Best Short Essay

I realized a little while ago that 2016 was shaping up to be a banner year for essays. It occurred to me that I could put together a list of collections that I read and loved or that I will make sure I read soon. I thought I would include 10 or so. But that hypothetical list of 10 quickly expanded to 15, and then 20, and then to 25, and I could add even more. But this list of 25 is enough to keep you reading for a long time.

The list below includes collections by novelists, poets, comedians, actors, bloggers, and activists. The first 17 have already been published, and the final 8 are forthcoming later this year. The list should have something for everyone: some of these books are funny, some are deeply personal, some are experimental, some are journalistic, some are literary. But all, I hope, will be thought-provoking and fun to read.

The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward: This anthology includes essays by writers such as Edwidge Danticat, Kiese Laymon, Claudia Rankine, Isabel Wilkerson, and more. It’s a follow-up to James Baldwin 1963 book The Fire Next Time, looking at the African-American experience and the state of race relations in America today. It’s a powerful and necessary collection.

Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole: This book contains more than 50 essays on literature, photography, travel, and more. Cole’s voice is both intellectual and engaging; his insights into the world — its politics, art, and culture — illuminate modern-day life.

Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, Brian Blanchfield: Blanchfield’s short essays bring together ideas and experiences you never thought could exist in one piece of writing. These essays are a mental work-out; they challenge and charm at once. They are poetic, confessional, brilliant.

Violation, Sallie Tisdale: This volume collects essays from the 1980s through today. Tisdale’s work is varied in content but always full of sharp observations and insights about family, culture, science, writing, and more. Tisdale’s mind is a fascinating place; you never quite know what to expect or where an essay might take you.

Bukowski in a Sundress, Kim Addonizio: These pieces are largely autobiographical; in fact, this book gets described as a memoir, but it’s really a collection of personal essays held together by Addonizio’s distinct voice and outlook on life. She’s had a rough life in some ways, and she writes about it — and her struggles with writing — in ways that are moving and hard to resist.

So Sad Today, Melissa Broder: Broder is a poet and the genius behind the Twitter account @sosadtoday, where this book gets its name. About anxiety and life in the modern world, these essays are revealing and darkly funny.

The Girls in My Town, Angela Morales: This book won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction prize. It contains autobiographical essays about Morales’s family in Los Angeles. It tells stories about growing up and coming to understand her intelligence, her role as a writer, and her place in the world.

Shame and Wonder, David Searcy: A debut collection of 21 essays, this book combines a personal voice with a sharp critical eye. Searcy’s subjects are varied, but his perspective on the world is consistently surprising, fresh, and insightful.

The Abundance, Annie Dillard: Dillard is renowned as a nature writer and is most famous for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This volume collects essays from throughout her illustrious career, including both famous pieces and lesser-known works.

We Gon’ Be Alright, Jeff Chang: This is another in a series of great recent essay collections about race. Chang takes a look at Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and other recent events and helps us understand ourselves and our country.

You’ll Grow Out of It, Jessi Klein: Klein is a writer and producer for the series Inside Amy Schumer, writing here about her experience of modern womanhood. These essays are funny and honest.

White Sands, Geoff Dyer: These essays combine travel writing, memoir, and Dyer’s signature genre-bending prose and dry British wit. Known for Out of Sheer Rage and Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, Dyer is a prose-writer worth reading at length.

Calamities, Renee Gladman: Published by the fascinating small press Wave Books, this volume contains linked essays about writing and narrative. Gladman is a writer of experimental fiction and nonfiction, and these essays will both fascinate and challenge.

Lost Wax, Jericho Parms: Partly autobiographical, these essays cover the author’s life in the Bronx in the 80s and 90s as well as her travels around the world. They are also meditations on art, race, family, and identity.

Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner: Garner is an acclaimed Australian writer of both fiction and nonfiction. This collection brings together essays from the past 15 years on topics as varied as the insults of aging, the ballet, her relationship with her mother, and rereading Jane Austen.

Where Am I Now?, Mara Wilson: Wilson’s subtitle is “True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame.” The book contains essays about her experiences as a child star and on through her adolescence and into her adulthood. Wilson’s writing is humorous and fun, as well as full of insight into what it means to be young and female.

I’m Judging You, Luvvie Ajayi: Ajayi is a comedian, activist, and blogger, and this is her debut collection of essays. She offers self-help with plenty of humor and wit, and covers pop culture, race, and media.

My Private Property, Mary Ruefle (Wave Books, October 4th): Ruefle is a beloved poet as well as the author of the previous collection of essays Madness, Rack, and Honey. In My Private Property, we find short poetic essays and prose poems on a wide range of subjects.

You Can’t Touch My Hair, Phoebe Robinson (Plume, October 4th): Like the Jessi Klein collection, this is another book of essays by a comedian, and Robinson is, among many other things, co-host with Jessica Williams of the 2 Dope Queenspodcast. This book is about her experiences as a black woman, including, among many other things, her feelings about her hair.

I’ll Tell You in Person, Chloe Caldwell (Coffee House Press, October 4th): This book will be published jointly by Coffee House Press and the ebook publisher Emily Books. Caldwell is the author of the essay collection Legs Get Led Astray, and in her new book writes personal pieces about, among other topics, her attempts to figure out what it means to become an adult.

Upstream, Mary Oliver (Penguin Press, October 11th): Oliver has been publishing poetry to great acclaim since 1963. Her essays here reflect on her relationship to the natural world, to writing, and to the poetic inheritance she works within.

Unbearable Splendor, Sun Yung Shin (Coffee House Press, October 11th): Sun Yung Shin is a poet, and in this book is writing poetic essays. Or maybe it’s essayistic poetry? Whatever we want to call it, this book explores the author’s various identities, including being American, Korean, an adoptee, a mother, a Catholic, and a Buddhist.

Not Just Jane, Shelley DeWees (Harper Perennial, October 25th): This collection explores the work and significance of seven women writing during Jane Austen’s time, including Charlotte Turner Smith, Sara Coleridge, and Mary Robinson. Together, the essays work to broaden our understanding of literary history.

Eat Live Love Die, Betty Fussell (Counterpoint, November 15th): Fussell has written on many subjects, but most notably on food. She has published histories of food, cookbooks, food memoirs, and journalism. This collection brings together a variety of her published work.

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, Siri Hustvedt (Simon and Schuster, December 6th): Hustvedt’s subtitle is “Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind.” She is known for novels such as What I Loved and The Blazing World, as well as for multiple essay collections and works of nonfiction.

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#Non-Fiction

Below is a pdf link to personal statements and application essays representing strong efforts by students applying for both undergraduate and graduate opportunities. These ten essays have one thing in common: They were all written by students under the constraint of the essay being 1-2 pages due to the target program’s explicit instructions. In such circumstances, writers must attend carefully to the essay prompt (sometimes as simple as “Write a one-page summary of your reasons for wanting to pursue graduate study”) and recognize that evaluators tend to judge these essays on the same fundamental principles, as follows:

  • First, you are typically expected to provide a window into your personal motivations, offer a summary of your field, your research, or your background, set some long-term goals, and note specific interest in the program to which you are applying.
  • Second, you are expected to provide some personal detail and to communicate effectively and efficiently. Failure to do so can greatly limit your chances of acceptance.

Good writers accomplish these tasks by immediately establishing each paragraph’s topic and maintaining paragraph unity, by using concrete, personal examples to demonstrate their points, and by not prolonging the ending of the essay needlessly. Also, good writers study the target opportunity as carefully as they can, seeking to become an “insider,” perhaps even communicating with a professor they would like to work with at the target program, and tailoring the material accordingly so that evaluators can gauge the sincerity of their interest

Overview of Short Essay Samples

Geological Sciences Samples

In the pdf link below, the first two one-page statements written by students in the geological sciences are interesting to compare to each other. Despite their different areas of research specialization within the same field, both writers demonstrate a good deal of scientific fluency and kinship with their target programs.

Geography Student Sample

The short essay by a geography student applying to an internship program opens with the writer admitting that she previously had a limited view of geography, then describing how a course changed her way of thinking so that she came to understand geography as a “balance of physical, social, and cultural studies.” Despite her limited experience, she shows that she has aspirations of joining the Peace Corps or obtaining a law degree, and her final paragraph links her interests directly to the internship program to which she is applying.

Materials Sciences Student Sample

For the sample from materials sciences, directed at an internal fellowship, the one-page essay has an especially difficult task: The writer must persuade those who already know him (and thus know both his strengths and limitations) that he is worthy of internal funds to help him continue his graduate education. He attempts this by first citing the specific goal of his research group, followed by a brief summary of the literature related to this topic, then ending with a summary of his own research and lab experience.

Teach for America Student Sample

The student applying for the Teach for America program, which recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years in underprivileged urban and rural public schools, knows that she must convince readers of her suitability to such a demanding commitment, and she has just two short essays with which to do so. She successfully achieves this through examples related to service mission work that she completed in Ecuador before entering college.

Neuroscience Student Sample

The sample essay by a neuroscience student opens with narrative technique, telling an affecting story about working in a lab at the University of Pittsburgh. Thus we are introduced to one of the motivating forces behind her interest in neuroscience. Later paragraphs cite three undergraduate research experiences and her interest in the linked sciences of disease: immunology, biochemistry, genetics, and pathology.

Medieval Literature Student Sample

This sample essay immerses us in detail about medieval literature throughout, eventually citing several Irish medieval manuscripts. With these examples and others, we are convinced that this student truly does see medieval literature as a “passion,” as she claims in her first sentence. Later, the writer repeatedly cites two professors and “mentors” whom she has already met, noting how they have shaped her highly specific academic goals, and tying her almost headlong approach directly to the National University of Ireland at Maynooth, where she will have flexibility in designing her own program.

Beinecke Scholarship Student Sample

The Beinecke Scholarship essay is written by a junior faced with stiff competition from a program that awards $34,000 towards senior year and graduate school. This student takes an interesting theme-based approach and projects forward toward graduate school with confidence. This writer’s sense of self-definition is particularly strong, and her personal story compelling. Having witnessed repeated instances of injustice in her own life, the writer describes in her final paragraphs how these experiences have led to her proposed senior thesis research and her goal of becoming a policy analyst for the government’s Department of Education.

Online Education Student Sample

Written during a height of US involvement in Iraq, this essay manages the intriguing challenge of how a member of the military can make an effective case for on-line graduate study. The obvious need here, especially for an Air Force pilot of seven years, is to keep the focus on academic interests rather than, say, battle successes and the number of missions flown. An additional challenge is to use military experience and vocabulary in a way that is not obscure nor off-putting to academic selection committee members. To address these challenges, this writer intertwines his literacy in matters both military and academic, keeping focus on applications of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), his chosen field of graduate study.

Engineer Applying to a Master’s Program Sample

This example shows that even for an engineer with years of experience in the field, the fundamentals of personal essay writing remain the same. This statement opens with the engineer describing a formative experience—visiting a meat packaging plant as a teenager—that influenced the writer to work in the health and safety field.  Now, as the writer prepares to advance his education while remaining a full-time safety engineer, he proves that he is capable by detailing examples that show his record of personal and professional success. Especially noteworthy is his partnering with a government agency to help protect workers from dust exposures, and he ties his extensive work experience directly to his goal of becoming a Certified Industrial Hygienist.

Click here to download a pdf of ten short essay samples.

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