What does the Admissions Committee look for in a successful essay? It’s one of our most commonly asked questions.
Since the essay is an important part of the application process, the Admissions Committee has selected four examples of essays that worked, written by members of the Johns Hopkins Class of 2013. These essays represent just four examples of essays we found impressive and helpful during the past admissions cycle.
These "essays that worked" are distinct and unique to the individual writer; however, each of them assisted the admissions reader in learning more about the student beyond the transcripts and activity sheets. We hope these essays inspire you as you prepare to compose your own personal statements. The most important thing to remember is to be original and creative as you share your own story with us.
Christine Amelia Mumford
Hometown: Marstons Mills, MA
Intended majors: Writing Seminars/Romance Languages
I am buried and tangled with history. I was born on Cape Cod, as was my mother, her parents, their parents... a long line stretching all the way back to John Howland on the Mayflower. I have seen old family houses with their tiny, uneven windows and deeply slanted roofs, their thin walls and horse-hair plaster. I have heard stories, read old diaries, seen old pictures... and even the things I cannot perceive still surround me in this place, silent and invisible but still present: a reminder of the thousands of lives I am connected to.
This little cusp of sand in the corner of America has changed so much since then. At first wooded and silent, now trembling under too many mansions, golf courses, shopping malls, gas stations, and cars, cars, cars. I want to see the way the land looked before the Europeans arrived, when brave deer picked their way through ancient forests, when the sand was smooth and vastly unbroken, arching into the Atlantic as if to escape the continent itself.
Sometimes, when I walk on the beach in the winter and turn my back to the land, when I can't see or hear another human, when the wide gray sky and the wide gray sea stretch on until they meet, I can see the reason we've stayed so long. We live on the edge of infinity.
My father's family has lived in Indiana since Thomas Mumford came from England in 1828. The land there is so rich: insects, trees, tall grass; I love the way the sky is more alive, the way creeks are folded in between hills, and the long, long gravel driveway is lined with huge trees planted by the grandfather I never met. When I was younger, I thought those three thousand acres went on forever.
I love the way stories are hidden in everything I can see, like that old stone horse-jump in the middle of a cow pasture, or a dusty plaque in the tack room with the name of some long-dead horse. And some stories are too old for even my grandmother to remember, like the graveyard in the woods with headstones naming dead infants from the 1800s all hidden by tall wildflowers that grow over tiny skeletons. And then there are stories even older, before my family, like the Indian shell-mounds in the woods, the stone arrowheads on the creek banks.
I am surrounded by history and expectation. I am one more name in a vast family tree. I am tied to my cousins with the same wide smile and I see myself in an old photo of my grandmother, sitting on a fence with her ankle socks swinging and 1930s hair. I love seeing my own eyes look back at me. And still, there is something that makes me want to stand away from all of them. But could I do what John Howland did? Could I uproot myself and walk away from my identity?
It takes immense courage to step away from the known path, already beaten down with thousands of footsteps before me. I am a Mumford. That is a fact, but what else am I? What else will I be? My future is mine, and while my family has created and shaped me, I will become what I choose.
I know that someday, when I step off the stage with my diploma and look forward into the unknown, the blank canvas of my life, I will hear the silent applause of thousands of familiar hands and the wide smiles of those ancestors I never met. I will know that they are with me, that they are me, even as I make my own future.
Admissions Reader Comments
For me, Amelia's essay worked because, as I read it, I learned a great deal of what makes her an individual, what is important to her about her past, and what she is looking for in her future. She is a strong writer who can tell an interesting tale, which is a great attribute for a student interested in our Writing Seminars program. But, it was her use of her own voice throughout and the personal nature of the essay that assisted me in better understanding who she is and what kind of individual she will be at Hopkins.
—Daniel G. Creasy, Associate Director
Sara Elizabeth Hussey
Hometown: Rochester, NH
Intended majors: International Studies and Economics
It Doesn't Really Matter
Car ride—7 years old
The windows were dark, the black tinting giving an ominous glare to the outside night. My mom and I were contemplative, the conversation at dinner still turning through our minds. Finally mom met my eyes in the rearview mirror and broke the silence. "Honey, the way I look at it is that God sent you to us through unusual means, okay? Nothing anybody else says matters just that we're family now like we were always meant to be."
Being told—4 years old
I looked at my mom incredulously the three syllable word unfamiliar and heavy in my mouth. Almost instinctively my stomach tightened as I choked out, "AD-OPT-ED? What do you mean adopted?" My mom fumbled to explain her eyes darting throughout the room before landing on me.
"It means that your original mom couldn't take care of you like she wanted to so she told the state and they gave you to us."
"What do you mean original mom? You're my mom right?" I was really scared at this point, people don't have two moms do they? Did this mean that mom was going to go away or I was going to be giving another new mom at some point?
"Well yes honey of course I am... it's just... it's complicated."
"Why?" Things weren't supposed to be complicated, I was 4, life was supposed to be filled with concerns about having an extra dessert or getting to stay up late.
"Because your mom was really young when she had you and she wasn't ready to take care of you like she wanted to, but she was able to realize that she needed help, and that was what mattered."
"Oh ok," At this point I was content to leave the issue alone. But that night, staring at the ceiling in my grandmother's house, I couldn't help but think of my birth mother and wonder if she was thinking of me.
Conversation with Katie—10 years old
My feet hung above the gravel pit swinging back and forth. Katie and I were seated on the newly rebuilt 4th and 5th grade playground on the backside of McClelland Elementary. I couldn't help but be envious; Katie had the epitome of the classic family. Her parents were high school sweethearts that married, had two children and now resided in a quiet neighborhood that held yearly block parties. The other kids were yelling and running around; Katie and I however were having a serious discussion, our faces funnily grave.
"So do you want to know?" Katie asked tentatively, glancing at my face before staring at her foot scuffing the ground, toeing a particular rock into its proper place.
It took me a minute to respond, trying to formulate the words that my brain was giving me, "I'm not sure, I mean it'd be nice to know and track her down and stuff but I'm not really positive. What if it doesn't work out or she's married now or something?"
"Mhm" Katie nods, understanding more than others the conflicted feeling I have about meeting my birth mother, and offers "But isn't knowing better than not knowing and always wondering?"
"Maybe" I temporize really unsure about the whole thing, different scenarios playing through my head, her not wanting to meet me or not living up to my expectations or whatever. "I just don't want to get my hopes up, I can't even go until I'm 18, plus I think Mom and Dad would be upset, I don't want them to think that I'm betraying them or anything"
"There's always that," Katie agrees.
Grocery Store—13 years old
Mom and I wheel the cart around, picking items for dinner before heading to the checkout. A voice from an isle exclaimed.
"Jaca! I haven't seen you in forever, and is this Sara? Oh my! You've gotten so big now haven't you? What grade are you in now?" A few excruciating minutes of idle chit chat followed where she mentioned how much I've grown and how she remembered when my mother was pregnant. Finally she left and my mom and I continued to the checkout.
I glanced around a few times just in case before I turn to her and grinned, "I always think it's particularly amusing when they claim to have known you pregnant."
She chuckled, "yeah or that they remember the birth" We both giggled a little but I could see the slight sadness in my mother's eyes. I knew that she always wanted to be pregnant, and so all I could do was try and make her laugh.
Advanced Placement English—18 years old
We were preparing to start on Macbeth and Mrs. Smith had given us a worksheet asking questions like: What is love? How do you know what love is? Does it take a blood connection to have a family relationship? What makes a family? Lydia, always known for her stories, launched into an elaborate tale about her mother's current relationship and how no one could replace her father, even though he hadn't been a good man, on and on...
I raised my hand, "Well, I think it's more than a blood connection really, it's about caring, and understanding and being there for each other no matter what. My parents adopted me, but I've never questioned their love or anything, I've never felt like less than their child." While not totally true, especially when I was younger, I realized that this was how I felt now. My parents were just that, my family. Not my second family, or my adoptive family or any other label besides mom and dad.
Admissions Reader Comments
This essay works for several reasons. First, it is an original piece that allows the reader to really know much more about the applicant than can be gleaned from a transcript or test scores. It answers the question, "who are you?"
A second reason this essay works is the unique approach to the subject matter. The lay-out of the essay in several, non-linear sections mimics her experiences and feelings of being adopted; the feelings and moments can't be explained in one neat package, rather it is a collection of moments—just like her life.
A final element that makes this essay shine is the author's ability to seamlessly connect who she is and the subject of adoption to her academic experiences. It is clear that she will bring a unique perspective to her classroom experiences here at Hopkins.
—Sarah Godwin, Assistant Director
Hometown: Millersville, MD
Intended majors: Biology
When I entered high school, I decided that my bedroom would get a fresh start as well. Its first alterations were the obvious ones—bright pastels on the walls, silky, custom-made orange curtains (made with my mother as a compromise for keeping the walls toned down) and shifted furniture. But these are all standard items; the most important addition has proven to be my bookshelf.
I admit most people encounter bookshelves fairly frequently. But everything about this bookshelf, down to the calm and earthy brown—contrasting my unnaturally green wall—to the carefully arranged content, reminds me of something or someone I love. Construction began my first Christmas in high school when I successfully followed my parents' clues to the parts that would become this wonderful structure. The proceeding days were spent building and finishing the shelf with my dad; the nights on my sister's floor because of the paint fumes. As soon as the paint dried I was constantly "renovating": taping to its walls pictures of sunsets, waterfalls, waves, thunderstorms—nature at its best—along with a tessellated math assignment I spent an entire weekend perfecting (my teacher felt bad when she found out although I reassured her I had enjoyed it). The first occupants of this spacious high rise were the fantasy and science fiction books I read in middle school. As I changed and grew, however, the demographics of the incoming denizens shifted. They now form a menagerie ranging from the classics my mother snuck upon the upper shelves—which were reluctantly, then excitedly, adopted and read—to highly specialized visitors from the local library that frequently join their ranks. Balanced throughout are other odds and ends: stone animals from my nature-loving, rock-hound grandfather, soccer medals, a snow globe of the "tour Eiffel" from a rather crowded cigar shop we found while lost in Paris, a Lego rocket from the summer reading project that first made me expand into non-fiction.
Hidden behind the lower cabinet doors is the more costly treasure—my collection of non-fiction, from astronomy to neurology to genetics, I have developed as my passion has grown and found its niche within the immense and iridescent depths of science. A stack of Spanish books defend their territory although they seem slightly out of place. They have helped me pass a series of "tests" beginning with the AP test, to reading Spanish books in their original language, to tutoring, culminating with a test that, as urban rush hour traffic abashes the driver's test, put my first test to shame. I found myself with my Spanish speaking aunt, English speaking father and siblings, and my semi-bilingual self in Tia's Miami parlor for a several hour visit. Although at first uncertain, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself able to converse and translate her fascinating stories about the exotic fruits she had growing in her own backyard, trips to Spain with my mother and the strange food they stomached for pleasure or necessity. (Hidden between the various words lay insights into the reasons my mother's actions seem strange—protective or frugal—to me.) Learning for its own sake was and is satisfying, but doing something constructive with knowledge is exhilarating.
One might think this bookshelf is my brain-child, but in truth it is closer to my sister. It is being created not by me, but by the same forces that are molding me into who I am. Without my father's handiwork, my mother's books, my grandfather's passion, my teachers' assignments and my maternal grandparents' language, this bookshelf could never exist. I am forever indebted for the forces that have caused the once-dead, plain planks of wood to again sprout into something wonderful.
Admissions Reader Comments
This student's essay was great in my opinion because it was authentic and you could really relate to her growth and influences and the transition in her life. She has diverse interests as she grows and uses the different selves to illustrate this point. We all grow and become influenced by various factors in our lives. We are all diverse in our academic interests, goals, and backgrounds and this bookshelf of hers points to this fact. I think it's appreciated that she notes she has grown in her interests and from her family influences and you can see when she comes to college she will enter with a mind open to limitless possibilities in many areas.
—Jameel Freeman, Associate Director
Hometown: Fair Lawn, NJ
Intended majors: Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
The Sweet Taste of Victory
If accepted into Johns Hopkins University, I would pursue a major in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Aside from the impact of this major on our daily lives, I am inspired by the utility of the discipline. Everywhere I go, I see opportunities in which principles learned in class can be put to the wheel.
Consider, for example, a trip to McDonald's. Suppose you order a Big Mac Meal, super sized with a large coke. Now, after getting the coke and taking two paltry sips, you find yourself already slurping at bottom of the cup. At this point, most people would say, "Damn that McDonald's, cheating me of my coke," and just leave it at that. However, a Chemical Engineering major could solve this problem, and never get short changed of soda again.
All the student would need is to use a bit of Thermochemistry, as well as the Thermodynamics equation "q = mC ΔT". Here, q stands for energy change, m for mass, c for specific heat, and ΔT for temperature change. By assuming that the coke is essentially water, and that the ice is currently melting at 0 degrees Celsius, the student would be able to mathematically calculate that it would only take 31 grams of ice to cool half a liter of coke from 55 degrees to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Knowing that soda is dispensed at approximately 55 degrees, the student would conclude that it would only take 31 grams, or 1/6 of a cup of ice to make a large coke frosty cold.
Armed with this information, the Chemical Engineering major could make a stand. At the next purchase, he or she could say to the cashier, "Only 1/6 of a cup of ice in my soda, please." Not only would the student have benefited from the extra soda, he or she would also have the satisfaction of outsmarting the dubious business practices of the corporate giants.
In the end, it is through knowledge and application of the sciences that we can achieve what previously only dreamed of. Whether these achievements bring fame and fortune, or just a simple cup of soda, one thing is for sure. There is no wealth like knowledge, no poverty like ignorance.
Admissions Reader Comments
Thoughtful, creative, and appropriate, this essay demonstrates the ability to think critically about a topic that may seem very mundane at first. Alvin manages to take something traditional and generic like purchasing soda to thinking about the economic value of the return on investment and make it unique and his own while clearly representing himself as a student and scholar. This is an essay that makes sense and is fun to read while representing the student as a creative problem solver. I'd like to add that there is a great return on your investment if you get free refills too!
—Mark Butt, Senior Assistant Director
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