Alice was a student applying to Ivy League colleges. When she saw the essay prompt to write about something “impactful,” she decided to go with what felt most natural to her—what she learned over the summer working retail.

While essays are just one part of your admissions package, they are a chance for the admissions officers to get to know the “real” you: how you think, how you view the world, and how you will contribute to the student body. While you might feel pressure to write about a far-flung adventure, admissions officers say this isn’t as important as the perspective and depth you bring to the piece. This essay is proof that you don’t have to write about an impressive adventure to stand out.

Sometimes it’s all about perspective. Yale asked that I describe something “impactful” in my life—that was the theme of the supplemental essay I needed to write the year I applied. Like many classmates, I chose to describe the summer before my senior year.

But there was a big difference between how my ambitious classmates and I passed the time that year. They all outdid each other with exotic tales of summers spent abroad in far-flung destinations or filled with worthy volunteer work or by snagging “cool” internships.

Me? I worked at the mall. If I wanted to big it up, I worked at New York City’s Manhattan Mall, a shopping complex in the center of Midtown that had the advantage of carrying all my favorite brands (hello, staff discount!). While the gig impacted my bank account, I wasn’t sure it would impress Yale’s admissions board.

Why I Chose to Write About My Job for an Ivy League College Application

As the start of senior year loomed closer, I knew I’d be tasked with answering the inevitable question: What did you do this summer? I practiced how I would respond so that I could tell the truth without embarrassment. “I spent my summer working at the mall” became my mantra.

Over time, something peculiar started to happen. The more I said it, the more I realized that the experience was impactful. I may not have been working at a soup kitchen or going on a safari, but it was a summer that had worth, at least to me. I decided to make this seemingly mundane, minimum-wage job the focus of my essay for Yale. And that’s exactly how I set up my intro:

I wish I could say that last summer I found a cure for cancer or ended world hunger, but all I can honestly tell people is that I worked at the mall for minimum wage. It seemed to be a good match: I liked shopping, and I loved people. 

Did I love the job? No, of course not. The tasks that kept me on my feet all day—like tagging and hanging merchandise—were mind-numbing. But the experience was not without meaningful life lessons in commitment, follow-through, and taking pride in my work. These were all concepts that I used to anchor my essay:

As I worked, I began to notice things, such as how frequently customers dropped merchandise that they then left on the floor for an employee to pick up, and realized how oblivious I had been as just a shopper. I was exposed to a new perspective in an environment I was already familiar with.

Why I Think This Essay Made a Different in My Application

I went on to study psychology on the neuroscience track, but I never forgot that summer I spent working at the mall. As I wrote, the “job most certainly was not life-altering, but it was eye-opening, and I did gain much more than money from it.” One thing that’s stayed with me the most is that I was exposed to a new perspective in a place I thought I knew so well.

I learned a valuable lesson from writing my essay as well. There’s pressure to write applications that focus on a big, defining moment, but capturing a slice of life can be just as powerful and can arguably say more about an applicant. In the end, I chose a topic that expressed who I was as a person, and I think that made an impression. Read the full essay on or peruse other college applications from real students.

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