First thoughts: It’s aight. I see why she got in places. My biggest negative towards the whole thing was actually how calculated and polished the piece was. Yes, it’s a wacky Costco essay. But to a trained eye, it’s the work of a professional writer expertly crafting a work that will make a student come off well. One of the greatest magic tricks we as consultants play is making it seem like we were never there at all. The much rougher version of this type of essay is the essay I can tell a parent wrote. Those tend to be calculated as hell but never polished and usually really bad. This is a much higher level of touch-up.
Or maybe it wasn’t! I don’t know; perhaps she’s just both extraordinarily talented and knows how to professionally craft college work. And hey, she got in. Maybe I should take this as a bit of advice for myself.
Because of that, I’m less interested in giving this piece a grade (8.5. Needs more believable substance in the middle. See notes.) and more diving into what kind of thought process went into making the piece in the first place. I also start doing that editor thing halfway through where I say an essay is good only to then tear it to shreds line by line. Sorry. The doctor says it’s incurable.
Take this as an analysis of what I think goes into a top-tier college essay. As well as the type of feedback and advice I tend to give when doing my editing. Spoiler: It’s a lot more about strategy than talent.
Prompt 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.
Managing to break free from my mother’s grasp, I charged. With arms flailing and chubby legs fluttering beneath me, I was the ferocious two year old rampaging through Costco on a Saturday morning.
This, students, is what we call a “hook.” A hook is a way of starting a piece of writing by presenting ongoing events immediately, live, as if the reader were an onlooker in the store themselves. The goal is to create intrigue and excitement by jumping right into the action before explaining the context. In a more general sense, the concept being used here is “en media res.”
I tend not to like hooks because everyone does hooks. College essays aren’t a zero-sum game, and it’s essential to realize that your essay will be read alongside hundreds of others. By using “best practices” to a tee, you end up with a problem that your “excellent” writing is excellent in the same way as everyone else’s. Gotta be two steps ahead, ya know?
I also don’t like hooks because they’re hard and I’m bad at them. I’m bad at intros in general. I will say that for a hook, this one is good. You want your reader to be intrigued by your info: not confused. There’s not too much going on here before the story opens up. Girl is excited about something. Oh, hey, I like Costco, too.
My mother’s eyes widened in horror as I jettisoned my churro; the cinnamon-sugar rocket gracefully sliced its way through the air while I continued my spree. I sprinted through the aisles, looking up in awe at the massive bulk products that towered over me. Overcome with wonder, I wanted to touch and taste, to stick my head into industrial-sized freezers, to explore every crevice. I was a conquistador, but rather than searching the land for El Dorado, I scoured aisles for free samples. Before inevitably being whisked away into a shopping cart, I scaled a mountain of plush toys and surveyed the expanse that lay before me: the kingdom of Costco.
OK, shoutout to this girl. I’d pretty much been coming to this conclusion on my own, but this is an excellent paragraph to explain what “show don’t tell means.” Reread this paragraph, but this time, focus less on the content and more on what you learn about the author through what she writes. Make a list. Here’s mine:
– She’s high-energy and a bit impulsive
– She emphasizes tangible experiences. She wants to see, taste, smell everything life has to offer
– She has an eye for gravitas and seeks wonder in everything she does
– She’s imaginative and likes to fancy her situation as more important than it probably is
– She can be extra
Even if you’re not trying to psychoanalyze her, anyone reading this paragraph will get a sense of this girl’s personality. Excitable and adventurous. Because this is well written, it doesn’t feel forced.
The “tell” version of this paragraph would be like, “I’ve always seen places I’ve gone to as fairytale lands to explore. When I’m in Cosco, I’m the queen of the market, and every overstocked shelf is my liege.”
I did the thing again, where I wrote an example trying to make it sound bad, only for it also to be fine. This is why I don’t think telling is necessarily that bad. But she did show, and she did it well.
Notorious for its oversized portions and dollarfifty hot dog combo, Costco is the apex of consumerism. From the days spent being toted around in a shopping cart to when I was finally tall enough to reach lofty sample trays, Costco has endured a steady presence throughout my life. As a veteran Costco shopper, I navigate the aisles of foodstuffs, thrusting the majority of my weight upon a generously filled shopping cart whose enormity juxtaposes my small frame.
I wouldn’t have kept the “apex of consumerism” line. Like, it is. But that’s not what this Costco essay is about. That implies her favorite thing about Costco is supporting free-market capitalism.
I think I would have cut this entire paragraph. It doesn’t add much, and I think we as readers already know what Costco is and why someone might like it. It’s not bad on its own, but there’s space lower where I’d like something more tangible, and cutting this would have saved 77 words for later.
Over time, I’ve developed a habit of observing fellow patrons tote their carts piled with frozen burritos, cheese puffs, tubs of ice cream, and weightloss supplements. Perusing the aisles gave me time to ponder. Who needs three pounds of sour cream? Was cultured yogurt any more well mannered than its uncultured counterpart? Costco gave birth to my unfettered curiosity.
This is a fun college admissions essay. Unfettered curiosity is probably my favorite line in this Costco essay. I will be stealing that.
While enjoying an obligatory hot dog, I did not find myself thinking about the ‘all beef’ goodness that Costco boasted. I instead considered finitudes and infinitudes, unimagined uses for tubs of sour cream, the projectile motion of said tub when launched from an eighty foot shelf or maybe when pushed from a speedy cart by a scrawny seventeen year old.
I don’t like “Finitudes and infinitudes.” Finitudes and infinitudes of what? She goes on to address individual ones, but the clause as a whole means absolutely nothing without context. I would probably want something as verbose. “Finitudes and infinitudes of the wholesale galaxy but a foodcourt away.” I’ll write someday about using big-kid writer words and phrasing. I’m not the guy to tell you to put down the thesaurus. But I will tell you only to use words that make sense and enhance the sentence. When you use big words just to use them, they tend to come off as forced or inauthentic. I discourage forced or inauthentic writing.
This is probably the right place to ask a question I have with the piece: is she ironic? My answer is “no.” But maybe? I would want to ask her and get a straight answer. Then we lean harder into one direction or the other. This essay reads like 80% legit power fantasy and 20% “lol Costco am I right?” I feel like the former is the right angle and why this piece popped as it did instead of falling into “le quirky teen” camp. But I would have wanted to make it 100% sincere.
I contemplated the philosophical: If there exists a thirtythree ounce jar of Nutella, do we really have free will? I experienced a harsh physics lesson while observing a shopper who had no evident familiarity of inertia’s workings. With a cart filled to overflowing, she made her way towards the sloped exit, continuing to push and push while steadily losing control until the cart escaped her and went crashing into a concrete column, 52″ plasma screen TV and all. Purchasing the yuletide hickory smoked ham inevitably led to a conversation between my father and me about Andrew Jackson’s controversiality. There was no questioning Old Hickory’s dedication; he was steadfast in his beliefs and pursuits – qualities I am compelled to admire, yet his morals were crooked. We both found the ham to be more likeable-and tender.
I would have shortened the part about the lady crashing into one sentence. Too much content, not about her. I might have her change it entirely to a third story just about her. I think there’s a clash where it goes story about her/nutella, a different person wiping out, her/father/ham. In trios like this, it helps to theme them, so the reader doesn’t have to reorient their understanding for each story.
I get to this more in my final notes, but this paragraph ain’t it. One hundred thirty-four words, and I just don’t like it that much.
I adopted my exploratory skills, fine tuned by Costco, towards my intellectual endeavors. Just as I sampled buffalochicken dip or chocolate truffles, I probed the realms of history, dance and biology, all in pursuit of the ideal cart-one overflowing with theoretical situations and notions both silly and serious. I sampled calculus, crosscountry running, scientific research, all of which are now household favorites.
With cart in hand, I do what scares me; I absorb the warehouse that is the world. Whether it be through attempting aerial yoga, learning how to chart blackbody radiation using astronomical software, or dancing in front of hundreds of people, I am compelled to try any activity that interests me in the slightest.
This section is what I like to call the “getting my shit in” paragraph. I laughed because I’ve done paragraphs precisely like it in essays precisely like this one. And those paragraphs always fall in this exact spot: right before the big dramatic ending.
There are two types of common apps essay:
- A cool thing you did
- What makes you tick
I’m sure you’ll be able to find me ones that are out of those realms, but I’ve done a lot of these, and those are the two themes that get hit 95% of the time. More and more, “what makes you tick” seems to make for a more powerful essay. That’s what those third UC essays I wrote about last time tended to focus on.
The problem with those types of essays is it’s hard to then also get your shit in. College essays serve a lot of masters, and one of those is making sure the reader knows you’ve worked your ass off and have a damn good reason to have done so. The quick fix is this exact paragraph:
“Yes, I love Costco. JUST AS I LOVE YOGA AND DEVELOPING SOFTWARE IN MY SPARE TIME.”
I think I’m inching closer and closer to just dropping this paragraph from my student’s works. Seeing someone else do the same thing makes me realize how forced it feels. But I also want them to get their shit in…
My intense desire to know, to explore beyond the bounds of rational thought; this is what defines me. Costco fuels my insatiability and cultivates curiosity within me at a cellular level. Encoded to immerse myself in the unknown, I find it difficult to complacently accept the “what”; I want to hunt for the “whys” and dissect the “hows”. In essence, I subsist on discovery.
Do you know what my actual takeaway is after reading through this whole thing again? This essay didn’t need to be about Costco. There is another, near-identical essay in which this girl is at an amusement park, or playground, or ice cream shop, or anywhere else with lots of exciting things that you can interact with. Finding wonderment in the only somewhat-extraordinary is a thematic device that extends well past a particular big-box store.
It could also be set at a Walmart or Sams Club. But she went with Costco. And that’s why it worked, and she became a meme. Everyone likes Costco. Everyone knows what Costco is. But no one likes Costco as much as this girl. Or at least that’s what she wants you to think.
All Costco is in this essay is a vehicle for her to explain how she thinks and feels. I covered it in the “Show don’t tell” section after the second paragraph. And that is by far the most compelling paragraph in the essay. I found myself less enamored with what came after, simply because I don’t think I got that same sense of discovery or interest about either the store or her.
If I were to touch this draft up, I would want her to talk more about why this sense of wonderment is only possible at Costco and/or connect Costco to herself more directly. I think too much of her work was based upon “Costco has a lot of stuff.” And it does! But that’s only a part of what makes Costco Costco. Walmart has giant TVs and people watching galore, too.
Where were the free samples? The frozen meat room to hang out in on a hot day? The guy spending seven seconds at the exit to make sure all $543 worth of stuff you bought you paid for? Where were the free samples?
Then I would have wanted those free samples to link back to her life in more believable, more explanatory ways. I mention that the piece started to wander into parody territory for me, and that was because her rationales stopped being believable for what she was describing. I’m fine suspending my disbelief that Costco is her mecca. Totally cool. But if I start getting confused or losing the logic behind what she says, it all turns into word soup.
She also could have bailed on Costco sooner and opened things up more naturally. Instead of the “getting my shit in” section, the entire second half could have been a more natural explanation of how her wonderment at Costco matches her wonderment in life. I just didn’t find what she wrote in the final third credible.
(I FOUND THE FREE SAMPLES! THEY WERE IN THE PARAGRAPH I LIKED!)
But they’re mentioned briefly and then tossed aside. I think that was a huge mistake. That stuff is the gold in this essay. I would have had her cut a couple of lines from paragraph two and bring them back in as their own paragraphs. “I was a conquistador, but rather than searching the land for El Dorado, I scoured aisles for free samples.” has way more juice in it than just that one line. It’s such a good line, tho.
I legit think what happened is she got 300 words into this piece and went, “wait, what else does Costco have?” That’s why she started to have to reach for more generic and less important stuff to her.
That second paragraph is fantastic. And it’s why I liked the essay so much more the first time I read it then when I delved deeper. That paragraph was so good that my takeaway was “PRO WRITER DID IT.” I’m not so sure anymore. I think a pro would have guided her better to hit a lot of the same notes I wanted to see in the second half.
I figure a lot of people will like that second paragraph and then kind of skim the rest. Maybe that works. Reminds me of those 80-classic-rock-hits collections you can buy where the first song is Freebird and you’re like Oh shit Freebird but then you buy it and there’s also Life in the Fastlane and that’s not bad but then songs 3-80 you’ve never heard of except for Whiskey in the Jar which you only know because you got really into Thin Lizzy when you were 14.
I still give it like a 7.5. It seems a lot of people are split between new paradigm and actually bad. I see a good essay with an ingenious framing device that overshoots its load early and could have used structural changes to make it truly pop.
What do you think?
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(This piece won the 2020 r/applyingtocollege acorn award for most helpful post! It’s probably the most important thing I’ve ever written. Half-ideas is such fire omg.)