The Costco essay

 Photo by Martin Criminale

Photo by Martin Criminale

Last month, a Business Insider article about a college application essay went viral. BI reported that because of her essay, Brittany Stinson of Wilmington, Delaware, was admitted to five Ivy League universities (Yale, Dartmouth, UPenn, Cornell, and Columbia) as well as Stanford, academic powerhouses with notoriously competitive acceptance rates.

Brittany had written a tribute of sorts, a loving travelogue of her childhood adventures in a land of wonder and abundance, a land called Costco.

First, congratulations to Brittany for her remarkable achievement and for writing a genuinely entertaining narrative (which you can read here if you haven’t already). Elite schools set high bars in several college-preparedness categories, not just writing, so I’m guessing Brittany is also a consummate student, racked up superior test scores, put together a standout activities list, and earned high praise from her referring teachers.

But this is about the essay. I find it interesting that it was a business site that brought Brittany’s piece to our attention. For a while now, the business world has despaired the lack of strong writing skills among employees, even those who come with the same excellent academic credentials Brittany will soon possess. My friend Kelley Holland, a special contributor to CNBC, reported as much a couple of years ago in a story called “Why Johnny can’t write, and why employers are mad”.

Employers aren’t the only ones who are frustrated. In an essay for Slate last year, Dartmouth professor William Cheng moaned that his students don’t use—don’t seem to know how to use—the first person voice. The point, cliché as it may sound, Cheng writes, is that students should “recognize that they must listen inward, harnessing a voice from deep down, in order to reach outward and contribute to society at large.”

Kelley suspects the dearth of strong writing, particularly of personal narrative, is a negative side effect of society’s hyper-focus on STEM studies. I think she’s on to something. Certainly I don't recall my three children (the youngest enters college in the fall) ever being asked to write in first person, until English class senior year when their teachers took pity and invited them to work on application essays. Sure, they could conduct and collect research and share expert thinking on science, literature, and the like. But were they taught to “listen inward,” to organize and express their own thoughts? I don't think so.

Preparing to write a college application essay, then, is a rare opportunity for students to practice writing skills that connect, engage, and persuade—skills they may not be getting at school but will use for the rest of their lives. This type of writing pulls from everything they know—from the classroom, from the family vacation, even from the supermarket—and puts it in the context of who they are. 

Brittany Stinson figured this out. In her essay about Costco, the Concord High School senior writes with humor, insight, and vivid imagery, not to mention an understanding of physics and an appreciation for U.S. history. Brittany even waxes philosophical: “If there exists a thirty-three ounce jar of Nutella, do we really have free will?” (The essay, by the way, is a response to Prompt 1 on the 2015-16 Common App: “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.”)

It goes to show that if you can write well, you can write about anything and build a strong connection with your readers, including application readers. As my friend Kelley reminded me when we spoke today, “Costco is not the stuff of poetry, but this girl spun something wonderful out of a big box store, and it worked magic for her.”

— Written by Pat Berry

Pat Berry is a writing coach and founder of College Application Camp, four-day and weekend programs on the campus of Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ. Visit for more information.