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Last updated May 25, 2023

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How to Write a College Essay About Work that Will Pay Off

Key Takeaway

If you're writing your college essay about work, avoid focusing on surface-level stories about the job itself. Instead, hone in on values you learned, experiences you grew from, or key takeaways you gleaned. 

Work—your first job, summer job, after-school job, or volunteer work—can be a foundational part of your high school experience.

And with over 6 million US teens employed last summer alone, it’s no surprise why so many students choose to write their college essay about work.

As with any common topic, a college essay about work runs the risk of being unoriginal or, even worse, cliche.

It can be tricky to decide what work experiences to focus on and to learn how to write about them in a way that avoids the cliches your admissions officers have read a thousand times.

That said, when I was an admissions officer, some of my favorite essays were about students’ experiences at work.

The topic allowed them to demonstrate, implicitly rather than explicitly, their ability to work hard, problem solve, and interact with a wide variety of people. These are both necessary traits of a successful college student.

Let’s dive into how you can write your own college essay about work that gets the attention of your admissions officers.

Choosing a work experience to write about in your college essay

To write about this topic, you need some kind of work experience.

As you’re brainstorming, be sure to include any unpaid work experience you have. Volunteering, unpaid internships, and family responsibilities are all valid forms of work.

The next step is to decide what work experience you want to write about.

How and why did you land your job? Is there a salient time when you demonstrated hard work? What has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned while working? What happened on your worst day at work? What were the most special moments in your volunteer work?

The directions are infinite. Keep a list of memories, feelings, and ideas as they arise.

While you narrow down your experiences to draw from, you should maintain sight of what the purpose of your personal statement actually is.

The goal of your essay is to show admissions officers who you are and to give them a compelling reason to admit you to their school. Everything you write should work toward that end.

Maybe your favorite part of working at Joann Fabrics is that you get to work alongside your best friend.

Maybe you truly love the way you’ve learned a good work ethic that has allowed you to handle the weekend brunch rush at Starbucks.

That is awesome. But those topics alone are not going to give your admissions officers the information they need to advocate for you to be admitted.

As you’re considering the following frameworks, only choose a topic and examples that give true insight into who you are.

Frameworks for your college essay about work

There are a few main frameworks that tend to produce the best, most thoughtful essays about work.

These frameworks are effective because they encourage you to draw deeper meaning from your work experiences and connect that meaning to a core part of you.

Test your experiences within each framework to see what resonates.

Framework 1: “I learned something from my work experience.”

Whether you learned something from someone else (a customer, coworker, or boss) or learned something about yourself, writing your essay about how work facilitated a central lesson in your life can show admissions committees valuable information.

Essays that use this framework thrive in the “show, don’t tell” department.

You can let your character, personality, and curiosity shine through your interactions with others rather than having to state them directly.

But the information or lesson you discuss should not be random. Strategically use an example that leads to a more extended conversation about you.

Think, genuinely, about what you want the admissions officer to know about you.

How do the lessons you’ve learned connect your extracurricular and academic interests, or how do they speak to something that isn’t yet represented in your application?

Start there.

Example premise: The ice cream machine at my restaurant was always broken. Each week, the repairperson came to fix it. I watched as they tinkered with the gears and levers, and I eventually learned to fix it myself. Now I want to study mechanical engineering.

Framework 2: “A specific event surprised me or changed my perspective.”

Pivotal moments lend themselves well to the personal statement format because of the abrupt “before” and “after” you can create for the reader.

Workplaces, especially those that teens tend to work in, are often bustling with interpersonal dynamics and moving parts that can be novel or just plain odd.

Identifying a specific event should be pretty easy if you have one. Think back to what shocked, moved, or challenged you.

The first key to executing this framework successfully is focusing on the specific.

Use your “show, not tell” skills to place your reader in the moment with you by describing what you saw and felt.

The second key is to make it clear why this moment matters to the development of who you are. What about your perspective changed? What tangible difference did the event have on your life?

Continue to avoid cliches. If anyone has said verbatim what you state as your change in perspective (”it opened my eyes,” “never judge a book by its cover,” “I never littered again”), try again.

Example premise: While I was working for a construction company this summer, our work got interrupted when we found an endangered species nearby. It was just a tiny animal I’d never heard of before, but it had such a huge impact. I can have an impact too. Maybe as a biologist.

Framework 3: “I learned about some broader topic through my job, and now I’m inspired.”

Jobs are important because we learn about far more than the work duties we’re assigned.

Use your newfound perspective to your advantage by connecting what you’ve learned or observed at work to your knowledge of the broader world.

This framework is the trickiest because it may require you to navigate difficult topics tactfully.

But when done with intention, you can seamlessly connect the dots for your admissions officer between your work experience, values, and academic or co-curricular interests.

When writing within this framework, use your work experience as a starting point for discussing one of your passions.

To begin, think about the parts of your job that have been the most exciting or confusing.

What did you learn about people or the world? How has your job affected what you want to do for school or work in the future?

If you find yourself interested in complicated social or political issues, be sure to choose a topic that you have appropriate background and context to include.

Example premise: The bakery I worked at threw away all their doughnuts at the end of the night. I thought that was a shame, so I began to research the social and environmental impacts of food waste. I encouraged my manager to donate the leftover food instead, and I organized a system to do so efficiently.

Although jobs are a fairly common topic for college essays, the fact that most jobs and workplaces are vastly different makes it easy for you to set your essay apart. So once you find a framework that fits, run with it.

And as you’re outlining and writing, remember that the most effective college essays about work will avoid cliches and work towards a cohesive application narrative that will give admissions officers a clear picture of what is most important to you.

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