and the rigorous integrity demanded of it …

Febos is an essayist of grace and terrific precision, her sentences meticulously sculpted, her paragraphs shapely and compressed … what’s fresh, of course, is Febos herself, remapping this terrain through her context, her life and writing, her unusual combinations of sources (William H. Gass meets Elissa Washuta, for example), her painstaking exactitude and unflappable sureness—and the new readers she will reach with all of this.”

–Megan Milks ( 4Columns )

5. You Don’t Know Us Negroes by Zora Neale Hurston (Amistad)

12 Rave • 3 Positive • 1 Mixed

“… a dazzling collection of her work … You Don’t Know Us Negroes reveals Hurston at the top of her game as an essayist, cultural critic, anthropologist and beat reporter … Hurston is, by turn, provocative, funny, bawdy, informative and outrageous … Hurston will make you laugh but also make you remember the bitter divide in Black America around performance, language, education and class … But the surprising page turner is at the back of the book, a compilation of Hurston’s coverage of the Ruby McCollom murder trial …

Some of Hurston’s writing is sensationalistic, to be sure, but it’s also a riveting take of gender and race relations at the time … Gates and West have put together a comprehensive collection that lets Hurston shine as a writer, a storyteller and an American iconoclast.”

–Lisa Page ( The Washington Post )

Strangers to Ourselves

6. Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us by Rachel Aviv (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

11 Rave • 4 Positive • 2 Mixed Listen to an interview with Rachel Aviv here

“… written with an astonishing amount of attention and care … Aviv’s triumphs in relating these journeys are many: her unerring narrative instinct, the breadth of context brought to each story, her meticulous reporting. Chief among these is her empathy, which never gives way to pity or sentimentality. She respects her subjects, and so centers their dignity without indulging in the geeky, condescending tone of fascination that can characterize psychologists’ accounts of their patients’ troubles. Though deeply curious about each subject, Aviv doesn’t treat them as anomalous or strange … Aviv’s daunted respect for uncertainty is what makes Strangers to Ourselves distinctive. She is hyperaware of just how sensitive the scale of the self can be.”

–Charlotte Shane ( Bookforum )

7. A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast by Dorthe Nors (Graywolf)

11 Rave • 1 Positive Read an excerpt from A Line in the World here

“Nors, known primarily as a fiction writer, here embarks on a languorous and evocative tour of her native Denmark … The dramas of the past are evoked not so much through individual characters as through their traces—buildings, ruins, shipwrecks—and this westerly Denmark is less the land of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales and sleek Georg Jensen designs than a place of ancient landscapes steeped in myth … People aren’t wholly incidental to the narrative. Nors introduces us to a variety of colorful characters, and shares vivid memories of her family’s time in a cabin on the coast south of Thyborøn. But in a way that recalls the work of Barry Lopez, nature is at the heart of this beautiful book, framed in essay-like chapters, superbly translated by Caroline Waight.”

–Claire Messud ( Harper’s )

8. Raising Raffi: The First Five Years by Keith Gessen (Viking)

4 Rave • 10 Positive • 1 Mixed Read an excerpt from Raising Raffi here

“A wise, mild and enviably lucid book about a chaotic scene … Is it OK to out your kid like this? … Still, this memoir will seem like a better idea if, a few decades from now, Raffi is happy and healthy and can read it aloud to his own kids while chuckling at what a little miscreant he was … Gessen is a wily parser of children’s literature … He is just as good on parenting manuals … Raising Raffi offers glimpses of what it’s like to eke out literary lives at the intersection of the Trump and Biden administrations … Needing money for one’s children, throughout history, has made parents do desperate things — even write revealing parenthood memoirs … Gessen’s short book is absorbing not because it delivers answers … It’s absorbing because Gessen is a calm and observant writer…who raises, and struggles with, the right questions about himself and the world.”

–Dwight Garner ( The New York Times )

9. The Crane Wife by CJ Hauser (Doubleday)

8 Rave • 4 Positive • 2 Mixed • 1 Pan Watch an interview with CJ Hauser here

“17 brilliant pieces … This tumbling, in and out of love, structures the collection … Calling Hauser ‘honest’ and ‘vulnerable’ feels inadequate. She embraces and even celebrates her flaws, and she revels in being a provocateur … It is an irony that Hauser, a strong, smart, capable woman, relates to the crane wife’s contortions. She felt helpless in her own romantic relationship. I don’t have one female friend who has not felt some version of this, but putting it into words is risky … this collection is not about neat, happy endings. It’s a constant search for self-discovery … Much has been written on the themes Hauser excavates here, yet her perspective is singular, startlingly so. Many narratives still position finding the perfect match as a measure of whether we’ve led successful lives. The Crane Wife dispenses with that. For that reason, Hauser’s worldview feels fresh and even radical.”

–Hope Reese ( Oprah Daily )

10. How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo (Viking)

8 Rave • 2 Positive • 1 Mixed Read an excerpt from How to Read Now here

“Elaine Castillo’s How to Read Now begins with a section called ‘Author’s Note, or a Virgo Clarifies Things.’ The title is a neat encapsulation of the book’s style: rigorous but still chatty, intellectual but not precious or academic about it … How to Read Now proceeds at a breakneck pace. Each of the book’s eight essays burns bright and hot from start to finish … How to Read Now is not for everybody, but if it is for you, it is clarifying and bracing. Castillo offers a full-throated critique of some of the literary world’s most insipid and self-serving ideas …

So how should we read now? Castillo offers suggestions but no resolution. She is less interested in capital-A Answers…and more excited by the opportunity to restore a multitude of voices and perspectives to the conversation … A book is nothing without a reader; this one is co-created by its recipients, re-created every time the page is turned anew. How to Read Now offers its audience the opportunity to look past the simplicity we’re all too often spoon-fed into order to restore ourselves to chaos and complexity—a way of seeing and reading that demands so much more of us but offers even more in return.”

–Zan Romanoff ( The Los Angeles Times )

Our System:

RAVE = 5 points • POSITIVE = 3 points • MIXED = 1 point • PAN = -5 points

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10 Essays To Read Again in 2023

A list of our staff’s favorite essays from the past year.

best year essay

Hello, New Lines readers,

We hope you’re enjoying a much-needed holiday break. We have a lot in store for 2023, particularly the launch of our print edition. In the meantime, as has become tradition, we wanted to share with you a list of our staff’s favorite essays from the past year. We hope you’ll find something of interest in this eclectic collection of stories.

Wishing you a Happy New Year from the New Lines team!

The Day My Wartime Cat Went Missing, by Rasha Elass

Riada asimovic akyol, strategic initiatives editor.

Many of my close friends tell me that, despite my irrational fear of cats, I’d be a perfect “cat person,” once I dared to confront those fears. I’ve acknowledged the joy and glow in their eyes, when my friends speak of their pets. I’ve observed such bonds curiously and in a more mindful way in the last few years, especially after becoming a mother, responsible for someone else’s life. 

The essay “The Day My Wartime Cat Went Missing” was published early in 2022, and was an instant classic. Our Editorial Director, Rasha Elass, writes masterfully about her adventures with adopted cats Pumpkin and Gremlin, whom she first met in Abu Dhabi. She beautifully depicts how they survived a tough war, and the different challenges they’ve been through in the Middle East and the United States. She shares her genuine love and nurturing care, as well as her dread at the possibility of losing them, whether in peacetime or war. 

The essay is a gorgeous reminder of the bonds that matter. Check it out for yourself.

best year essay

How I Survived a Syrian Gulag, by Jaber Baker

Rasha al aqeedi, middle east deputy editor.

The terms “dictatorship,” “fascism,” “authoritarianism” and “totalitarianism” are thrown around today to describe various ruling systems in the world to such an extent that they have lost their actual meaning. Inconveniences such as losing access to a social media platform are compared to the conditions that led to the Holocaust, while wearing a pandemic-imposed mask is akin to living in a gulag. 

The Syrian author Jaber Baker takes us on a dark journey through his time in an actual gulag run by Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party. For me personally, the essay is a masterclass in storytelling and struck more chords and triggered more memories of my childhood and adolescence in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq than I wish it had. The true experiences and traumas of dictatorship face the threat of being drowned out by the noises of victimhood culture. While no one has a monopoly on trauma, Syrians have the right to tell the stories of their torture and suffering. It is a reminder that not all injustices are created equal. 

best year essay

The Last of the Bougainvillea Years, by Zeina Hashem Beck

Erin clare brown, north africa editor.

When faced with an impending move to Paris from Dubai in search of more stability for her family, poet Zeina Hashem Beck is suddenly filled with the pangs of loss — not for the Emirates, where she’d lived since 2006, but for her home in Lebanon. She explores this abstract sense of displacement and longing in her gorgeously crafted essay, written in a pitch-perfect prose that carries the music of poetry through her attempts to sort her belongings, prepare her children, and reassure herself that the displacement is the right call. Through it all Hashem Beck mourns the impending loss of her bougainvillea vines, whose clouds of pink blossoms and wicked thorns come to symbolize in turns her beloved hometown, her Mediterranean identity and in ways, the author herself. 

It’s a beautiful meditation on loss and longing, displacement and belonging that reminds us that when we are the right amount of thirsty, we blossom.

best year essay

What Ukraine Means for Lithuanians Haunted by Soviet Past, by Inga Rudzinskaite-Colman

Amie ferris-rotman, global news editor.

When reading this essay, one feels that an entire generation of Eastern Europeans is speaking, in a single, defiant voice, suddenly with renewed urgency. The globe is so focused on Russia’s horrific assault on Ukraine, and the grim atrocities the Russian military commits practically every day, that we often forget, or perhaps do not realize, the impact the war has on Moscow’s previous victims. In this essay, the analyst Inga Rudzinskaite-Colman, who was born and raised in Vilnius, dives into complicated issues like collective trauma and self-identity. She tells us, in poignant detail, how she and her fellow countrymen and women strived for decades to disassociate themselves from Russia and their Soviet past. But belonging to the Western “club” has also meant uncomfortable compromises, like being “Russiasplained” to. Read this beautifully written essay to peer into the new realities facing the Baltics, Poland and other countries once in Russia’s orbit, who are now finding themselves united by survival. 

best year essay

Rushdie Is India’s Forgotten Child of Midnight, by Pratik Kanjilal

Surbhi gupta, south asia editor.

Earlier this year, when Salman Rushdie was attacked before his talk in western New York, his supposed safe haven, much of the discussion in the media and reports in the news cycle focused on the politics of that infamous fatwa by the Ayatollah Khomeini calling for the writer’s death and its repercussions on the Muslim world. Yet, despite the fact Rushdie has roots in India and the subcontinent has been a constant source of inspiration for his writing, I could find no essay that delved into this relationship and work with South Asia — before this one.

While many were focused on the backlash against Rushdie’s novel, “The Satanic Verses,” the South Asian connection in the story was being overlooked. The first protests against the book happened not in Iran but in Pakistan, and this prompted the Indian government to ban its import from the U.K. It was, indeed, in a review in an Indian magazine that the Ayatollah is said to have first learned of the book. That’s why I loved this essay by Pratik Kanjilal, a veteran journalist and books editor in India, who has followed Rushdie’s journey closely through the years and was the best person to write it. He packs a lot into this essay: He writes about Rushdie, critiques his work, discusses what his Booker Prize wins meant for English writing in India, his relationship with India and Pakistan, and the irony of the attack, coinciding as it did with the 75th Independence Day celebrations in India. 

best year essay

Faith and Vengeance: the Islamic State’s War in Afghanistan, by Fazelminallah Qazizai and Chris Sands

Tam hussein, associate editor.

This piece tells the story of the rise of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), and its fall and rebirth, told through the character of Abu Omar Khorasani, “the most feared and despised prisoner in Directorate 40.” It takes you on a journey from the Afghan Jihad in the 1980s all the way to the present. I love deep dives and investigations. This particular piece is very original and will no doubt populate the citations of many books on the topic for years to come. To produce an essay of such quality requires a supportive editorial team and journalists willing to follow the story all the way. For me, that is embodied in this investigation. When I read it, I can almost see the legwork and local knowledge put in by Fazelminallah Qazizai. I see the crisp writing style of Qazizai’s co-author Chris Sands, the beautiful artwork of Joanna Andreasson and the background work that the editorial team puts in months before publication. And so it’s not just an enjoyable and interesting read, it’s what our managing editor Ola Salem says the best essays are — a work of art.

best year essay

When Uganda Expelled Its Asian Population in 1972, Britain Tried to Exclude Them, by Saima Nasar

Kwangu liwewe, africa editor.

When I read this essay, it reminded me of the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story. For five decades, the narrative about the expulsion of Uganda’s Asians has been that they went to Britain, were welcomed there and lived as refugees, then successfully assimilated into society and have contributed to all spheres of British life.

This essay puts the spotlight on how the narrative changed from unwanted Asian immigrants to one of a humanitarian response, when the plight of Asians became international news and Britain feared a backlash. The writer Saima Nasar lifts the lid on this narrative and tells the story of how, in actual fact, the Asians were British passport holders and were initially not welcome in Britain.

Nasar writes, “While Ugandan Asians have no doubt shaped Britain’s economic, political and socio-cultural landscapes, it is important to avoid celebratory narratives that overlook histories of struggle and discrimination.” 

It is an important essay that challenges society to re-examine historical narratives.

best year essay

A Film Critic Reflects on the Artistic Journeys and Vision of the Late French Director Jean-Luc Godard, by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Danny postel, politics editor.

When I saw the news on Sept. 13 that the legendary filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard had died, I immediately called Jonathan Rosenbaum, the longtime film critic for my local alt-weekly newspaper, the Chicago Reader, and the author of multiple books on world cinema. Rosenbaum had written extensively about Godard’s films over the years and had interviewed the grand poobah of French cinema’s New Wave movement on more than one occasion. I was thrilled that Rosenbaum agreed to write for us, despite being unfamiliar with New Lines (he later informed me that Sight and Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, also asked him to write something on Godard but we got to him first). 

In the essay, he discusses several of Godard’s films — “Breathless” (1960), “Alphaville” (1965), “Tout Va Bien” (1972), “Every Man for Himself” (1980), “Passion” (1982), “Nouvelle Vague” (1990) and “Histoire(s) du Cinéma,” an eight-part experimental video series made between 1988 and 1998 — but it’s far from a survey of the late director’s filmography. Instead, it’s a deeply personal meditation on his poetic vision and colossal global influence, and on the relationship between art and commercial success and failure. “Marketplace value has little or nothing to do with the love of art,” Rosenbaum writes, and “there’s no way of gauging the latter via the former, especially insofar as the intensity of the love and the qualities of the audience experiencing and expressing it aren’t even remotely quantifiable.” Godard once said to Rosenbaum: “I like to think of myself as an airplane, not an airport.” Reflecting on that quip, Rosenbaum writes that “vehicles that take us places, and the destinations of those who make them don’t have to be the same as the destinations of those who climb into those vehicles.”

best year essay

Between Two Rivers, Between Two Myths, by Sophus Helle

Lydia wilson, culture editor.

I wanted to choose a history essay for two reasons: It’s one of the genres that we do particularly well and, second, this type of long-form history is not given much space in other outlets. Our history essays are always deep-dive explorations of stories from the past from experts on the subject, showing us something new about the world, whether a new perspective on a familiar topic or a previously hidden gem. 

“Between Two Rivers,” by the Mesopotamian scholar Sophus Helle, exemplifies what we’re trying to do. It is based on deep expertise, exploring the identities of societies going back millennia in the territory now called Iraq. Helle looks at the labels these cultures gave themselves and were given by later invaders or historians. But it does not only tell the story of the historical material. Crucially, it explains why these facts, controversies and debates about old identities are relevant today, and the obfuscation of the past realities on the ground in Iraq does not serve its present inhabitants. History matters, and this essay brings that home. 

best year essay

An Exile Returns to Find Syria Changed Forever, by Nizar Kinaan

Faisal al yafai, international editor.

It’s been a year of war — as too many of the past few years have been — this time dominated in Europe by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the magazine, we’ve certainly published a lot about the Ukraine war, but we’ve also kept a close eye on other conflicts.

This essay by Nizar Kinaan, a pseudonym for obvious reasons, is one of those, revisiting the still-simmering Syrian conflict. The author returned to the coastal city of Latakia after years away and found a city, and country, drastically changed by the war. We called the essay “No Country for Young Men” because of the profound changes in gender roles wrought by the war.

“‘Where are the young men?’ I asked my friends in the cafe bar we were drinking in. ‘They are dead, in the army or they left like I should have done.’”

“The taboos against women working in certain specific jobs have definitely been broken,” wrote Kinaan, quoting a Syrian woman who said, “I am not saying all taboos have been completely shattered … but things have definitely shifted. Now women can work in most jobs, stay out late, and be a little bit more independent.”

Many will applaud that change, but the reasons that brought it about have destabilized the entire society. This is what makes Kinaan’s encounter with Latakia so interesting; he doesn’t judge what has happened by any moral standard except that of Syria itself. He doesn’t applaud changes in isolation without understanding what it took to make them change.

best year essay

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Make Lists, Not War

The meta-lists website, best essays of all time – ranked.

A reader suggested I create a meta-list of the best essays of all time, so I did.  I found over 12 best essays lists and several essay anthologies and combined the essays into one meta-list.  The meta-list below includes every essay that was on at least two of the original source lists. They are organized by rank, that is, with the essays on the most lists at the top. To see the same list organized chronologically, go HERE .

Note 1:  Some of the essays are actually chapters from books.  In such cases, I have identified the source book.

Note 2: Some of the essays are book-length, such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own .  One book listed as an essay by two listers – Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet – is also regularly categorized as a work of fiction.

On 11 lists James Baldwin – Notes of a Native Son (1955)

On 6 lists George Orwell – Shooting an Elephant (1936) E.B. White – Once More to the Lake (1941) Joan Didion – Goodbye To All That (1968)

On 5 lists Joan Didion – On Keeping A Notebook (1968) Annie Dillard – Total Eclipse (1982) Jo Ann Beard – The Fourth State of Matter (1996) David Foster Wallace – A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again (1996)

On 4 lists William Hazlitt – On the Pleasure of Hating (1823) Ralph Waldo Emerson – Self-Reliance (1841) Virginia Woolf – A Room of One’s Own (1928) Virginia Woolf – The Death of a Moth (1942) George Orwell – Such, Such Were the Joys (1952) Joan Didion – In Bed (1968) Amy Tan – Mother Tongue (1991) David Foster Wallace – Consider The Lobster (2005)

On 3 lists Jonathan Swift – A Modest Proposal  (1729) Virginia Woolf – Street Haunting: A London Adventure (1930) John McPhee – The Search for Marvin Gardens (1972) Joan Didion – The White Album (1968-1978) Eudora Welty – The Little Store (1978) Phillip Lopate – Against Joie de Vivre (1989)

On 2 lists Sei Shonagon – Hateful Things (from The Pillow Book ) (1002) Yoshida Kenko – Essays in Idleness (1332) Michel de Montaigne – On Some Verses of Virgil (1580) Robert Burton – Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) John Milton – Areopagitica  (1644) William Hazlitt – On Going a Journey (1822) Charles Lamb – The Superannuated Man (1823) Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience (1849) Henry David Thoreau – Where I Lived, and What I Lived For (from  Walden ) (1854) Henry David Thoreau – Economy (from  Walden ) (1854) Henry David Thoreau – Walking (1861) Robert Louis Stevenson – The Lantern-Bearers (1888) Zora Neale Hurston – How It Feels to Be Colored Me (1928) George Orwell – A Hanging (1931) Junichiro Tanizaki – In Praise of Shadows (1933) Fernando Pessoa – The Book of Disquiet (1935) James Agee and Walker Evans – Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) Simone Weil – On Human Personality (1943) M.F.K. Fisher – The Flaw (1943) Vladimir Nabokov – Speak, Memory (1951, revised 1966) Mary McCarthy – Artists in Uniform: A Story (1953) E.B. White – Goodbye to Forty-Eighth Street (1957) Martin Luther King, Jr. – Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963) Joseph Mitchell – Joe Gould’s Secret (1964) Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation (1966) Edward Hoagland – The Courage of Turtles (1970) Annie Dillard – Seeing (from  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek ) (1974) Maxine Hong Kingston – No Name Woman (from The Woman Warrior ) (1976) Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1982) Annie Dillard – Living Like Weasels (1982) Gloria E. Anzaldúa – How to Tame a Wild Tongue (1987) Italo Calvino – Exactitude (1988) Richard Rodriguez – Late Victorians (1990) David Wojnarowicz – Being Queer in America: A Journal of Disintegration (1991) Seymour Krim – To My Brothers & Sisters in the Failure Business (1991) Anne Carson – The Anthropology of Water (1995) Susan Sontag – Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) Etel Adnan – In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country (2005) Paul LaFarge – Destroy All Monsters (2006) Brian Doyle – Joyas Voladoras (2012)

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16 Strong College Essay Examples from Top Schools

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What’s Covered:

  • Common App Essays
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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!

Related CollegeVine Blog Posts

best year essay

What is Presidents Day and how is it celebrated? What to know about the federal holiday

Many will have a day off on monday in honor of presidents day. consumers may take advantage of retail sales that proliferate on the federal holiday, but here's what to know about the history of it..

best year essay

Presidents Day is fast approaching, which may signal to many a relaxing three-day weekend and plenty of holiday sales and bargains .

But next to Independence Day, there may not exist another American holiday that is quite so patriotic.

While Presidents Day has come to be a commemoration of all the nation's 46 chief executives, both past and present, it wasn't always so broad . When it first came into existence – long before it was even federally recognized – the holiday was meant to celebrate just one man: George Washington.

How has the day grown from a simple celebration of the birthday of the first president of the United States? And why are we seeing all these ads for car and furniture sales on TV?

Here's what to know about Presidents Day and how it came to be:

When is Presidents Day 2024?

This year, Presidents Day is on Monday, Feb. 19.

The holiday is celebrated on the third Monday of every February because of a bill signed into law in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Taking effect three years later, the Uniform Holiday Bill mandated that three holidays – Memorial Day, Presidents Day and Veterans Day – occur on Mondays to prevent midweek shutdowns and add long weekends to the federal calendar, according to Britannica .

Other holidays, including Labor Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day , were also established to be celebrated on Mondays when they were first observed.

However, Veterans Day was returned to Nov. 11 in 1978 and continues to be commemorated on that day.

What does Presidents Day commemorate?

Presidents Day was initially established in 1879 to celebrate the birthday of the nation's first president, George Washington. In fact, the holiday was simply called Washington's Birthday, which is still how the federal government refers to it, the Department of State explains .

Following the death of the venerated American Revolution leader in 1799, Feb. 22, widely believed to be Washington's date of birth , became a perennial day of remembrance, according to History.com .

The day remained an unofficial observance for much of the 1800s until Sen. Stephen Wallace Dorsey of Arkansas proposed that it become a federal holiday. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law, according to History.com.

While initially being recognized only in Washington D.C., Washington's Birthday became a nationwide holiday in 1885. The first to celebrate the life of an individual American, Washington's Birthday was at the time one of only five federally-recognized holidays – the others being Christmas, New Year's, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.

However, most Americans today likely don't view the federal holiday as a commemoration of just one specific president. Presidents Day has since come to represent a day to recognize and celebrate all of the United States' commanders-in-chief, according to the U.S. Department of State .

When the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971, a provision was included to combine the celebration of Washington’s birthday with Abraham Lincoln's on Feb. 12, according to History.com. Because the new annual date always fell between Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays, Americans believed the day was intended to honor both presidents.

Interestingly, advertisers may have played a part in the shift to "Presidents Day."

Many businesses jumped at the opportunity to use the three-day weekend as a means to draw customers with Presidents Day sales and bargain at stores across the country, according to History.com.

How is the holiday celebrated?

Because Presidents Day is a federal holiday , most federal workers will have the day off .

Part of the reason Johnson made the day a uniform holiday was so Americans had a long weekend "to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours," he wrote. As such, places like the Washington Monument in D.C. and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota – which bears the likenesses of Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt – are bound to attract plenty of tourists.

Similar to Independence Day, the holiday is also viewed as a patriotic celebration . As opposed to July, February might not be the best time for backyard barbecues and fireworks, but reenactments, parades and other ceremonies are sure to take place in cities across the U.S.

Presidential places abound across the U.S.

Opinions on current and recent presidents may leave Americans divided, but we apparently love our leaders of old enough to name a lot of places after them.

In 2023, the U.S. Census Bureau pulled information from its databases showcasing presidential geographic facts about the nation's cities and states.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the census data shows that as of 2020 , the U.S. is home to plenty of cities, counties and towns bearing presidential names. Specifically:

  • 94 places are named "Washington."
  • 72 places are named "Lincoln."
  • 67 places are named for Andrew Jackson, a controversial figure who owned slaves and forced thousands of Native Americans to march along the infamous Trail of Tears.

Contributing: Clare Mulroy

Eric Lagatta covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Reach him at [email protected]

best year essay

50 Must-Read Contemporary Essay Collections

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Liberty Hardy

Liberty Hardy is an unrepentant velocireader, writer, bitey mad lady, and tattoo canvas. Turn-ons include books, books and books. Her favorite exclamation is “Holy cats!” Liberty reads more than should be legal, sleeps very little, frequently writes on her belly with Sharpie markers, and when she dies, she’s leaving her body to library science. Until then, she lives with her three cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon, in Maine. She is also right behind you. Just kidding! She’s too busy reading. Twitter: @MissLiberty

View All posts by Liberty Hardy

I feel like essay collections don’t get enough credit. They’re so wonderful! They’re like short story collections, but TRUE. It’s like going to a truth buffet. You can get information about sooooo many topics, sometimes in one single book! To prove that there are a zillion amazing essay collections out there, I compiled 50 great contemporary essay collections, just from the last 18 months alone.  Ranging in topics from food, nature, politics, sex, celebrity, and more, there is something here for everyone!

I’ve included a brief description from the publisher with each title. Tell us in the comments about which of these you’ve read or other contemporary essay collections that you love. There are a LOT of them. Yay, books!

Must-Read Contemporary Essay Collections

They can’t kill us until they kill us  by hanif abdurraqib.

“In an age of confusion, fear, and loss, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s is a voice that matters. Whether he’s attending a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, or discussing public displays of affection at a Carly Rae Jepsen show, he writes with a poignancy and magnetism that resonates profoundly.”

Would Everybody Please Stop?: Reflections on Life and Other Bad Ideas  by Jenny Allen

“Jenny Allen’s musings range fluidly from the personal to the philosophical. She writes with the familiarity of someone telling a dinner party anecdote, forgoing decorum for candor and comedy. To read  Would Everybody Please Stop?  is to experience life with imaginative and incisive humor.”

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Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds  by Yemisi Aribisala

“A sumptuous menu of essays about Nigerian cuisine, lovingly presented by the nation’s top epicurean writer. As well as a mouth-watering appraisal of Nigerian food,  Longthroat Memoirs  is a series of love letters to the Nigerian palate. From the cultural history of soup, to fish as aphrodisiac and the sensual allure of snails,  Longthroat Memoirs  explores the complexities, the meticulousness, and the tactile joy of Nigerian gastronomy.”

Beyond Measure: Essays  by Rachel Z. Arndt

“ Beyond Measure  is a fascinating exploration of the rituals, routines, metrics and expectations through which we attempt to quantify and ascribe value to our lives. With mordant humor and penetrating intellect, Arndt casts her gaze beyond event-driven narratives to the machinery underlying them: judo competitions measured in weigh-ins and wait times; the significance of the elliptical’s stationary churn; the rote scripts of dating apps; the stupefying sameness of the daily commute.”

Magic Hours  by Tom Bissell

“Award-winning essayist Tom Bissell explores the highs and lows of the creative process. He takes us from the set of  The Big Bang Theory  to the first novel of Ernest Hemingway to the final work of David Foster Wallace; from the films of Werner Herzog to the film of Tommy Wiseau to the editorial meeting in which Paula Fox’s work was relaunched into the world. Originally published in magazines such as  The Believer ,  The New Yorker , and  Harper’s , these essays represent ten years of Bissell’s best writing on every aspect of creation—be it Iraq War documentaries or video-game character voices—and will provoke as much thought as they do laughter.”

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession  by Alice Bolin

“In this poignant collection, Alice Bolin examines iconic American works from the essays of Joan Didion and James Baldwin to  Twin Peaks , Britney Spears, and  Serial , illuminating the widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster men’s stories. Smart and accessible, thoughtful and heartfelt, Bolin investigates the implications of our cultural fixations, and her own role as a consumer and creator.”

Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life  by Jenny Boully

“Jenny Boully’s essays are ripe with romance and sensual pleasures, drawing connections between the digression, reflection, imagination, and experience that characterizes falling in love as well as the life of a writer. Literary theory, philosophy, and linguistics rub up against memory, dreamscapes, and fancy, making the practice of writing a metaphor for the illusory nature of experience.  Betwixt and Between  is, in many ways, simply a book about how to live.”

Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give by Ada Calhoun

“In  Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give , Ada Calhoun presents an unflinching but also loving portrait of her own marriage, opening a long-overdue conversation about the institution as it truly is: not the happy ending of a love story or a relic doomed by high divorce rates, but the beginning of a challenging new chapter of which ‘the first twenty years are the hardest.’”

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays  by Alexander Chee

“ How to Write an Autobiographical Novel  is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel,  Edinburgh , and the election of Donald Trump.”

Too Much and Not the Mood: Essays  by Durga Chew-Bose

“ Too Much and Not the Mood is a beautiful and surprising exploration of what it means to be a first-generation, creative young woman working today. On April 11, 1931, Virginia Woolf ended her entry in A Writer’s Diary with the words ‘too much and not the mood’ to describe her frustration with placating her readers, what she described as the ‘cramming in and the cutting out.’ She wondered if she had anything at all that was truly worth saying. The attitude of that sentiment inspired Durga Chew-Bose to gather own writing in this lyrical collection of poetic essays that examine personhood and artistic growth. Drawing inspiration from a diverse group of incisive and inquiring female authors, Chew-Bose captures the inner restlessness that keeps her always on the brink of creative expression.”

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy  by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“‘We were eight years in power’ was the lament of Reconstruction-era black politicians as the American experiment in multiracial democracy ended with the return of white supremacist rule in the South. In this sweeping collection of new and selected essays, Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the tragic echoes of that history in our own time: the unprecedented election of a black president followed by a vicious backlash that fueled the election of the man Coates argues is America’s ‘first white president.’”

Look Alive Out There: Essays by Sloane Crosley

“In  Look Alive Out There,  whether it’s scaling active volcanoes, crashing shivas, playing herself on  Gossip Girl,  befriending swingers, or squinting down the barrel of the fertility gun, Crosley continues to rise to the occasion with unmatchable nerve and electric one-liners. And as her subjects become more serious, her essays deliver not just laughs but lasting emotional heft and insight. Crosley has taken up the gauntlets thrown by her predecessors—Dorothy Parker, Nora Ephron, David Sedaris—and crafted something rare, affecting, and true.”

Fl â neuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London  by Lauren Elkin

“Part cultural meander, part memoir,  Flâneuse  takes us on a distinctly cosmopolitan jaunt that begins in New York, where Elkin grew up, and transports us to Paris via Venice, Tokyo, and London, all cities in which she’s lived. We are shown the paths beaten by such  flâneuses  as the cross-dressing nineteenth-century novelist George Sand, the Parisian artist Sophie Calle, the wartime correspondent Martha Gellhorn, and the writer Jean Rhys. With tenacity and insight, Elkin creates a mosaic of what urban settings have meant to women, charting through literature, art, history, and film the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes fraught relationship that women have with the metropolis.”

Idiophone  by Amy Fusselman

“Leaping from ballet to quiltmaking, from the The Nutcracker to an Annie-B Parson interview,  Idiophone  is a strikingly original meditation on risk-taking and provocation in art and a unabashedly honest, funny, and intimate consideration of art-making in the context of motherhood, and motherhood in the context of addiction. Amy Fusselman’s compact, beautifully digressive essay feels both surprising and effortless, fueled by broad-ranging curiosity, and, fundamentally, joy.”

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture  by Roxane Gay

“In this valuable and revealing anthology, cultural critic and bestselling author Roxane Gay collects original and previously published pieces that address what it means to live in a world where women have to measure the harassment, violence, and aggression they face, and where they are ‘routinely second-guessed, blown off, discredited, denigrated, besmirched, belittled, patronized, mocked, shamed, gaslit, insulted, bullied’ for speaking out.”

Sunshine State: Essays  by Sarah Gerard

“With the personal insight of  The Empathy Exams , the societal exposal of  Nickel and Dimed , and the stylistic innovation and intensity of her own break-out debut novel  Binary Star , Sarah Gerard’s  Sunshine State  uses the intimately personal to unearth the deep reservoirs of humanity buried in the corners of our world often hardest to face.”

The Art of the Wasted Day  by Patricia Hampl

“ The Art of the Wasted Day  is a picaresque travelogue of leisure written from a lifelong enchantment with solitude. Patricia Hampl visits the homes of historic exemplars of ease who made repose a goal, even an art form. She begins with two celebrated eighteenth-century Irish ladies who ran off to live a life of ‘retirement’ in rural Wales. Her search then leads to Moravia to consider the monk-geneticist, Gregor Mendel, and finally to Bordeaux for Michel Montaigne—the hero of this book—who retreated from court life to sit in his chateau tower and write about whatever passed through his mind, thus inventing the personal essay.”

A Really Big Lunch: The Roving Gourmand on Food and Life  by Jim Harrison

“Jim Harrison’s legendary gourmandise is on full display in  A Really Big Lunch . From the titular  New Yorker  piece about a French lunch that went to thirty-seven courses, to pieces from  Brick ,  Playboy , Kermit Lynch Newsletter, and more on the relationship between hunter and prey, or the obscure language of wine reviews,  A Really Big Lunch  is shot through with Harrison’s pointed aperçus and keen delight in the pleasures of the senses. And between the lines the pieces give glimpses of Harrison’s life over the last three decades.  A Really Big Lunch  is a literary delight that will satisfy every appetite.”

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me  by Bill Hayes

“Bill Hayes came to New York City in 2009 with a one-way ticket and only the vaguest idea of how he would get by. But, at forty-eight years old, having spent decades in San Francisco, he craved change. Grieving over the death of his partner, he quickly discovered the profound consolations of the city’s incessant rhythms, the sight of the Empire State Building against the night sky, and New Yorkers themselves, kindred souls that Hayes, a lifelong insomniac, encountered on late-night strolls with his camera.”

Would You Rather?: A Memoir of Growing Up and Coming Out  by Katie Heaney

“Here, for the first time, Katie opens up about realizing at the age of twenty-eight that she is gay. In these poignant, funny essays, she wrestles with her shifting sexuality and identity, and describes what it was like coming out to everyone she knows (and everyone she doesn’t). As she revisits her past, looking for any ‘clues’ that might have predicted this outcome, Katie reveals that life doesn’t always move directly from point A to point B—no matter how much we would like it to.”

Tonight I’m Someone Else: Essays  by Chelsea Hodson

“From graffiti gangs and  Grand Theft Auto  to sugar daddies, Schopenhauer, and a deadly game of Russian roulette, in these essays, Chelsea Hodson probes her own desires to examine where the physical and the proprietary collide. She asks what our privacy, our intimacy, and our own bodies are worth in the increasingly digital world of liking, linking, and sharing.”

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.: Essays  by Samantha Irby

“With  We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. , ‘bitches gotta eat’ blogger and comedian Samantha Irby turns the serio-comic essay into an art form. Whether talking about how her difficult childhood has led to a problem in making ‘adult’ budgets, explaining why she should be the new Bachelorette—she’s ’35-ish, but could easily pass for 60-something’—detailing a disastrous pilgrimage-slash-romantic-vacation to Nashville to scatter her estranged father’s ashes, sharing awkward sexual encounters, or dispensing advice on how to navigate friendships with former drinking buddies who are now suburban moms—hang in there for the Costco loot—she’s as deft at poking fun at the ghosts of her past self as she is at capturing powerful emotional truths.”

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America  by Morgan Jerkins

“Doubly disenfranchised by race and gender, often deprived of a place within the mostly white mainstream feminist movement, black women are objectified, silenced, and marginalized with devastating consequences, in ways both obvious and subtle, that are rarely acknowledged in our country’s larger discussion about inequality. In  This Will Be My Undoing , Jerkins becomes both narrator and subject to expose the social, cultural, and historical story of black female oppression that influences the black community as well as the white, male-dominated world at large.”

Everywhere Home: A Life in Essays  by Fenton Johnson

“Part retrospective, part memoir, Fenton Johnson’s collection  Everywhere Home: A Life in Essays  explores sexuality, religion, geography, the AIDS crisis, and more. Johnson’s wanderings take him from the hills of Kentucky to those of San Francisco, from the streets of Paris to the sidewalks of Calcutta. Along the way, he investigates questions large and small: What’s the relationship between artists and museums, illuminated in a New Guinean display of shrunken heads? What’s the difference between empiricism and intuition?”

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays  by Scaachi Koul

“In  One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter , Scaachi Koul deploys her razor-sharp humor to share all the fears, outrages, and mortifying moments of her life. She learned from an early age what made her miserable, and for Scaachi anything can be cause for despair. Whether it’s a shopping trip gone awry; enduring awkward conversations with her bikini waxer; overcoming her fear of flying while vacationing halfway around the world; dealing with Internet trolls, or navigating the fears and anxieties of her parents. Alongside these personal stories are pointed observations about life as a woman of color: where every aspect of her appearance is open for critique, derision, or outright scorn; where strict gender rules bind in both Western and Indian cultures, leaving little room for a woman not solely focused on marriage and children to have a career (and a life) for herself.”

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions  by Valeria Luiselli and jon lee anderson (translator)

“A damning confrontation between the American dream and the reality of undocumented children seeking a new life in the U.S. Structured around the 40 questions Luiselli translates and asks undocumented Latin American children facing deportation,  Tell Me How It Ends  (an expansion of her 2016 Freeman’s essay of the same name) humanizes these young migrants and highlights the contradiction between the idea of America as a fiction for immigrants and the reality of racism and fear—both here and back home.”

All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers  by Alana Massey

“Mixing Didion’s affected cool with moments of giddy celebrity worship, Massey examines the lives of the women who reflect our greatest aspirations and darkest fears back onto us. These essays are personal without being confessional and clever in a way that invites readers into the joke. A cultural critique and a finely wrought fan letter, interwoven with stories that are achingly personal, All the Lives I Want is also an exploration of mental illness, the sex industry, and the dangers of loving too hard.”

Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish: Essays  by Tom McCarthy

“Certain points of reference recur with dreamlike insistence—among them the artist Ed Ruscha’s  Royal Road Test , a photographic documentation of the roadside debris of a Royal typewriter hurled from the window of a traveling car; the great blooms of jellyfish that are filling the oceans and gumming up the machinery of commerce and military domination—and the question throughout is: How can art explode the restraining conventions of so-called realism, whether aesthetic or political, to engage in the active reinvention of the world?”

Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America  by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding

“When 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump and 94 percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton, how can women unite in Trump’s America? Nasty Women includes inspiring essays from a diverse group of talented women writers who seek to provide a broad look at how we got here and what we need to do to move forward.”

Don’t Call Me Princess: Essays on Girls, Women, Sex, and Life  by Peggy Orenstein

“Named one of the ’40 women who changed the media business in the last 40 years’ by  Columbia Journalism Review , Peggy Orenstein is one of the most prominent, unflinching feminist voices of our time. Her writing has broken ground and broken silences on topics as wide-ranging as miscarriage, motherhood, breast cancer, princess culture and the importance of girls’ sexual pleasure. Her unique blend of investigative reporting, personal revelation and unexpected humor has made her books bestselling classics.”

When You Find Out the World Is Against You: And Other Funny Memories About Awful Moments  by Kelly Oxford

“Kelly Oxford likes to blow up the internet. Whether it is with the kind of Tweets that lead  Rolling Stone  to name her one of the Funniest People on Twitter or with pictures of her hilariously adorable family (human and animal) or with something much more serious, like creating the hashtag #NotOkay, where millions of women came together to share their stories of sexual assault, Kelly has a unique, razor-sharp perspective on modern life. As a screen writer, professional sh*t disturber, wife and mother of three, Kelly is about everything but the status quo.”

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman  by Anne Helen Petersen

“You know the type: the woman who won’t shut up, who’s too brazen, too opinionated—too much. She’s the unruly woman, and she embodies one of the most provocative and powerful forms of womanhood today. In  Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud , Anne Helen Petersen uses the lens of ‘unruliness’ to explore the ascension of pop culture powerhouses like Lena Dunham, Nicki Minaj, and Kim Kardashian, exploring why the public loves to love (and hate) these controversial figures. With its brisk, incisive analysis,  Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud  will be a conversation-starting book on what makes and breaks celebrity today.”

Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist  by Franchesca Ramsey

“In her first book, Ramsey uses her own experiences as an accidental activist to explore the many ways we communicate with each other—from the highs of bridging gaps and making connections to the many pitfalls that accompany talking about race, power, sexuality, and gender in an unpredictable public space…the internet.”

Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls  by Elizabeth Renzetti

“Drawing upon Renzetti’s decades of reporting on feminist issues,  Shrewed  is a book about feminism’s crossroads. From Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign to the quest for equal pay, from the lessons we can learn from old ladies to the future of feminism in a turbulent world, Renzetti takes a pointed, witty look at how far we’ve come—and how far we have to go.”

What Are We Doing Here?: Essays  by Marilynne Robinson

“In this new essay collection she trains her incisive mind on our modern political climate and the mysteries of faith. Whether she is investigating how the work of great thinkers about America like Emerson and Tocqueville inform our political consciousness or discussing the way that beauty informs and disciplines daily life, Robinson’s peerless prose and boundless humanity are on full display.”

Double Bind: Women on Ambition  by Robin Romm

“‘A work of courage and ferocious honesty’ (Diana Abu-Jaber),  Double Bind  could not come at a more urgent time. Even as major figures from Gloria Steinem to Beyoncé embrace the word ‘feminism,’ the word ‘ambition’ remains loaded with ambivalence. Many women see it as synonymous with strident or aggressive, yet most feel compelled to strive and achieve—the seeming contradiction leaving them in a perpetual double bind. Ayana Mathis, Molly Ringwald, Roxane Gay, and a constellation of ‘nimble thinkers . . . dismantle this maddening paradox’ ( O, The Oprah Magazine ) with candor, wit, and rage. Women who have made landmark achievements in fields as diverse as law, dog sledding, and butchery weigh in, breaking the last feminist taboo once and for all.”

The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life  by Richard Russo

“In these nine essays, Richard Russo provides insight into his life as a writer, teacher, friend, and reader. From a commencement speech he gave at Colby College, to the story of how an oddly placed toilet made him reevaluate the purpose of humor in art and life, to a comprehensive analysis of Mark Twain’s value, to his harrowing journey accompanying a dear friend as she pursued gender-reassignment surgery,  The Destiny Thief  reflects the broad interests and experiences of one of America’s most beloved authors. Warm, funny, wise, and poignant, the essays included here traverse Russo’s writing life, expanding our understanding of who he is and how his singular, incredibly generous mind works. An utter joy to read, they give deep insight into the creative process from the prospective of one of our greatest writers.”

Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race by Naben Ruthnum

“Curry is a dish that doesn’t quite exist, but, as this wildly funny and sharp essay points out, a dish that doesn’t properly exist can have infinite, equally authentic variations. By grappling with novels, recipes, travelogues, pop culture, and his own upbringing, Naben Ruthnum depicts how the distinctive taste of curry has often become maladroit shorthand for brown identity. With the sardonic wit of Gita Mehta’s  Karma Cola  and the refined, obsessive palette of Bill Buford’s  Heat , Ruthnum sinks his teeth into the story of how the beloved flavor calcified into an aesthetic genre that limits the imaginations of writers, readers, and eaters.”

The River of Consciousness  by Oliver Sacks

“Sacks, an Oxford-educated polymath, had a deep familiarity not only with literature and medicine but with botany, animal anatomy, chemistry, the history of science, philosophy, and psychology.  The River of Consciousness  is one of two books Sacks was working on up to his death, and it reveals his ability to make unexpected connections, his sheer joy in knowledge, and his unceasing, timeless project to understand what makes us human.”

All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World: Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom (Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God)  by Deborah Santana and America Ferrera

“ All the Women in My Family Sing  is an anthology documenting the experiences of women of color at the dawn of the twenty-first century. It is a vital collection of prose and poetry whose topics range from the pressures of being the vice-president of a Fortune 500 Company, to escaping the killing fields of Cambodia, to the struggles inside immigration, identity, romance, and self-worth. These brief, trenchant essays capture the aspirations and wisdom of women of color as they exercise autonomy, creativity, and dignity and build bridges to heal the brokenness in today’s turbulent world.”

We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America  by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page

“For some, ‘passing’ means opportunity, access, or safety. Others don’t willingly pass but are ‘passed’ in specific situations by someone else.  We Wear the Mask , edited by  Brando Skyhorse  and  Lisa Page , is an illuminating and timely anthology that examines the complex reality of passing in America. Skyhorse, a Mexican American, writes about how his mother passed him as an American Indian before he learned who he really is. Page shares how her white mother didn’t tell friends about her black ex-husband or that her children were, in fact, biracial.”

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith

“Since she burst spectacularly into view with her debut novel almost two decades ago, Zadie Smith has established herself not just as one of the world’s preeminent fiction writers, but also a brilliant and singular essayist. She contributes regularly to  The New Yorker  and the  New York Review of Books  on a range of subjects, and each piece of hers is a literary event in its own right.”

The Mother of All Questions: Further Reports from the Feminist Revolutions  by Rebecca Solnit

“In a timely follow-up to her national bestseller  Men Explain Things to Me , Rebecca Solnit offers indispensable commentary on women who refuse to be silenced, misogynistic violence, the fragile masculinity of the literary canon, the gender binary, the recent history of rape jokes, and much more. In characteristic style, Solnit mixes humor, keen analysis, and powerful insight in these essays.”

The Wrong Way to Save Your Life: Essays  by Megan Stielstra

“Whether she’s imagining the implications of open-carry laws on college campuses, recounting the story of going underwater on the mortgage of her first home, or revealing the unexpected pains and joys of marriage and motherhood, Stielstra’s work informs, impels, enlightens, and embraces us all. The result is something beautiful—this story, her courage, and, potentially, our own.”

Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms  by Michelle Tea

“Delivered with her signature honesty and dark humor, this is Tea’s first-ever collection of journalistic writing. As she blurs the line between telling other people’s stories and her own, she turns an investigative eye to the genre that’s nurtured her entire career—memoir—and considers the price that art demands be paid from life.”

A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause  by Shawn Wen

“In precise, jewel-like scenes and vignettes,  A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause  pays homage to the singular genius of a mostly-forgotten art form. Drawing on interviews, archival research, and meticulously observed performances, Wen translates the gestural language of mime into a lyric written portrait by turns whimsical, melancholic, and haunting.”

Acid West: Essays  by Joshua Wheeler

“The radical evolution of American identity, from cowboys to drone warriors to space explorers, is a story rooted in southern New Mexico.  Acid West  illuminates this history, clawing at the bounds of genre to reveal a place that is, for better or worse, home. By turns intimate, absurd, and frightening,  Acid West  is an enlightening deep-dive into a prophetic desert at the bottom of America.”

Sexographies  by Gabriela Wiener and Lucy Greaves And jennifer adcock (Translators)

“In fierce and sumptuous first-person accounts, renowned Peruvian journalist Gabriela Wiener records infiltrating the most dangerous Peruvian prison, participating in sexual exchanges in swingers clubs, traveling the dark paths of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris in the company of transvestites and prostitutes, undergoing a complicated process of egg donation, and participating in a ritual of ayahuasca ingestion in the Amazon jungle—all while taking us on inward journeys that explore immigration, maternity, fear of death, ugliness, and threesomes. Fortunately, our eagle-eyed voyeur emerges from her narrative forays unscathed and ready to take on the kinks, obsessions, and messiness of our lives.  Sexographies  is an eye-opening, kamikaze journey across the contours of the human body and mind.”

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative  by Florence Williams

“From forest trails in Korea, to islands in Finland, to eucalyptus groves in California, Florence Williams investigates the science behind nature’s positive effects on the brain. Delving into brand-new research, she uncovers the powers of the natural world to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and strengthen our relationships. As our modern lives shift dramatically indoors, these ideas—and the answers they yield—are more urgent than ever.”

Can You Tolerate This?: Essays  by Ashleigh Young

“ Can You Tolerate This?  presents a vivid self-portrait of an introspective yet widely curious young woman, the colorful, isolated community in which she comes of age, and the uneasy tensions—between safety and risk, love and solitude, the catharsis of grief and the ecstasy of creation—that define our lives.”

What are your favorite contemporary essay collections?

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Presidents Day is observed annually on the third Monday of February. This year, it falls on Monday, February 19 . Since the latest date a third Monday of February can fall on is the 21st, ironically, Presidents Day is never observed on the day it commemorates, which is George Washington's birthday on February 22.

What is Presidents Day?

In moving the date away from George Washington’s birthday, many have begun using the day to honor other presidents as well, including Abraham Lincoln, in particular, whose February 12th birthday can actually fall on Presidents Day. This push to use the day to observe both presidents' birthdays is where the colloquial name "Presidents Day" comes from.

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How To Write The Perfect Essay

Jan 12, 2024 Blog Articles , English Language Articles , Humanities Articles , Law Articles , Politics Articles , Writing Articles

If you decide to study English or a subject within Arts and Humanities at university, it’s going to involve a lot of essay writing. It’s a challenging skill to master because it requires both creativity and logical planning, but if you ensure you do the following whenever you write an essay, you should be on the way to success. This skill is also a key focus in our Oxford Summer Courses , where essay writing is honed to perfection.

Table of Contents

This may sound time-consuming, but if you make a really good plan you will actually save yourself time when it comes to writing the essay, as you’ll know where your answer is headed and won’t write yourself into a corner. Don’t worry if you’re stuck at first – jot down a few ideas anyway and chances are the rest will follow. I find it easiest to make a mind map, with each new ‘bubble’ representing one of my main paragraphs. I then write quotations which will be useful for my analysis around the bubble.

For example, if I was answering the question, ‘ To what extent is Curley’s wife portrayed as a victim in Of Mice and Men ? ’ I might begin a mind map which looks something like this:

An example mind map for writing an essay

Y ou can keep adding to this plan, crossing bits out and linking the different bubbles when you spot connections between them. Even though you won’t have time to make such a detailed plan under exam conditions, it can be helpful just to sketch a brief one, including a few key words, so that you don’t panic and go off topic when writing your essay. If you don’t like the mind map format, there are plenty of others to choose from: you could make a table, a flowchart, or simply a list of bullet points.

2. Have a clear structure

Think about this while you are planning. Your essay is like an argument or a speech – it needs to have a logical structure, with all your points coming together to answer the question. Start with the basics: it is best to choose a few major points which will become your main paragraphs. Three main paragraphs is a good number for an exam essay, since you will be under time pressure. Organise your points in a pattern of YES (agreement with the question) – AND (another ‘YES’ point) – BUT (disagreement or complication) if you agree with the question overall, or YES – BUT – AND if you disagree. This will ensure that you are always focused on your argument and don’t stray too far from the question.

For example, you could structure the Of Mice and Men sample question as follows:  

‘To what extent is Curley’s wife portrayed as a victim in Of Mice and Men?’

  • YES – descriptions of her appearance
  • AND – other people’s attitudes towards her
  • BUT – her position as the only woman on the ranch gives her power as she uses her femininity to advantage

If you wanted to write a longer essay, you could include additional paragraphs under the ‘YES/AND’ category, perhaps discussing the ways in which Curley’s wife reveals her vulnerability and insecurities and shares her dreams with the other characters; on the other hand, you could also lengthen your essay by including another ‘BUT’ paragraph about her cruel and manipulative streak.

Of course, this is not necessarily the only right way to answer this essay question: as long as you back up your points with evidence from the text, you can take any standpoint that makes sense.

3. Back up your points with well-analysed quotations

You wouldn’t write a scientific report without including evidence to support your findings, so why should it be any different with an essay? Even though you aren’t strictly required to substantiate every single point you make with a quotation, there’s no harm in trying. A close reading of your quotations can enrich your appreciation of the question and will be sure to impress examiners.</spanWhen selecting the best quotations to use in your essay, keep an eye out for specific literary techniques. For example, you could discuss Curley’s wife’s use of a rhetorical question when she says, ‘An’ what am I doin’? Standin’ here talking to a bunch of bindle stiffs’:

The rhetorical question “An’ what am I doin’?” signifies that Curley’s wife is very insecure; she seems to be questioning her own life choices. Moreover, the fact that she does not expect anyone to respond to her question highlights her loneliness.

Other literary techniques to look out for include:

  • Tricolon – a group of three words or phrases placed close together for emphasis
  • Tautology – using different words that mean the same thing, eg ‘frightening’ and ‘terrifying’
  • Parallelism – ABAB structure; often signifies movement from one concept to another
  • Chiasmus – ABBA structure; draws attention to that phrase
  • Polysyndeton – many conjunctions in a sentence
  • Asyndeton – lack of conjunctions; can speed up the pace of a sentence
  • Polyptoton – using the same word in different forms for emphasis, eg ‘done’ and ‘doing’
  • Alliteration – repetition of the same sound; different forms of alliteration include assonance (similar vowel sounds), plosive alliteration (‘b’, ‘d’ and ‘p’ sounds) and sibilance (‘s’ sounds)
  • Anaphora – repetition of words; often used to emphasise a particular point

Don’t worry if you can’t locate all of these literary devices in the work you’re analysing – you can also discuss more obvious effects, like metaphor, simile and onomatopoeia. It’s not a problem if you can’t remember all the long names – it’s far more important to explain the effect of the literary techniques and their relevance to the question than to use the correct terminology.

4. Be  creative and original right the way through

Anyone can write an essay using the tips above, but the thing that really makes it ‘perfect’ is your own unique take on the topic you’re discussing. If you’ve noticed something intriguing or unusual in your reading, point it out: if you find it interesting, chances are the examiner will too.

Creative writing and essay writing are more closely linked than you might imagine; keep the idea that you’re writing a speech or argument in mind, and you’re guaranteed to grab your reader’s attention.

It’s important to set out your line of argument in your introduction, introducing your main points and the general direction your essay will take, but don’t forget to keep something back for the conclusion, too. Yes, you need to summarise your main points, but if you’re just repeating the things you said in your introduction, the essay itself is rendered pointless.

Think of your conclusion as the climax of your speech, the bit everything else has been leading up to, rather than the boring plenary at the end of the interesting stuff.

To return to Of Mice and Men once more, here is an example of the ideal difference between an introduction and a conclusion:

Introduction:

In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men , Curley’s wife is portrayed as an ambiguous character. She could be viewed either as a cruel, seductive temptress or a lonely woman who is a victim of her society’s attitudes. Though she does seem to wield a form of sexual power, it is clear that Curley’s wife is largely a victim. This interpretation is supported by Steinbeck’s description of her appearance, other people’s attitudes, her dreams, and her evident loneliness and insecurity.

Conclusion:

Overall, it is clear that Curley’s wife is a victim and is portrayed as such throughout the novel, in the descriptions of her appearance, her dreams, other people’s judgemental attitudes, and her loneliness and insecurities. However, a character who was a victim and nothing else would be one-dimensional and Curley’s wife is not. Although she suffers in many ways, she is shown to assert herself through the manipulation of her femininity – a small rebellion against the victimisation she experiences.

Both refer back consistently to the question and summarise the essay’s main points; however, the conclusion adds something new which has been established in the main body of the essay and yet complicates the simple summary which is found in the introduction.

To summarise:

  • Start by writing a thorough plan
  • Ensure your essay has a clear structure and overall argument
  • Try to back up each point you make with a quotation
  • Answer the question in your introduction and conclusion but remember to be creative too

Next Steps for Aspiring English Students

  • Challenge yourself and test your writing skills by signing up for top essay writing competitions , like the annual OxBright essay competition .
  • Start a book club or joining an existing one. This can provide a platform to discuss and analyze writing styles, themes, and authors, enhancing your understanding and appreciation of literature. It’s also a great way to get different perspectives on the same work, which can be invaluable in developing critical thinking and analytical skills.
  • Want to write for a living? Read our blog post on How to Become a Writer
  • Prepare for university and experience what it’s like studying on the Oxford University campus in one of our Oxford Summer Schools , like our Oxford writing program .

Want to learn more skills for academic success?

Summer Courses at the Oxford Scholastica Academy combine hands-on learning experiences with stimulating teaching and masterclasses, for an unforgettable summer amongst students from around the world.

Hannah Patient

Hannah Patient

Literature Editor

Hannah is an undergraduate English student at Somerville College, Oxford, and has a particular interest in postcolonial literature and the Gothic. She thinks literature is a crucial way of developing empathy and learning about the wider world, and is excited to be Scholastica Inspires’ Literature Editor! When she isn’t writing essays about 17th-century court masques, she enjoys acting, travelling and creative writing.

Rafal Reyzer

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40 Best Essays of All Time (Including Links & Writing Tips)

Author: Rafal Reyzer

I wanted to improve my writing skills. I thought that reading the forty best essays of all time would bring me closer to my goal.

I had little money (buying forty collections of essays was out of the question) so I’ve found them online instead. I’ve hacked through piles of them, and finally, I’ve found the great ones. Now I want to share the whole list with you (with the addition of my notes about writing). Each item on the list has a direct link to the essay, so please click away and indulge yourself. Also, next to each essay, there’s an image of the book that contains the original work.

About this essay list:

Reading essays is like indulging in candy; once you start, it’s hard to stop. I sought out essays that were not only well-crafted but also impactful. These pieces genuinely shifted my perspective. Whether you’re diving in for enjoyment or to hone your writing, these essays promise to leave an imprint. It’s fascinating how an essay can resonate with you, and even if details fade, its essence remains. I haven’t ranked them in any way; they’re all stellar. Skim through, explore the summaries, and pick up some writing tips along the way. For more essay gems, consider “Best American Essays” by Joyce Carol Oates or “101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think” curated by Brianna Wiest.

George Orwell Typing

40 Best Essays of All Time (With Links And Writing Tips)

1. david sedaris – laugh, kookaburra.

david sedaris - the best of me essay collection

A great family drama takes place against the backdrop of the Australian wilderness. And the Kookaburra laughs… This is one of the top essays of the lot. It’s a great mixture of family reminiscences, travel writing, and advice on what’s most important in life. You’ll also learn an awful lot about the curious culture of the Aussies.

Writing tips from the essay:

  • Use analogies (you can make it funny or dramatic to achieve a better effect): “Don’t be afraid,” the waiter said, and he talked to the kookaburra in a soothing, respectful voice, the way you might to a child with a switchblade in his hand”.
  • You can touch a few cognate stories in one piece of writing . Reveal the layers gradually. Intertwine them and arrange for a grand finale where everything is finally clear.
  • Be on the side of the reader. Become their friend and tell the story naturally, like around the dinner table.
  • Use short, punchy sentences. Tell only as much as is required to make your point vivid.
  • Conjure sentences that create actual feelings: “I had on a sweater and a jacket, but they weren’t quite enough, and I shivered as we walked toward the body, and saw that it was a . . . what, exactly?”
  • You may ask a few tough questions in a row to provoke interest and let the reader think.

2. Charles D’Ambrosio – Documents

Charles D'Ambrosio - Loitering - New and Collected Essays

Do you think your life punches you in the face all too often? After reading this essay, you will change your mind. Reading about loss and hardships often makes us sad at first, but then enables us to feel grateful for our lives . D’Ambrosio shares his documents (poems, letters) that had a major impact on his life, and brilliantly shows how not to let go of the past.

  • The most powerful stories are about your family and the childhood moments that shaped your life.
  • You don’t need to build up tension and pussyfoot around the crux of the matter. Instead, surprise the reader by telling it like it is: “The poem was an allegory about his desire to leave our family.” Or: “My father had three sons. I’m the eldest; Danny, the youngest, killed himself sixteen years ago”.
  • You can use real documents and quotes from your family and friends. It makes it so much more personal and relatable.
  • Don’t cringe before the long sentence if you know it’s a strong one.
  • At the end of the essay, you may come back to the first theme to close the circuit.
  • Using slightly poetic language is acceptable, as long as it improves the story.

3. E. B. White – Once more to the lake

E.B. White - Essays

What does it mean to be a father? Can you see your younger self, reflected in your child? This beautiful essay tells the story of the author, his son, and their traditional stay at a placid lake hidden within the forests of Maine. This place of nature is filled with sunshine and childhood memories. It also provides for one of the greatest meditations on nature and the passing of time.

  • Use sophisticated language, but not at the expense of readability.
  • Use vivid language to trigger the mirror neurons in the reader’s brain: “I took along my son, who had never had any fresh water up his nose and who had seen lily pads only from train windows”.
  • It’s important to mention universal feelings that are rarely talked about (it helps to create a bond between two minds): “You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing. I guess I remembered clearest of all the early mornings when the lake was cool and motionless”.
  • Animate the inanimate: “this constant and trustworthy body of water”.
  • Mentioning tales of yore is a good way to add some mystery and timelessness to your piece.
  • Using double, or even triple “and” in one sentence is fine. It can make the sentence sing.

4. Zadie Smith – Fail Better

Zadie Smith - Changing My Mind

Aspiring writers feel tremendous pressure to perform. The daily quota of words often turns out to be nothing more than gibberish. What then? Also, should the writer please the reader or should she be fully independent? What does it mean to be a writer, anyway? This essay is an attempt to answer these questions, but its contents are not only meant for scribblers. Within it, you’ll find some great notes about literary criticism, how we treat art , and the responsibility of the reader.

  • A perfect novel ? There’s no such thing.
  • The novel always reflects the inner world of the writer. That’s why we’re fascinated with writers.
  • Writing is not simply about craftsmanship, but about taking your reader to the unknown lands. In the words of Christopher Hitchens: “Your ideal authors ought to pull you from the foundering of your previous existence, not smilingly guide you into a friendly and peaceable harbor.”
  • Style comes from your unique personality and the perception of the world. It takes time to develop it.
  • Never try to tell it all. “All” can never be put into language. Take a part of it and tell it the best you can.
  • Avoid being cliché. Try to infuse new life into your writing .
  • Writing is about your way of being. It’s your game. Paradoxically, if you try to please everyone, your writing will become less appealing. You’ll lose the interest of the readers. This rule doesn’t apply in the business world where you have to write for a specific person (a target audience).
  • As a reader, you have responsibilities too. According to the critics, every thirty years, there’s just a handful of great novels. Maybe it’s true. But there’s also an element of personal connection between the reader and the writer. That’s why for one person a novel is a marvel, while for the other, nothing special at all. That’s why you have to search and find the author who will touch you.

5. Virginia Woolf – Death of the Moth

Virginia Woolf - Essays

Amid an ordinary day, sitting in a room of her own, Virginia Woolf tells about the epic struggle for survival and the evanescence of life. This short essay is truly powerful. In the beginning, the atmosphere is happy. Life is in full force. And then, suddenly, it fades away. This sense of melancholy would mark the last years of Woolf’s life.

  • The melody of language… A good sentence is like music: “Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow- underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us”.
  • You can show the grandest in the mundane (for example, the moth at your window and the drama of life and death).
  • Using simple comparisons makes the style more lucid: “Being intent on other matters I watched these futile attempts for a time without thinking, unconsciously waiting for him to resume his flight, as one waits for a machine, that has stopped momentarily, to start again without considering the reason of its failure”.

6. Meghan Daum – My Misspent Youth

Meghan Daum - My Misspent Youth - Essays

Many of us, at some point or another, dream about living in New York. Meghan Daum’s take on the subject differs slightly from what you might expect. There’s no glamour, no Broadway shows, and no fancy restaurants. Instead, there’s the sullen reality of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. You’ll get all the juicy details about credit cards, overdue payments, and scrambling for survival. It’s a word of warning. But it’s also a great story about shattered fantasies of living in a big city. Word on the street is: “You ain’t promised mañana in the rotten manzana.”

  • You can paint a picture of your former self. What did that person believe in? What kind of world did he or she live in?
  • “The day that turned your life around” is a good theme you may use in a story. Memories of a special day are filled with emotions. Strong emotions often breed strong writing.
  • Use cultural references and relevant slang to create a context for your story.
  • You can tell all the details of the story, even if in some people’s eyes you’ll look like the dumbest motherfucker that ever lived. It adds to the originality.
  • Say it in a new way: “In this mindset, the dollars spent, like the mechanics of a machine no one bothers to understand, become an abstraction, an intangible avenue toward self-expression, a mere vehicle of style”.
  • You can mix your personal story with the zeitgeist or the ethos of the time.

7. Roger Ebert – Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Roger Ebert - The Great Movies

Probably the greatest film critic of all time, Roger Ebert, tells us not to rage against the dying of the light. This essay is full of courage, erudition, and humanism. From it, we learn about what it means to be dying (Hitchens’ “Mortality” is another great work on that theme). But there’s so much more. It’s a great celebration of life too. It’s about not giving up, and sticking to your principles until the very end. It brings to mind the famous scene from Dead Poets Society where John Keating (Robin Williams) tells his students: “Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary”.

  • Start with a powerful sentence: “I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear.”
  • Use quotes to prove your point -”‘Ask someone how they feel about death’, he said, ‘and they’ll tell you everyone’s gonna die’. Ask them, ‘In the next 30 seconds?’ No, no, no, that’s not gonna happen”.
  • Admit the basic truths about reality in a childlike way (especially after pondering quantum physics) – “I believe my wristwatch exists, and even when I am unconscious, it is ticking all the same. You have to start somewhere”.
  • Let other thinkers prove your point. Use quotes and ideas from your favorite authors and friends.

8. George Orwell – Shooting an Elephant

George Orwell - A collection of Essays

Even after one reading, you’ll remember this one for years. The story, set in British Burma, is about shooting an elephant (it’s not for the squeamish). It’s also the most powerful denunciation of colonialism ever put into writing. Orwell, apparently a free representative of British rule, feels to be nothing more than a puppet succumbing to the whim of the mob.

  • The first sentence is the most important one: “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me”.
  • You can use just the first paragraph to set the stage for the whole piece of prose.
  • Use beautiful language that stirs the imagination: “I remember that it was a cloudy, stuffy morning at the beginning of the rains.” Or: “I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have.”
  • If you’ve ever been to war, you will have a story to tell: “(Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have seen looked devilish.)”
  • Use simple words, and admit the sad truth only you can perceive: “They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching”.
  • Share words of wisdom to add texture to the writing: “I perceived at this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his freedom that he destroys.”
  • I highly recommend reading everything written by Orwell, especially if you’re looking for the best essay collections on Amazon or Goodreads.

9. George Orwell – A Hanging

George Orwell - Essays

It’s just another day in Burma – time to hang a man. Without much ado, Orwell recounts the grim reality of taking another person’s life. A man is taken from his cage and in a few minutes, he’s going to be hanged. The most horrible thing is the normality of it. It’s a powerful story about human nature. Also, there’s an extraordinary incident with the dog, but I won’t get ahead of myself.

  • Create brilliant, yet short descriptions of characters: “He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, sprouting mustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the mustache of a comic man on the films”.
  • Understand and share the felt presence of a unique experience: “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man”.
  • Make your readers hear the sound that will stay with them forever: “And then when the noose was fixed, the prisoner began crying out on his god. It was a high, reiterated cry of “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”
  • Make the ending original by refusing the tendency to seek closure or summing it up.

10. Christopher Hitchens – Assassins of The Mind

Christopher Hitchens - Arguably - Essays

In one of the greatest essays written in defense of free speech, Christopher Hitchens shares many examples of how modern media kneel to the explicit threats of violence posed by Islamic extremists. He recounts the story of his friend, Salman Rushdie, author of Satanic Verses who, for many years, had to watch over his shoulder because of the fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini. With his usual wit, Hitchens shares various examples of people who died because of their opinions and of editors who refuse to publish anything related to Islam because of fear (and it was written long before the Charlie Hebdo massacre). After reading the essay, you realize that freedom of expression is one of the most precious things we have and that we have to fight for it. I highly recommend all essay collections penned by Hitchens, especially the ones written for Vanity Fair.

  • Assume that the readers will know the cultural references. When they do, their self-esteem goes up – they are a part of an insider group.
  • When proving your point, give a variety of real-life examples from eclectic sources. Leave no room for ambiguity or vagueness. Research and overall knowledge are essential here.
  • Use italics to emphasize a specific word or phrase (here I use the underlining): “We live now in a climate where every publisher and editor and politician has to weigh in advance the possibility of violent Muslim reprisal. In consequence, several things have not happened.”
  • Think about how to make it sound more original: “So there is now a hidden partner in our cultural and academic and publishing and the broadcasting world: a shadowy figure that has, uninvited, drawn up a chair to the table.”

11. Christopher Hitchens – The New Commandments

Christopher Hitchens - Essays

It’s high time to shatter the tablets and amend the biblical rules of conduct. Watch, as Christopher Hitchens slays one commandment after the other on moral, as well as historical grounds. For example, did you know that there are many versions of the divine law dictated by God to Moses which you can find in the Bible? Aren’t we thus empowered to write our version of a proper moral code? If you approach it with an open mind, this essay may change the way you think about the Bible and religion.

  • Take the iconoclastic approach. Have a party on the hallowed soil.
  • Use humor to undermine orthodox ideas (it seems to be the best way to deal with an established authority).
  • Use sarcasm and irony when appropriate (or not): “Nobody is opposed to a day of rest. The international Communist movement got its start by proclaiming a strike for an eight-hour day on May 1, 1886, against Christian employers who used child labor seven days a week”.
  • Defeat God on legal grounds: “Wise lawmakers know that it is a mistake to promulgate legislation that is impossible to obey”.
  • Be ruthless in the logic of your argument. Provide evidence.

12. Phillip Lopate – Against Joie de Vivre

Philip Lopate - The Art Of Personal Essay

While reading this fantastic essay, this quote from Slavoj Žižek kept coming back to me: “I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves”. I can bear the onus of happiness or joie de vivre for some time. But this force enables me to get free and wallow in the sweet feelings of melancholy and nostalgia. By reading this work of Lopate, you’ll enter into the world of an intelligent man who finds most social rituals a drag. It’s worth exploring.

  • Go against the grain. Be flamboyant and controversial (if you can handle it).
  • Treat the paragraph like a group of thoughts on one theme. Next paragraph, next theme.
  • Use references to other artists to set the context and enrich the prose: “These sunny little canvases with their talented innocence, the third-generation spirit of Montmartre, bore testimony to a love of life so unbending as to leave an impression of rigid narrow-mindedness as extreme as any Savonarola. Their rejection of sorrow was total”.
  • Capture the emotions in life that are universal, yet remain unspoken.
  • Don’t be afraid to share your intimate experiences.

13. Philip Larkin – The Pleasure Principle

Philip Larkin - Jazz Writings, and other essays

This piece comes from the Required Writing collection of personal essays. Larkin argues that reading in verse should be a source of intimate pleasure – not a medley of unintelligible thoughts that only the author can (or can’t?) decipher. It’s a sobering take on modern poetry and a great call to action for all those involved in it. Well worth a read.

  • Write about complicated ideas (such as poetry) simply. You can change how people look at things if you express yourself enough.
  • Go boldly. The reader wants a bold writer: “We seem to be producing a new kind of bad poetry, not the old kind that tries to move the reader and fails, but one that does not even try”.
  • Play with words and sentence length. Create music: “It is time some of you playboys realized, says the judge, that reading a poem is hard work. Fourteen days in stir. Next case”.
  • Persuade the reader to take action. Here, direct language is the most effective.

14. Sigmund Freud – Thoughts for the Times on War and Death

Sigmund Freud - On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia

This essay reveals Freud’s disillusionment with the whole project of Western civilization. How the peaceful European countries could engage in a war that would eventually cost over 17 million lives? What stirs people to kill each other? Is it their nature, or are they puppets of imperial forces with agendas of their own? From the perspective of time, this work by Freud doesn’t seem to be fully accurate. Even so, it’s well worth your time.

  • Commence with long words derived from Latin. Get grandiloquent, make your argument incontrovertible, and leave your audience discombobulated.
  • Use unending sentences, so that the reader feels confused, yet impressed.
  • Say it well: “In this way, he enjoyed the blue sea and the grey; the beauty of snow-covered mountains and green meadowlands; the magic of northern forests and the splendor of southern vegetation; the mood evoked by landscapes that recall great historical events, and the silence of untouched nature”.
  • Human nature is a subject that never gets dry.

15. Zadie Smith – Some Notes on Attunement

“You are privy to a great becoming, but you recognize nothing” – Francis Dolarhyde. This one is about the elusiveness of change occurring within you. For Zadie, it was hard to attune to the vibes of Joni Mitchell – especially her Blue album. But eventually, she grew up to appreciate her genius, and all the other things changed as well. This top essay is all about the relationship between humans, and art. We shouldn’t like art because we’re supposed to. We should like it because it has an instantaneous, emotional effect on us. Although, according to Stansfield (Gary Oldman) in Léon, liking Beethoven is rather mandatory.

  • Build an expectation of what’s coming: “The first time I heard her I didn’t hear her at all”.
  • Don’t be afraid of repetition if it feels good.
  • Psychedelic drugs let you appreciate things you never appreciated.
  • Intertwine a personal journey with philosophical musings.
  • Show rather than tell: “My friends pitied their eyes. The same look the faithful give you as you hand them back their “literature” and close the door in their faces”.
  • Let the poets speak for you: “That time is past, / And all its aching joys are now no
  • more, / And all its dizzy raptures”.
  • By voicing your anxieties, you can heal the anxieties of the reader. In that way, you say: “I’m just like you. I’m your friend in this struggle”.
  • Admit your flaws to make your persona more relatable.

16. Annie Dillard – Total Eclipse

Annie Dillard - Teaching A stone to talk

My imagination was always stirred by the scene of the solar eclipse in Pharaoh, by Boleslaw Prus. I wondered about the shock of the disoriented crowd when they saw how their ruler could switch off the light. Getting immersed in this essay by Annie Dillard has a similar effect. It produces amazement and some kind of primeval fear. It’s not only the environment that changes; it’s your mind and the perception of the world. After the eclipse, nothing is going to be the same again.

  • Yet again, the power of the first sentence draws you in: “It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass”.
  • Don’t miss the extraordinary scene. Then describe it: “Up in the sky, like a crater from some distant cataclysm, was a hollow ring”.
  • Use colloquial language. Write as you talk. Short sentences often win.
  • Contrast the numinous with the mundane to enthrall the reader.

17. Édouard Levé – When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue

Édouard Levé - Suicide

This suicidally beautiful essay will teach you a lot about the appreciation of life and the struggle with mental illness. It’s a collection of personal, apparently unrelated thoughts that show us the rich interior of the author. You look at the real-time thoughts of another person, and then recognize the same patterns within yourself… It sounds like a confession of a person who’s about to take their life, and it’s striking in its originality.

  • Use the stream-of-consciousness technique and put random thoughts on paper. Then, polish them: “I have attempted suicide once, I’ve been tempted four times to attempt it”.
  • Place the treasure deep within the story: “When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue, when I lick one, of a kiss”.
  • Don’t worry about what people might think. The more you expose, the more powerful the writing. Readers also take part in the great drama. They experience universal emotions that mostly stay inside.  You can translate them into writing.

18. Gloria E. Anzaldúa – How to Tame a Wild Tongue

Gloria Anzaldúa - Reader

Anzaldúa, who was born in south Texas, had to struggle to find her true identity. She was American, but her culture was grounded in Mexico. In this way, she and her people were not fully respected in either of the countries. This essay is an account of her journey of becoming the ambassador of the Chicano (Mexican-American) culture. It’s full of anecdotes, interesting references, and different shades of Spanish. It’s a window into a new cultural dimension that you’ve never experienced before.

  • If your mother tongue is not English, but you write in English, use some of your unique homeland vocabulary.
  • You come from a rich cultural heritage. You can share it with people who never heard about it, and are not even looking for it, but it is of immense value to them when they discover it.
  • Never forget about your identity. It is precious. It is a part of who you are. Even if you migrate, try to preserve it. Use it to your best advantage and become the voice of other people in the same situation.
  • Tell them what’s really on your mind: “So if you want to hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language”.

19. Kurt Vonnegut – Dispatch From A Man Without a Country

Kurt Vonnegut - A man without a country

In terms of style, this essay is flawless. It’s simple, conversational, humorous, and yet, full of wisdom. And when Vonnegut becomes a teacher and draws an axis of “beginning – end”, and, “good fortune – bad fortune” to explain literature, it becomes outright hilarious. It’s hard to find an author with such a down-to-earth approach. He doesn’t need to get intellectual to prove a point. And the point could be summed up by the quote from Great Expectations – “On the Rampage, Pip, and off the Rampage, Pip – such is Life!”

  • Start with a curious question: “Do you know what a twerp is?”
  • Surprise your readers with uncanny analogies: “I am from a family of artists. Here I am, making a living in the arts. It has not been a rebellion. It’s as though I had taken over the family Esso station.”
  • Use your natural language without too many special effects. In time, the style will crystalize.
  • An amusing lesson in writing from Mr. Vonnegut: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college”.
  • You can put actual images or vignettes between the paragraphs to illustrate something.

20. Mary Ruefle – On Fear

Mary Ruefle - Madness, rack and honey

Most psychologists and gurus agree that fear is the greatest enemy of success or any creative activity. It’s programmed into our minds to keep us away from imaginary harm. Mary Ruefle takes on this basic human emotion with flair. She explores fear from so many angles (especially in the world of poetry-writing) that at the end of this personal essay, you will look at it, dissect it, untangle it, and hopefully be able to say “f**k you” the next time your brain is trying to stop you.

  • Research your subject thoroughly. Ask people, have interviews, get expert opinions, and gather as much information as possible. Then scavenge through the fields of data, and pull out the golden bits that will let your prose shine.
  • Use powerful quotes to add color to your story: “The poet who embarks on the creation of the poem (as I know by experience), begins with the aimless sensation of a hunter about to embark on a night hunt through the remotest of forests. Unaccountable dread stirs in his heart”. – Lorca.
  • Writing advice from the essay: “One of the fears a young writer has is not being able to write as well as he or she wants to, the fear of not being able to sound like X or Y, a favorite author. But out of fear, hopefully, is born a young writer’s voice”.

21. Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation

Susan Sontag - Against Interpretation

In this highly intellectual essay, Sontag fights for art and its interpretation. It’s a great lesson, especially for critics and interpreters who endlessly chew on works that simply defy interpretation. Why don’t we just leave the art alone? I always hated it when at school they asked me: “What did the author have in mind when he did X or Y?” Iēsous Pantocrator! Hell if I know! I will judge it through my subjective experience!

  • Leave the art alone: “Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities”.
  • When you have something really important to say, style matters less.
  • There’s no use in creating a second meaning or inviting interpretation of our art. Just leave it be and let it speak for itself.

22. Nora Ephron – A Few Words About Breasts

Nora Ephron - The most of Nora Ephron

This is a heartwarming, coming-of-age story about a young girl who waits in vain for her breasts to grow. It’s simply a humorous and pleasurable read. The size of breasts is a big deal for women. If you’re a man, you may peek into the mind of a woman and learn many interesting things. If you’re a woman, maybe you’ll be able to relate and at last, be at peace with your bosom.

  • Touch an interesting subject and establish a strong connection with the readers (in that case, women with small breasts). Let your personality shine through the written piece. If you are lighthearted, show it.
  • Use hyphens to create an impression of real talk: “My house was full of apples and peaches and milk and homemade chocolate chip cookies – which were nice, and good for you, but-not-right-before-dinner-or-you’ll-spoil-your-appetite.”
  • Use present tense when you tell a story to add more life to it.
  • Share the pronounced, memorable traits of characters: “A previous girlfriend named Solange, who was famous throughout Beverly Hills High School for having no pigment in her right eyebrow, had knitted them for him (angora dice)”.

23. Carl Sagan – Does Truth Matter – Science, Pseudoscience, and Civilization

Carl Sagan - The Demon Haunted World

Carl Sagan was one of the greatest proponents of skepticism, and an author of numerous books, including one of my all-time favorites – The Demon-Haunted World . He was also a renowned physicist and the host of the fantastic Cosmos: A Personal Voyage series, which inspired a whole generation to uncover the mysteries of the cosmos. He was also a dedicated weed smoker – clearly ahead of his time. The essay that you’re about to read is a crystallization of his views about true science, and why you should check the evidence before believing in UFOs or similar sorts of crap.

  • Tell people the brutal truth they need to hear. Be the one who spells it out for them.
  • Give a multitude of examples to prove your point. Giving hard facts helps to establish trust with the readers and show the veracity of your arguments.
  • Recommend a good book that will change your reader’s minds – How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life

24. Paul Graham – How To Do What You Love

Paul Graham - Hackers and Painters

How To Do What You Love should be read by every college student and young adult. The Internet is flooded with a large number of articles and videos that are supposed to tell you what to do with your life. Most of them are worthless, but this one is different. It’s sincere, and there’s no hidden agenda behind it. There’s so much we take for granted – what we study, where we work, what we do in our free time… Surely we have another two hundred years to figure it out, right? Life’s too short to be so naïve. Please, read the essay and let it help you gain fulfillment from your work.

  • Ask simple, yet thought-provoking questions (especially at the beginning of the paragraph) to engage the reader: “How much are you supposed to like what you do?”
  • Let the readers question their basic assumptions: “Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like”.
  • If you’re writing for a younger audience, you can act as a mentor. It’s beneficial for younger people to read a few words of advice from a person with experience.

25. John Jeremiah Sullivan – Mister Lytle

John Jeremiah Sullivan - Pulphead

A young, aspiring writer is about to become a nurse of a fading writer – Mister Lytle (Andrew Nelson Lytle), and there will be trouble. This essay by Sullivan is probably my favorite one from the whole list. The amount of beautiful sentences it contains is just overwhelming. But that’s just a part of its charm. It also takes you to the Old South which has an incredible atmosphere. It’s grim and tawny but you want to stay there for a while.

  • Short, distinct sentences are often the most powerful ones: “He had a deathbed, in other words. He didn’t go suddenly”.
  • Stay consistent with the mood of the story. When reading Mister Lytle you are immersed in that southern, forsaken, gloomy world, and it’s a pleasure.
  • The spectacular language that captures it all: “His French was superb, but his accent in English was best—that extinct mid-Southern, land-grant pioneer speech, with its tinges of the abandoned Celtic urban Northeast (“boned” for burned) and its raw gentility”.
  • This essay is just too good. You have to read it.

26. Joan Didion – On Self Respect

Joan Didion - The white album

Normally, with that title, you would expect some straightforward advice about how to improve your character and get on with your goddamn life – but not from Joan Didion. From the very beginning, you can feel the depth of her thinking, and the unmistakable style of a true woman who’s been hurt. You can learn more from this essay than from whole books about self-improvement . It reminds me of the scene from True Detective, where Frank Semyon tells Ray Velcoro to “own it” after he realizes he killed the wrong man all these years ago. I guess we all have to “own it”, recognize our mistakes, and move forward sometimes.

  • Share your moral advice: “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs”.
  • It’s worth exploring the subject further from a different angle. It doesn’t matter how many people have already written on self-respect or self-reliance – you can still write passionately about it.
  • Whatever happens, you must take responsibility for it. Brave the storms of discontent.

27. Susan Sontag – Notes on Camp

Susan Sontag - Essays of the 1960 and 1970

I’ve never read anything so thorough and lucid about an artistic current. After reading this essay, you will know what camp is. But not only that – you will learn about so many artists you’ve never heard of. You will follow their traces and go to places where you’ve never been before. You will vastly increase your appreciation of art. It’s interesting how something written as a list could be so amazing. All the listicles we usually see on the web simply cannot compare with it.

  • Talking about artistic sensibilities is a tough job. When you read the essay, you will see how much research, thought and raw intellect came into it. But that’s one of the reasons why people still read it today, even though it was written in 1964.
  • You can choose an unorthodox way of expression in the medium for which you produce. For example, Notes on Camp is a listicle – one of the most popular content formats on the web. But in the olden days, it was uncommon to see it in print form.
  • Just think about what is camp: “And third among the great creative sensibilities is Camp: the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling”.

28. Ralph Waldo Emerson – Self-Reliance

Ralph Waldo Emerson - Self Reliance and other essays

That’s the oldest one from the lot. Written in 1841, it still inspires generations of people. It will let you understand what it means to be self-made. It contains some of the most memorable quotes of all time. I don’t know why, but this one especially touched me: “Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design, and posterity seems to follow his steps as a train of clients”. Now isn’t it purely individualistic, American thought? Emerson told me (and he will tell you) to do something amazing with my life. The language it contains is a bit archaic, but that just adds to the weight of the argument. You can consider it to be a meeting with a great philosopher who shaped the ethos of the modern United States.

  • You can start with a powerful poem that will set the stage for your work.
  • Be free in your creative flow. Do not wait for the approval of others: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness”.
  • Use rhetorical questions to strengthen your argument: “I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly say a new and spontaneous word?”

29. David Foster Wallace – Consider The Lobster

David Foster Wallece - Consider the lobster and other essays

When you want simple field notes about a food festival, you needn’t send there the formidable David Foster Wallace. He sees right through the hypocrisy and cruelty behind killing hundreds of thousands of innocent lobsters – by boiling them alive. This essay uncovers some of the worst traits of modern American people. There are no apologies or hedging one’s bets. There’s just plain truth that stabs you in the eye like a lobster claw. After reading this essay, you may reconsider the whole animal-eating business.

  • When it’s important, say it plainly and stagger the reader: “[Lobsters] survive right up until they’re boiled. Most of us have been in supermarkets or restaurants that feature tanks of live lobster, from which you can pick out your supper while it watches you point”.
  • In your writing, put exact quotes of the people you’ve been interviewing (including slang and grammatical errors). It makes it more vivid, and interesting.
  • You can use humor in serious situations to make your story grotesque.
  • Use captions to expound on interesting points of your essay.

30. David Foster Wallace – The Nature of the Fun

David Foster Wallece - a supposedly fun thing I'll never do again

The famous novelist and author of the most powerful commencement speech ever done is going to tell you about the joys and sorrows of writing a work of fiction. It’s like taking care of a mutant child that constantly oozes smelly liquids. But you love that child and you want others to love it too. It’s a very humorous account of what it means to be an author. If you ever plan to write a novel, you should read that one. And the story about the Chinese farmer is just priceless.

  • Base your point on a chimerical analogy. Here, the writer’s unfinished work is a “hideously damaged infant”.
  • Even in expository writing, you may share an interesting story to keep things lively.
  • Share your true emotions (even when you think they won’t interest anyone). Often, that’s exactly what will interest the reader.
  • Read the whole essay for marvelous advice on writing fiction.

31. Margaret Atwood – Attitude

Margaret Atwood - Writing with Intent - Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983-2005

This is not an essay per se, but I included it on the list for the sake of variety. It was delivered as a commencement speech at The University of Toronto, and it’s about keeping the right attitude. Soon after leaving university, most graduates have to forget about safety, parties, and travel and start a new life – one filled with a painful routine that will last until they drop. Atwood says that you don’t have to accept that. You can choose how you react to everything that happens to you (and you don’t have to stay in that dead-end job for the rest of your days).

  • At times, we are all too eager to persuade, but the strongest persuasion is not forceful. It’s subtle. It speaks to the heart. It affects you gradually.
  • You may be tempted to talk about a subject by first stating what it is not, rather than what it is. Try to avoid that.
  • Simple advice for writers (and life in general): “When faced with the inevitable, you always have a choice. You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it”.

32. Jo Ann Beard – The Fourth State of Matter

Jo Ann Beard - The boys of my youth

Read that one as soon as possible. It’s one of the most masterful and impactful essays you’ll ever read. It’s like a good horror – a slow build-up, and then your jaw drops to the ground. To summarize the story would be to spoil it, so I recommend that you just dig in and devour this essay in one sitting. It’s a perfect example of “show, don’t tell” writing, where the actions of characters are enough to create the right effect. No need for flowery adjectives here.

  • The best story you will tell is going to come from your personal experience.
  • Use mysteries that will nag the reader. For example, at the beginning of the essay, we learn about the “vanished husband” but there’s no explanation. We have to keep reading to get the answer.
  • Explain it in simple terms: “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and then your plasma”. Why complicate?

33. Terence McKenna – Tryptamine Hallucinogens and Consciousness

Terrence McKenna - Food of gods

To me, Terence McKenna was one of the most interesting thinkers of the twentieth century. His many lectures (now available on YouTube) attracted millions of people who suspect that consciousness holds secrets yet to be unveiled. McKenna consumed psychedelic drugs for most of his life and it shows (in a positive way). Many people consider him a looney, and a hippie, but he was so much more than that. He dared to go into the abyss of his psyche and come back to tell the tale. He also wrote many books (the most famous being Food Of The Gods ), built a huge botanical garden in Hawaii , lived with shamans, and was a connoisseur of all things enigmatic and obscure. Take a look at this essay, and learn more about the explorations of the subconscious mind.

  • Become the original thinker, but remember that it may require extraordinary measures: “I call myself an explorer rather than a scientist because the area that I’m looking at contains insufficient data to support even the dream of being a science”.
  • Learn new words every day to make your thoughts lucid.
  • Come up with the most outlandish ideas to push the envelope of what’s possible. Don’t take things for granted or become intellectually lazy. Question everything.

34. Eudora Welty – The Little Store

Eudora Welty - The eye of the story

By reading this little-known essay, you will be transported into the world of the old American South. It’s a remembrance of trips to the little store in a little town. It’s warm and straightforward, and when you read it, you feel like a child once more. All these beautiful memories live inside of us. They lay somewhere deep in our minds, hidden from sight. The work by Eudora Welty is an attempt to uncover some of them and let you get reacquainted with some smells and tastes of the past.

  • When you’re from the South, flaunt it. It’s still good old English but sometimes it sounds so foreign. I can hear the Southern accent too: “There were almost tangible smells – licorice recently sucked in a child’s cheek, dill-pickle brine that had leaked through a paper sack in a fresh trail across the wooden floor, ammonia-loaded ice that had been hoisted from wet Croker sacks and slammed into the icebox with its sweet butter at the door, and perhaps the smell of still-untrapped mice”.
  • Yet again, never forget your roots.
  • Childhood stories can be the most powerful ones. You can write about how they shaped you.

35. John McPhee – The Search for Marvin Gardens

John Mc Phee - The John Mc Phee reader

The Search for Marvin Gardens contains many layers of meaning. It’s a story about a Monopoly championship, but also, it’s the author’s search for the lost streets visible on the board of the famous board game. It also presents a historical perspective on the rise and fall of civilizations, and on Atlantic City, which once was a lively place, and then, slowly declined, the streets filled with dirt and broken windows.

  • There’s nothing like irony: “A sign- ‘Slow, Children at Play’- has been bent backward by an automobile”.
  • Telling the story in apparently unrelated fragments is sometimes better than telling the whole thing in a logical order.
  • Creativity is everything. The best writing may come just from connecting two ideas and mixing them to achieve a great effect. Shush! The muse is whispering.

36. Maxine Hong Kingston – No Name Woman

Maxine Hong Kingston - Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston

A dead body at the bottom of the well makes for a beautiful literary device. The first line of Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name Is Red delivers it perfectly: “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well”. There’s something creepy about the idea of the well. Just think about the “It puts the lotion in the basket” scene from The Silence of the Lambs. In the first paragraph of Kingston’s essay, we learn about a suicide committed by uncommon means of jumping into the well. But this time it’s a real story. Who was this woman? Why did she do it? Read the essay.

  • Mysterious death always gets attention. The macabre details are like daiquiris on a hot day – you savor them – you don’t let them spill.
  • One sentence can speak volumes: “But the rare urge west had fixed upon our family, and so my aunt crossed boundaries not delineated in space”.
  • It’s interesting to write about cultural differences – especially if you have the relevant experience. Something normal for us is unthinkable for others. Show this different world.
  • The subject of sex is never boring.

37. Joan Didion – On Keeping A Notebook

Joan Didion - We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is one of the most famous collections of essays of all time. In it, you will find a curious piece called On Keeping A Notebook. It’s not only a meditation about keeping a journal. It’s also Didion’s reconciliation with her past self. After reading it, you will seriously reconsider your life’s choices and look at your life from a wider perspective.

  • When you write things down in your journal, be more specific – unless you want to write a deep essay about it years later.
  • Use the beauty of the language to relate to the past: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice and listening to Les Paul and Mary Ford and their echoes sing ‘How High the Moon’ on the car radio”.
  • Drop some brand names if you want to feel posh.

38. Joan Didion – Goodbye To All That

Joan Didion - Slouching Towards Bethlehem

This one touched me because I also lived in New York City for a while. I don’t know why, but stories about life in NYC are so often full of charm and this eerie-melancholy-jazz feeling. They are powerful. They go like this: “There was a hard blizzard in NYC. As the sound of sirens faded, Tony descended into the dark world of hustlers and pimps.” That’s pulp literature but in the context of NYC, it always sounds cool. Anyway, this essay is amazing in too many ways. You just have to read it.

  • Talk about New York City. They will read it.
  • Talk about the human experience: “It did occur to me to call the desk and ask that the air conditioner be turned off, I never called, because I did not know how much to tip whoever might come—was anyone ever so young?”
  • Look back at your life and reexamine it. Draw lessons from it.

39. George Orwell – Reflections on Gandhi

George Orwell could see things as they were. No exaggeration, no romanticism – just facts. He recognized totalitarianism and communism for what they were and shared his worries through books like 1984 and Animal Farm . He took the same sober approach when dealing with saints and sages. Today, we regard Gandhi as one of the greatest political leaders of the twentieth century – and rightfully so. But did you know that when asked about the Jews during World War II, Gandhi said that they should commit collective suicide and that it: “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.” He also recommended utter pacifism in 1942, during the Japanese invasion, even though he knew it would cost millions of lives. But overall he was a good guy. Read the essay and broaden your perspective on the Bapu of the Indian Nation.

  • Share a philosophical thought that stops the reader for a moment: “No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid”.
  • Be straightforward in your writing – no mannerisms, no attempts to create ‘style’, and no invocations of the numinous – unless you feel the mystical vibe.

40. George Orwell – Politics and the English Language

Let Mr. Orwell give you some writing tips. Written in 1946, this essay is still one of the most helpful documents on writing in English. Orwell was probably the first person who exposed the deliberate vagueness of political language. He was very serious about it and I admire his efforts to slay all unclear sentences (including ones written by distinguished professors). But it’s good to make it humorous too from time to time. My favorite examples of that would be the immortal Soft Language sketch by George Carlin or the “Romans Go Home” scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Overall, it’s a great essay filled with examples from many written materials. It’s a must-read for any writer.

  • Listen to the master: “This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose.” Do something about it.
  • This essay is all about writing better, so go to the source if you want the goodies.

The thinker

Other Essays You May Find Interesting

The list that I’ve prepared is by no means complete. The literary world is full of exciting essays and you’ll never know which one is going to change your life. I’ve found reading essays very rewarding because sometimes, a single one means more than reading a whole book. It’s almost like wandering around and peeking into the minds of the greatest writers and thinkers that ever lived. To make this list more comprehensive, below I included more essays you may find interesting.

Oliver Sacks – On Libraries

One of the greatest contributors to the knowledge about the human mind, Oliver Sacks meditates on the value of libraries and his love of books.

Noam Chomsky – The Responsibility of Intellectuals

Chomsky did probably more than anyone else to define the role of the intelligentsia in the modern world . There is a war of ideas over there – good and bad – intellectuals are going to be those who ought to be fighting for the former.

Sam Harris – The Riddle of The Gun

Sam Harris, now a famous philosopher and neuroscientist, takes on the problem of gun control in the United States. His thoughts are clear of prejudice. After reading this, you’ll appreciate the value of logical discourse overheated, irrational debate that more often than not has real implications on policy.

Tim Ferriss – Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide

This piece was written as a blog post , but it’s worth your time. The author of the NYT bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek shares an emotional story about how he almost killed himself, and what can you do to save yourself or your friends from suicide.

Edward Said – Reflections on Exile

The life of Edward Said was a truly fascinating one. Born in Jerusalem, he lived between Palestine and Egypt and finally settled down in the United States, where he completed his most famous work – Orientalism. In this essay, he shares his thoughts about what it means to be in exile.

Richard Feynman – It’s as Simple as One, Two, Three…

Richard Feynman is one of the most interesting minds of the twentieth century. He was a brilliant physicist, but also an undeniably great communicator of science, an artist, and a traveler. By reading this essay, you can observe his thought process when he tries to figure out what affects our perception of time. It’s a truly fascinating read.

Rabindranath Tagore – The Religion of The Forest

I like to think about Tagore as my spiritual Friend. His poems are just marvelous. They are like some of the Persian verses that praise love, nature, and the unity of all things. By reading this short essay, you will learn a lot about Indian philosophy and its relation to its Western counterpart.

Richard Dawkins – Letter To His 10-Year-Old Daughter

Every father should be able to articulate his philosophy of life to his children. With this letter that’s similar to what you find in the Paris Review essays , the famed atheist and defender of reason, Richard Dawkins, does exactly that. It’s beautifully written and stresses the importance of looking at evidence when we’re trying to make sense of the world.

Albert Camus – The Minotaur (or, The Stop In Oran)

Each person requires a period of solitude – a period when one’s able to gather thoughts and make sense of life. There are many places where you may attempt to find quietude. Albert Camus tells about his favorite one.

Koty Neelis – 21 Incredible Life Lessons From Anthony Bourdain

I included it as the last one because it’s not really an essay, but I just had to put it somewhere. In this listicle, you’ll find the 21 most original thoughts of the high-profile cook, writer, and TV host, Anthony Bourdain. Some of them are shocking, others are funny, but they’re all worth checking out.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca – On the Shortness of Life

It’s similar to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam because it praises life. Seneca shares some of his stoic philosophy and tells you not to waste your time on stupidities. Drink! – for once dead you shall never return.

Bertrand Russell – In Praise of Idleness

This old essay is a must-read for modern humans. We are so preoccupied with our work, our phones, and all the media input we drown in our business. Bertrand Russell tells you to chill out a bit – maybe it will do you some good.

James Baldwin – Stranger in the Village

It’s an essay on the author’s experiences as an African-American in a Swiss village, exploring race, identity, and alienation while highlighting the complexities of racial dynamics and the quest for belonging.

Bonus – More writing tips from two great books

The mission to improve my writing skills took me further than just going through the essays. I’ve come across some great books on writing too. I highly recommend you read them in their entirety. They’re written beautifully and contain lots of useful knowledge. Below you’ll find random (but useful) notes that I took from The Sense of Style and On Writing.

The Sense of Style – By Steven Pinker

  • Style manuals are full of inconsistencies. Following their advice might not be the best idea. They might make your prose boring.
  • Grammarians from all eras condemn students for not knowing grammar. But it just evolves. It cannot be rigid.
  • “Nothing worth learning can be taught” – Oscar Wilde. It’s hard to learn to write from a manual – you have to read, write, and analyze.
  • Good writing makes you imagine things and feel them for yourself – use word pictures.
  • Don’t fear using voluptuous words.
  • Phonesthetics – or how the words sound.
  • Use parallel language (consistency of tense).
  • Good writing finishes strong.
  • Write to someone. Never write for no one in mind. Try to show people your view of the world.
  • Don’t tell everything you are going to say in summary (signposting) – be logical, but be conversational.
  • Don’t be pompous.
  • Don’t use quotation marks where they don’t “belong”. Be confident about your style.
  • Don’t hedge your claims (research first, and then tell it like it is).
  • Avoid clichés and meta-concepts (concepts about concepts). Be more straightforward!
  • Not prevention – but prevents or prevented – don’t use dead nouns.
  • Be more vivid while using your mother tongue – don’t use passive where it’s not needed. Direct the reader’s gaze to something in the world.
  • The curse of knowledge – the reader doesn’t know what you know – beware of that.
  • Explain technical terms.
  • Use examples when you explain a difficult term.
  • If you ever say “I think I understand this” it probably means you don’t.
  • It’s better to underestimate the lingo of your readers than to overestimate it.
  • Functional fixedness – if we know some object (or idea) well, we tend to see it in terms of usage, not just as an object.
  • Use concrete language instead of an abstraction.
  • Show your work to people before you publish (get feedback!).
  • Wait for a few days and then revise, revise, revise. Think about clarity and the sound of sentences. Then show it to someone. Then revise one more time. Then publish (if it’s to be serious work).
  • Look at it from the perspective of other people.
  • Omit needless words.
  • Put the heaviest words at the end of the sentence.
  • It’s good to use the passive, but only when appropriate.
  • Check all text for cohesion. Make sure that the sentences flow gently.
  • In expository work, go from general to more specific. But in journalism start from the big news and then give more details.
  • Use the paragraph break to give the reader a moment to take a breath.
  • Use the verb instead of a noun (make it more active) – not “cancellation”, but “canceled”. But after you introduce the action, you can refer to it with a noun.
  • Avoid too many negations.
  • If you write about why something is so, don’t spend too much time writing about why it is not.

On Writing Well – By William Zinsser

  • Writing is a craft. You need to sit down every day and practice your craft.
  • You should re-write and polish your prose a lot.
  • Throw out all the clutter. Don’t keep it because you like it. Aim for readability.
  • Look at the best examples of English literature . There’s hardly any needless garbage there.
  • Use shorter expressions. Don’t add extra words that don’t bring any value to your work.
  • Don’t use pompous language. Use simple language and say plainly what’s going on (“because” equals “because”).
  • The media and politics are full of cluttered prose (because it helps them to cover up for their mistakes).
  • You can’t add style to your work (and especially, don’t add fancy words to create an illusion of style). That will look fake. You need to develop a style.
  • Write in the “I” mode. Write to a friend or just for yourself. Show your personality. There is a person behind the writing.
  • Choose your words carefully. Use the dictionary to learn different shades of meaning.
  • Remember about phonology. Make music with words .
  • The lead is essential. Pull the reader in. Otherwise, your article is dead.
  • You don’t have to make the final judgment on any topic. Just pick the right angle.
  • Do your research. Not just obvious research, but a deep one.
  • When it’s time to stop, stop. And finish strong. Think about the last sentence. Surprise them.
  • Use quotations. Ask people. Get them talking.
  • If you write about travel, it must be significant to the reader. Don’t bother with the obvious. Choose your words with special care. Avoid travel clichés at all costs. Don’t tell that the sand was white and there were rocks on the beach. Look for the right detail.
  • If you want to learn how to write about art, travel, science, etc. – read the best examples available. Learn from the masters.
  • Concentrate on one big idea (“Let’s not go peeing down both legs”).
  • “The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good.”
  • One very helpful question: “What is the piece really about?” (Not just “What the piece is about?”)

Now immerse yourself in the world of essays

By reading the essays from the list above, you’ll become a better writer , a better reader, but also a better person. An essay is a special form of writing. It is the only literary form that I know of that is an absolute requirement for career or educational advancement. Nowadays, you can use an AI essay writer or an AI essay generator that will get the writing done for you, but if you have personal integrity and strong moral principles, avoid doing this at all costs. For me as a writer, the effect of these authors’ masterpieces is often deeply personal. You won’t be able to find the beautiful thoughts they contain in any other literary form. I hope you enjoy the read and that it will inspire you to do your writing. This list is only an attempt to share some of the best essays available online. Next up, you may want to check the list of magazines and websites that accept personal essays .

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  • Essay on My Favourite Season

500 Words Essay On My Favourite Season

Seasons keep changing but they also come back every year. This is one of my most favourite parts about them. They always return no matter what. Everyone has a favourite season and so do I. My favourite season is the summer season. There are many reasons to like it which I will explain below.

my favourite season

Why Summer is My Favourite Season

Just like many other kids my age, I like the summer season the most. What’s not to like about it? You get to enjoy long holidays as everyone gets a break from school. Similarly, parents allow the kids to have ice creams.

Cold drinks are another reasons why summer is my favourite season. We get to have such a wide variety of food items during this season. On the healthier side, we also get incredible mangoes in the summer season.

As mangoes are my favourite fruit, I tend to like summers even more. Summers make us truly appreciate and savour a lot of things. During the summer season, we get holidays for a long time.

During the summer holidays, I get to spend time with my family and friends to the fullest. When we get lucky, we even go on family trips. I look forward to them every year, even if it is a small trip.

Most importantly, there are so many activities that I get to do during summers like joining summer camps, cycling, swimming, and more. Summers are so bright and exciting that it has always been my favourite season.

Get the huge list of more than 500 Essay Topics and Ideas

The Specialty of Summer Season

The summer season has long days and short nights. The days are sunny and bright. We get to relax completely during the afternoons during summers. Similarly, we also get so much sunlight .

The water parks are always full of people during summers that help people stay cool and have a good time. I like swimming in the pools during summers as it makes me feel free. There are also different varieties of food items I get to enjoy during summers.

There are fresh cucumbers, huge watermelons, juicy oranges, sweet guavas, nutritious muskmelons, and more. The early mornings of summer are incredible and nothing can match the atmosphere.

Another speciality of summer has to be the clothes. People enjoy wearing shorts, dresses, sleeveless shirts, and more to enjoy summers to the fullest. The hill stations are swarmed during the summer season as everyone goes there to escape the heat. Therefore, all these specialities make me love summer even more.

All in all, summer is my favourite season as everything is bright and lovely. Even the fruits and vegetables we get are so colourful that it makes a good sight for sore eyes. School going children love summers even more as summer break allows us to play more and relax. Summers are warm, sunny, and delightful.

FAQ on Essay on My Favourite Season

Question 1: Why do kids like summer more?

Answer 1: Most kids like summer more as they allow them to relax and take a break from school. The long summer holidays give them a break where they can play, learn new hobbies, eat delicious fruits and vegetables and do more fun activities.

Question 2: What is the speciality of summer?

Answer 2: Summer has a lot of specialities. They include a variety of food items like mangoes, cucumbers, muskmelons, oranges, guavas, and more. Further, people enjoy their time in swimming pools and get to wear light clothes.

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I Have So Many Thoughts on the New Yeat Album

Some delirious first-listen thoughts on a beautifully unhinged album: Yeat’s ‘2093.’

via Field Trip Recordings

best year essay

Yeat’s new album 2093 is a head trip. 

Full of sludgy beats and outlandish lyrics, it’s a delirious-ass project, and after consuming all 78 minutes of it, it’s impossible not to feel at least a little disoriented (and I mean that in the best way possible). Any good Yeat album is kind of like a sci-fi movie, offering a brief escape to a strange world where everyday norms are flipped upside down, and 2093 is the epitome of that.

Yeat’s whole shtick is that he’s some kind of an alien who came to Earth from another world (the Twizz planet, as he’ll proudly tell you ), and we all know that’s a marketing gimmick, but 2093 really does sound different from anything else happening on the charts right now. He’s moved on from the typical “rage” sound of his early albums and is now experimenting with something far heavier and even more dystopian.

Over the weekend, I put the album on loop, and (by design) it put me in a strange headspace. Instead of composing myself and overthinking anything, I jumped in right away and wrote down all my thoughts in the order they came to me, meeting the music on Yeat’s own wavelength. Here are some unfiltered first thoughts on a beautifully unhinged album.

best year essay

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If ‘2093’ is a prophecy of the earth’s future, we’re fucked.

Not to get too dark too fast, but if Yeat’s vision of 2093 comes true, it’s not worth living that long. In his version of 2093, something has gone terribly wrong and the world is on the verge of collapse, so the album is full of apathetic lyrics and decaying, ominous beats. The whole thing sounds like a glitching dispatch from the future, complete with off-kilter, metallic sound effects and fuzzy vocoders.

Yeat describes living in a “dystopian society” and says he longs to “feel like a real human” on “Nothing Changë,” which could either be a cry for help from a self-medicating drug addict or the urgent plea of a superintelligent AI who just wants to feel something, depending on how you look at it. Either way, 2093 is “hell on Earth.”

He’s always made escapist rap music, and it’s tempting to describe 2093 as a work of pure science fiction, but he also toys with real-world reference points, repeatedly bringing up things like Elon Musk and SpaceX. The album just dropped at a weird point in history when innovations like ChatGPT and the Apple Vision Pro are threatening to upend the human experience (or at least dramatically change the mechanics of our daily lives). So from that perspective, 2093 might not feel so out-there when we look back on it in a few years. 

Maybe it’s just a dark fantasy. Or maybe Yeat is making unsettling, dystopian music to reflect a world that’s hurtling in that direction, one technological “advancement” at a time. If so, let’s just hope the real 2093 isn’t as hellacious as Yeat thinks it’ll be.

Yeat has a very complicated relationship with capitalism

When I interviewed Yeat in 2022, he told me he was indifferent about his financial success. “I’m not really that greedy person. I don’t spend much money. I’m chilling,” he said at the time. But on 2093 , Yeat’s relationship with money is a lot more complicated. 

On some songs, he sounds as unimpressed by his growing bank account as he did in the interview, like on “Shade,” where he raps about getting stacks of cash that he “never even asked for.” Or on “Keep Pushin,” where he repeatedly claims that he “don't need no money.” But throughout the rest of the album, money is all Yeat wants to rap about. In fact, if there’s one prevailing lyrical theme on 2093, it’s that Yeat is a rich CEO with a bottomless bank account. 

His flexes include: buying a jet because he got bored (“Breathe”), literally pissing diamonds (“More”), and purchasing the entire contents of the Earth (“Bought The Earth”). On "Nothing Changë," Yeat even manages to burn through a million dollars in four quick purchases: a $250,000 chain, a $250,000 plane, a $500,000 Cullinan, and a $250,000 butler. And on “Team CEO,” he claims, “I got billion dollar money, live inside a turtle.” (Honestly, I have no idea what that last one means, but having enough money to live inside a turtle sounds pretty rich to me.) 

So, is Yeat a money-hungry capitalist fiend or not? Honestly, it depends on when you ask him. Sure, he contradicts himself constantly, but what’s more relatable than realizing the concept of money is flawed, only to get bored and blow a bunch of cash on things you don’t actually need?

Lil Wayne blessed his alien grandson

Lil Wayne has a lot of children in the rap game. And his children have children. And now his children’s children are starting to have children of their own. Not to get too deep into the Lil Wayne family tree, but rap’s original self-described alien has inspired a whole generation of eccentric rappers like Young Thug, who have in turn influenced another generation of artists, with Yeat chief among them. (There might actually be another generation or two in between, but who’s counting?) 

One of the coolest things about Wayne is that he isn’t above collaborating with the generations that he birthed, which he does here on “Lyfestylë,” the best song on the album after “Breathe.” First, Yeat sets things up with a catchy verse, rapping about (what else?) diamonds and demons. Then Wayne grabs the baton in full stride, sliding in with an appropriately unhinged verse about spitting acid alongside his “sick and twisted evil bastard” protegé. He even makes sure to fit in a diamonds and demons bar of his own. Yeah, he’s still got it.

This should be playing in European warehouse raves 

Yeat spends a lot of time talking about quitting drugs on 2093 , but why does it sound like he’s been spending all his time at raves? Pushing himself far outside the comfort zone of rage beats that dominated his early projects, he chooses dark, industrial beats that sound like they should be playing in a grimy warehouse rave at 4:00 a.m. somewhere in Europe. On “ILUV,” Yeat raps “I love when you rage with me,” but in this context, I picture him saying it in the corner of a swampy club full of molly-popping kids, rather than the “rage” setting that he’s typically associated with (Rolling Loud crowds). Honestly, it’s a compelling pivot, and he pulls it off well. I just hope club DJs pick up on it and start throwing some of these songs into their sets.

… or in sci-fi movie soundtracks

Back in 2021, Vince Staples told the hosts of Drink Champs that he made his self-titled album with the goal of getting as many songs as possible synced in movies. I don’t know if that was Yeat’s intention for 2093 , but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had Blade Runner playing in the studio as he recorded it, as these songs sound like they should end up on every sci-fi movie soundtrack for the next 10 years. I need to hear this music playing while Keanu Reeves slices up robots on a hoverboard or some shit. Music supervisors, are you listening? Get on the phones, Zack Bia. Make it happen.

Drake is Drake-ing

Drake did it again. And by “it,” I mean: that thing where he jumps into a new sound or subgenre with a popular young rapper and makes it his own. This isn’t his first time working with Yeat (their first collab “IDGAF” is the most-streamed song on For All The Dogs ) and he sounds very comfortable on the album’s most sweeping, cinematic song “As We Speak,” rapping a braggadocious verse over dramatic strings. I have no idea why Drake started his verse by shouting out Lil Yachty (did he lift these vocals from an unused Yachty collab?) but it still sounds great.

Donald Glover must have more than 24 hours in a day

How does Donald Glover find the time for side quests like this? Somewhere between making Mr. & Mrs. Smith , helping produce Malia Obama’s first short film, raising cows , and building a whole ass company, he squeezed in a studio session with Yeat and recorded vocals for the outro of “Power Trip.” When I interviewed Glover late last year, he perked up and seemed extra curious when I randomly brought up Yeat’s name (he wanted to know what Yeat’s view of “the meaning of life” was) and now it all makes sense. He was already tapped in.

What about the bars, though?

Lyricism is never the most important part of a Yeat album. He’s built in the mold of a rapper like Travis Scott, where production, ad-libs, and melodies take precedence, and he’s generally more interested in figuring out crazy new ways to layer his vocals into a beat, rather than coming up with intricate wordplay. (Just listen to all the weird little alien sounds in the background of a song like "Breathe." That's not a part of the beat; it's Yeat's own voice.) Shit, if he can’t find the right word for a given situation, he’ll just make one up. ( Shmadonka , anyone?)

On 2093 , lyrics once again take a backseat, but there are moments where Yeat proves to be surprisingly clever, rattling off lines like, “If I'm not making money, then I got me some withdrawals” on “Stand On It.” Even when the lyrics look plain on paper, Yeat’s way of viewing the world is so peculiar that he can deliver bars on regular-ass topics in a way that feels weirdly poetic, like, “A cut across your eyes will leave you blind for life.” Listen, his lyrics can still use some work overall, and they’re clearly not something he’s prioritizing first on 2093, but there are glimpses of potential here that might surprise people.

2093 is a lot of things, but “boring” isn’t one of them

2093 isn’t a perfect album. It’s a little too long and the home stretch drags on a bit with some redundant songs. And, yes, Yeat’s songwriting could always improve to better match the ingenuity of his eccentric flows and production (although it is getting better over time). But overall, 2093 is a big success. Instead of sticking to the same stylistic pocket that made him successful (rage), he’s taking big swings at a high-pressure point in his career and pushing his sound in delightfully strange new directions. Full of synthetic, booming sounds, 2093 really does feel like it’s from the future.

Yeat caught fire in the first place because of his unorthodox style, and rather than run that sound into the ground until it becomes stale, he continues to reinvent himself. Because of that, you’ll see comments begging for “the old Yeat,” but that kind of thing happens to anyone on the cutting edge. Instead, he made an album that doesn’t sound like anything else in the mainstream right now, and that’s exciting. By nature, 2093 is a rebellious, outside-the-box album, and it’s refreshing to see a project like this heading to the top of the charts in a sea of formulaic bullshit.

There will always be a need for risk-taking artists who polarize fans and get people to think differently, and Yeat is filling that role right now. Even if 2093 isn’t your cup of tea, you have to admit it’s not boring. And at a time when mainstream rap is in need of a jolt of fresh energy, albums like this are a welcome change of pace. Plus, there are some legitimate hits on here, like “Breathe” and “As We Speak,” which stand on their own. Yeat isn’t going anywhere.

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EU AI Act: first regulation on artificial intelligence

The use of artificial intelligence in the EU will be regulated by the AI Act, the world’s first comprehensive AI law. Find out how it will protect you.

A man faces a computer generated figure with programming language in the background

As part of its digital strategy , the EU wants to regulate artificial intelligence (AI) to ensure better conditions for the development and use of this innovative technology. AI can create many benefits , such as better healthcare; safer and cleaner transport; more efficient manufacturing; and cheaper and more sustainable energy.

In April 2021, the European Commission proposed the first EU regulatory framework for AI. It says that AI systems that can be used in different applications are analysed and classified according to the risk they pose to users. The different risk levels will mean more or less regulation. Once approved, these will be the world’s first rules on AI.

Learn more about what artificial intelligence is and how it is used

What Parliament wants in AI legislation

Parliament’s priority is to make sure that AI systems used in the EU are safe, transparent, traceable, non-discriminatory and environmentally friendly. AI systems should be overseen by people, rather than by automation, to prevent harmful outcomes.

Parliament also wants to establish a technology-neutral, uniform definition for AI that could be applied to future AI systems.

Learn more about Parliament’s work on AI and its vision for AI’s future

AI Act: different rules for different risk levels

The new rules establish obligations for providers and users depending on the level of risk from artificial intelligence. While many AI systems pose minimal risk, they need to be assessed.

Unacceptable risk

Unacceptable risk AI systems are systems considered a threat to people and will be banned. They include:

  • Cognitive behavioural manipulation of people or specific vulnerable groups: for example voice-activated toys that encourage dangerous behaviour in children
  • Social scoring: classifying people based on behaviour, socio-economic status or personal characteristics
  • Biometric identification and categorisation of people
  • Real-time and remote biometric identification systems, such as facial recognition

Some exceptions may be allowed for law enforcement purposes. “Real-time” remote biometric identification systems will be allowed in a limited number of serious cases, while “post” remote biometric identification systems, where identification occurs after a significant delay, will be allowed to prosecute serious crimes and only after court approval.

AI systems that negatively affect safety or fundamental rights will be considered high risk and will be divided into two categories:

1) AI systems that are used in products falling under the EU’s product safety legislation . This includes toys, aviation, cars, medical devices and lifts.

2) AI systems falling into specific areas that will have to be registered in an EU database:

  • Management and operation of critical infrastructure
  • Education and vocational training
  • Employment, worker management and access to self-employment
  • Access to and enjoyment of essential private services and public services and benefits
  • Law enforcement
  • Migration, asylum and border control management
  • Assistance in legal interpretation and application of the law.

All high-risk AI systems will be assessed before being put on the market and also throughout their lifecycle.

General purpose and generative AI

Generative AI, like ChatGPT, would have to comply with transparency requirements:

  • Disclosing that the content was generated by AI
  • Designing the model to prevent it from generating illegal content
  • Publishing summaries of copyrighted data used for training

High-impact general-purpose AI models that might pose systemic risk, such as the more advanced AI model GPT-4, would have to undergo thorough evaluations and any serious incidents would have to be reported to the European Commission.

Limited risk

Limited risk AI systems should comply with minimal transparency requirements that would allow users to make informed decisions. After interacting with the applications, the user can then decide whether they want to continue using it. Users should be made aware when they are interacting with AI. This includes AI systems that generate or manipulate image, audio or video content, for example deepfakes.

On December 9 2023, Parliament reached a provisional agreement with the Council on the AI act . The agreed text will now have to be formally adopted by both Parliament and Council to become EU law. Before all MEPs have their say on the agreement, Parliament’s internal market and civil liberties committees will vote on it.

More on the EU’s digital measures

  • Cryptocurrency dangers and the benefits of EU legislation
  • Fighting cybercrime: new EU cybersecurity laws explained
  • Boosting data sharing in the EU: what are the benefits?
  • EU Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act
  • Five ways the European Parliament wants to protect online gamers
  • Artificial Intelligence Act

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Black History Month: What is it and why is it important?

Black History Month - A visitor at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

Black History Month is an opportunity to understand Black histories. Image:  Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

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best year essay

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Stay up to date:, economic progress.

This article was originally published in February 2021 and has been updated .

  • A continued engagement with history is vital as it helps give context for the present.
  • Black History Month is an opportunity to understand Black histories, going beyond stories of racism and slavery to spotlight Black achievement.
  • This year's theme is African Americans and the Arts.

February is Black History Month. This month-long observance in the US and Canada is a chance to celebrate Black achievement and provide a fresh reminder to take stock of where systemic racism persists and give visibility to the people and organizations creating change. Here's what to know about Black History Month and how to celebrate it this year:

Have you read?

Black history month: key events in a decade of black lives matter, here are 4 ways businesses can celebrate black history month, how did black history month begin.

Black History Month's first iteration was Negro History Week, created in February 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, known as the "father of Black history." This historian helped establish the field of African American studies and his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History , aimed to encourage " people of all ethnic and social backgrounds to discuss the Black experience ".

“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” ― Carter G. Woodson

His organization was later renamed the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and is currently the oldest historical society established for the promotion of African American history.

Why is Black History Month in February?

February was chosen by Woodson for the week-long observance as it coincides with the birthdates of both former US President Abraham Lincoln and social reformer Frederick Douglass. Both men played a significant role in helping to end slavery. Woodson also understood that members of the Black community already celebrated the births of Douglass and Lincoln and sought to build on existing traditions. "He was asking the public to extend their study of Black history, not to create a new tradition", as the ASALH explained on its website.

How did Black History Month become a national month of celebration?

By the late 1960s, thanks in part to the civil-rights movement and a growing awareness of Black identity, Negro History Week was celebrated by mayors in cities across the country. Eventually, the event evolved into Black History Month on many college campuses. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History month. In his speech, President Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.

Since his administration, every American president has recognized Black History Month and its mission. But it wasn't until Congress passed "National Black History Month" into law in 1986 that many in the country began to observe it formally. The law aimed to make all Americans "aware of this struggle for freedom and equal opportunity".

Why is Black History Month celebrated?

Initially, Black History Month was a way of teaching students and young people about Black and African-Americans' contributions. Such stories had been largely forgotten and were a neglected part of the national narrative.

Now, it's seen as a celebration of those who've impacted not just the country but the world with their activism and achievements. In the US, the month-long spotlight during February is an opportunity for people to engage with Black histories, go beyond discussions of racism and slavery, and highlight Black leaders and accomplishments.

What is this year's Black History Month theme?

Every year, a theme is chosen by the ASALH, the group originally founded by Woodson. This year's theme, African Americans and the Arts .

"In the fields of visual and performing arts, literature, fashion, folklore, language, film, music, architecture, culinary and other forms of cultural expression, the African American influence has been paramount," the website says.

Is Black History Month celebrated anywhere else?

In Canada, they celebrate it in February. In countries like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Ireland, they celebrate it in October. In Canada, African-Canadian parliament member Jean Augustine motioned for Black History Month in 1995 to bring awareness to Black Canadians' work.

When the UK started celebrating Black History Month in 1987, it focused on Black American history. Over time there has been more attention on Black British history. Now it is dedicated to honouring African people's contributions to the country. Its UK mission statement is: "Dig deeper, look closer, think bigger".

Why is Black History Month important?

For many modern Black millennials, the month-long celebration for Black History Month offers an opportunity to reimagine what possibilities lie ahead. But for many, the forces that drove Woodson nearly a century ago are more relevant than ever. As Lonnie G. Bunch III, Director of the Smithsonian Institution said at the opening of the Washington D.C.'s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016: “There is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history. And there is no higher cause than honouring our struggle and ancestors by remembering".

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License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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  • Knowledge Base
  • How to write an essay introduction | 4 steps & examples

How to Write an Essay Introduction | 4 Steps & Examples

Published on February 4, 2019 by Shona McCombes . Revised on July 23, 2023.

A good introduction paragraph is an essential part of any academic essay . It sets up your argument and tells the reader what to expect.

The main goals of an introduction are to:

  • Catch your reader’s attention.
  • Give background on your topic.
  • Present your thesis statement —the central point of your essay.

This introduction example is taken from our interactive essay example on the history of Braille.

The invention of Braille was a major turning point in the history of disability. The writing system of raised dots used by visually impaired people was developed by Louis Braille in nineteenth-century France. In a society that did not value disabled people in general, blindness was particularly stigmatized, and lack of access to reading and writing was a significant barrier to social participation. The idea of tactile reading was not entirely new, but existing methods based on sighted systems were difficult to learn and use. As the first writing system designed for blind people’s needs, Braille was a groundbreaking new accessibility tool. It not only provided practical benefits, but also helped change the cultural status of blindness. This essay begins by discussing the situation of blind people in nineteenth-century Europe. It then describes the invention of Braille and the gradual process of its acceptance within blind education. Subsequently, it explores the wide-ranging effects of this invention on blind people’s social and cultural lives.

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Table of contents

Step 1: hook your reader, step 2: give background information, step 3: present your thesis statement, step 4: map your essay’s structure, step 5: check and revise, more examples of essay introductions, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about the essay introduction.

Your first sentence sets the tone for the whole essay, so spend some time on writing an effective hook.

Avoid long, dense sentences—start with something clear, concise and catchy that will spark your reader’s curiosity.

The hook should lead the reader into your essay, giving a sense of the topic you’re writing about and why it’s interesting. Avoid overly broad claims or plain statements of fact.

Examples: Writing a good hook

Take a look at these examples of weak hooks and learn how to improve them.

  • Braille was an extremely important invention.
  • The invention of Braille was a major turning point in the history of disability.

The first sentence is a dry fact; the second sentence is more interesting, making a bold claim about exactly  why the topic is important.

  • The internet is defined as “a global computer network providing a variety of information and communication facilities.”
  • The spread of the internet has had a world-changing effect, not least on the world of education.

Avoid using a dictionary definition as your hook, especially if it’s an obvious term that everyone knows. The improved example here is still broad, but it gives us a much clearer sense of what the essay will be about.

  • Mary Shelley’s  Frankenstein is a famous book from the nineteenth century.
  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often read as a crude cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific advancement.

Instead of just stating a fact that the reader already knows, the improved hook here tells us about the mainstream interpretation of the book, implying that this essay will offer a different interpretation.

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Next, give your reader the context they need to understand your topic and argument. Depending on the subject of your essay, this might include:

  • Historical, geographical, or social context
  • An outline of the debate you’re addressing
  • A summary of relevant theories or research about the topic
  • Definitions of key terms

The information here should be broad but clearly focused and relevant to your argument. Don’t give too much detail—you can mention points that you will return to later, but save your evidence and interpretation for the main body of the essay.

How much space you need for background depends on your topic and the scope of your essay. In our Braille example, we take a few sentences to introduce the topic and sketch the social context that the essay will address:

Now it’s time to narrow your focus and show exactly what you want to say about the topic. This is your thesis statement —a sentence or two that sums up your overall argument.

This is the most important part of your introduction. A  good thesis isn’t just a statement of fact, but a claim that requires evidence and explanation.

The goal is to clearly convey your own position in a debate or your central point about a topic.

Particularly in longer essays, it’s helpful to end the introduction by signposting what will be covered in each part. Keep it concise and give your reader a clear sense of the direction your argument will take.

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As you research and write, your argument might change focus or direction as you learn more.

For this reason, it’s often a good idea to wait until later in the writing process before you write the introduction paragraph—it can even be the very last thing you write.

When you’ve finished writing the essay body and conclusion , you should return to the introduction and check that it matches the content of the essay.

It’s especially important to make sure your thesis statement accurately represents what you do in the essay. If your argument has gone in a different direction than planned, tweak your thesis statement to match what you actually say.

To polish your writing, you can use something like a paraphrasing tool .

You can use the checklist below to make sure your introduction does everything it’s supposed to.

Checklist: Essay introduction

My first sentence is engaging and relevant.

I have introduced the topic with necessary background information.

I have defined any important terms.

My thesis statement clearly presents my main point or argument.

Everything in the introduction is relevant to the main body of the essay.

You have a strong introduction - now make sure the rest of your essay is just as good.

  • Argumentative
  • Literary analysis

This introduction to an argumentative essay sets up the debate about the internet and education, and then clearly states the position the essay will argue for.

The spread of the internet has had a world-changing effect, not least on the world of education. The use of the internet in academic contexts is on the rise, and its role in learning is hotly debated. For many teachers who did not grow up with this technology, its effects seem alarming and potentially harmful. This concern, while understandable, is misguided. The negatives of internet use are outweighed by its critical benefits for students and educators—as a uniquely comprehensive and accessible information source; a means of exposure to and engagement with different perspectives; and a highly flexible learning environment.

This introduction to a short expository essay leads into the topic (the invention of the printing press) and states the main point the essay will explain (the effect of this invention on European society).

In many ways, the invention of the printing press marked the end of the Middle Ages. The medieval period in Europe is often remembered as a time of intellectual and political stagnation. Prior to the Renaissance, the average person had very limited access to books and was unlikely to be literate. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century allowed for much less restricted circulation of information in Europe, paving the way for the Reformation.

This introduction to a literary analysis essay , about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein , starts by describing a simplistic popular view of the story, and then states how the author will give a more complex analysis of the text’s literary devices.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often read as a crude cautionary tale. Arguably the first science fiction novel, its plot can be read as a warning about the dangers of scientific advancement unrestrained by ethical considerations. In this reading, and in popular culture representations of the character as a “mad scientist”, Victor Frankenstein represents the callous, arrogant ambition of modern science. However, far from providing a stable image of the character, Shelley uses shifting narrative perspectives to gradually transform our impression of Frankenstein, portraying him in an increasingly negative light as the novel goes on. While he initially appears to be a naive but sympathetic idealist, after the creature’s narrative Frankenstein begins to resemble—even in his own telling—the thoughtlessly cruel figure the creature represents him as.

If you want to know more about AI tools , college essays , or fallacies make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!

  • Ad hominem fallacy
  • Post hoc fallacy
  • Appeal to authority fallacy
  • False cause fallacy
  • Sunk cost fallacy

College essays

  • Choosing Essay Topic
  • Write a College Essay
  • Write a Diversity Essay
  • College Essay Format & Structure
  • Comparing and Contrasting in an Essay

 (AI) Tools

  • Grammar Checker
  • Paraphrasing Tool
  • Text Summarizer
  • AI Detector
  • Plagiarism Checker
  • Citation Generator

Your essay introduction should include three main things, in this order:

  • An opening hook to catch the reader’s attention.
  • Relevant background information that the reader needs to know.
  • A thesis statement that presents your main point or argument.

The length of each part depends on the length and complexity of your essay .

The “hook” is the first sentence of your essay introduction . It should lead the reader into your essay, giving a sense of why it’s interesting.

To write a good hook, avoid overly broad statements or long, dense sentences. Try to start with something clear, concise and catchy that will spark your reader’s curiosity.

A thesis statement is a sentence that sums up the central point of your paper or essay . Everything else you write should relate to this key idea.

The thesis statement is essential in any academic essay or research paper for two main reasons:

  • It gives your writing direction and focus.
  • It gives the reader a concise summary of your main point.

Without a clear thesis statement, an essay can end up rambling and unfocused, leaving your reader unsure of exactly what you want to say.

The structure of an essay is divided into an introduction that presents your topic and thesis statement , a body containing your in-depth analysis and arguments, and a conclusion wrapping up your ideas.

The structure of the body is flexible, but you should always spend some time thinking about how you can organize your essay to best serve your ideas.

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  29. How to Write an Essay Introduction

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