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College Admissions: Common Application Prompt #4

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


The intention of this series is to show readers a sample of a good essay in response to each of the Common Application prompts. This essay is an actual college admission essay, written and submitted by a real student. It is followed by comments from admissions professionals about what makes this personal statement effective.

Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

My mouth waters as I stare at the colorful concoctions in the glass case before me. I was born and raised in Portland, so Voodoo Doughnut is practically woven into my DNA. The trays display Fruit Loops on frosting, bacon on maple, and an inappropriately shaped, cream-filled chocolate bar. It took me and my friends thirty minutes to get in the door, and it was worth it. I purchase a chocolate doughnut covered with chocolate glaze and Coco Puffs. It’s still warm, and it smells like Christmas morning. My friends and I leave the shop in high spirits as we walk back to our car. As we pass under a bridge, I hear a shuffle coming from the far side of the sidewalk. I turn to see a man huddled in a worn jacket, trying desperately to keep warm in the Oregon chill. I stop in my tracks and look down at my wonderful sugar-coated pastry. My friends urge me along, nervous on the city streets at night. I hurry to join them, but not before turning and giving the homeless man my doughnut. His smile is better than Coco Puffs. As I hop in the car, empty-handed, my friends laugh at me. I can’t help but laugh with them. Despite dozens of trips to Voodoo over the years, I have only once actually eaten one of their doughnuts. I have repeatedly seen a simple doughnut bring some joy to a joyless situation. I start brainstorming.

Two weeks later, fourteen high-schoolers from my church and I pile into two cars at 1:30am and drive to Portland. High-schoolers like us are typically broke. We can’t afford to give everyone on the streets of Portland a full meal, or even a few dollars. Thankfully, every night at 2:00am, the workers of Voodoo Doughnut fill five-gallon buckets with leftovers and sell them for five dollars a bucket. We combine our money and purchase eight buckets of delicious, only slightly smashed, doughnuts. Armed with old blankets, coats, and a box of Dollar Tree socks and gloves, we hit the streets.

For two hours, we meet and talk with the homeless of Portland. They aren’t hard to find. Everywhere we go there is someone in need—army veterans, unemployed women, and teens no older than me. I can’t build them a house or get them a job, but I have doughnuts and socks, and that seems good enough for now. One man gives each of us a hug and almost cries after we give him a bacon-maple bar and a new coat. He dubs us the Bucket and Blanket Brigade. The name sticks.

Now, every month or so, I gather the brigade (that is, anyone crazy enough to come with me at two in the morning), and we set out on another mission. When I see people travel to third-world countries or donate thousands of dollars to charity, I admire their work. But my heart is for the suffering and homeless in my own city. They are my social responsibility. I cannot give them a car, or a place to stay, or a better life. But I can give them a blanket and my time and the closest thing to heaven I can think of—a Voodoo doughnut. (Stephanie, Occidental College, Class of 2019)

Conor’s feedback: This student is wise enough to recognize the limits of her ability to help others in need and doesn't try to overstate or overvalue the impact of her goodwill.  

Anna’s feedback: With one whiff of doughnuts at Voodoo’s, I am transported with Stephanie as she “sets out on her mission”. She paints a picture from the very start to draw me in. But more importantly, she tells a story of serving others but doesn’t fall into the easy cliché of pity or a naïve “I can save the world” attitude.

Jodi’s feedback: Wow! This student is both caring and practical. She takes a real and serious problem, does what she can, and convinces others to be part of the solution. She will be a huge asset to the college community.

Conor O’Rourke is Senior Assistant Dean of Admission at Pomona College, which is also his alma mater. Contact Conor at: [email protected]

Anna Aegerter is the Director of West Coast Admission for Sarah Lawrence College In her twenty year career, Anna has worked at Lewis & Clark College (her alma mater), Trinity University (TX), Lawrence University, and Pitzer College. She also was the Director of College Counseling for an independent school in Seattle before returning to Admission to work at Sarah Lawrence College. Contact her at: [email protected]

Jodi Walder-Biesanz is the founder of Portland, Oregon-based College Admission Coach LLC which helps students identify and gain admission to right-fit schools where they will thrive academically and personally. She has also worked as an application reader for Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. Contact her at: [email protected].


Related Slideshow: The Top 10 Most Popular Cities for College Grads

Portland is the 5th most popular city for college grads, according to Business Insider. Here are the 10 U.S. cities where the number of college-educated residents ages 25 - 34 grew the most between 2000 and 2012, ranked by percentage change. 

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Pittsburgh, PA — 28.8%

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Los Angeles, CA — 30.4%

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Baltimore, MD — 32%

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Buffalo, NY — 33.5%

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Washington, DC — 36.3%

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Portland, OR — 37.3%

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Austin, TX — 44.3%

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Denver, CO — 46.6%

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Nashville, TN — 47.6%

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Houston, TX — 49.8%


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