Why The Costco Essay Is Crucial Reading for Future College Applicants (And Also Why It's Not)

It is crucial to internalize that this Costco essay represents just one example of an approach that might work in a winning admissions essay. You'll know when you've found the right combination of topic, voice and style, be they oversized or a bit more subdued.
04/13/2016 02:23 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2017
A backlit shopping trolley. 3D render with HDRI lighting and raytraced textures.
A backlit shopping trolley. 3D render with HDRI lighting and raytraced textures.

By now you have probably heard about or read the college essay by high schooler Brittany Stinson detailing how her routine trips to Costco shaped her life and world. In the piece, now officially at viral status, Stinson paints a vivid picture of how wandering up and down the aisles at her favorite big box store inspired her to ponder the addictive nature of Nutella, imagine physics experiments involving 3-pound tubs of sour cream and converse with her father about historical figures who share their aliases with giant hams. The essay is clever, warm and highly observant and introspective. If Costco is a kingdom, as Brittany claims, she is currently its reigning Queen.

Every year around acceptance time college essays of successful applicants are published (and then shared and reshared) for both the admiration and dissection of students, parents, journalists and admissions experts. Publications like USA Today, Refinery29 and even People latched onto this year's acceptance story, most of them acknowledging Stinson's writing prowess, and many focusing even more on the accomplishments purportedly made possible by such a stellar submission.

The Business Insider piece that originally introduced Stinson's essay to the world framed her success in their title: "This Essay Got a High School Senior Into 5 Ivy League Schools and Stanford." As a college essay expert and advisor, I would love to be able to tell you that a college essay can get you into the school of your dreams. But the truth is, a wide array of factors are considered in admissions decisions and the essay is just one of them. And media attention that focuses exclusively on students who gain admission to multiple Ivy League Institutions sends the wrong message to students (and parents) about what is important and why they should pay attention to Stinson's writing.

Stinson's essay was not her ticket to admission. It was a thoughtfully crafted, brilliantly executed piece of a very complex puzzle. Still, the college essay is a highly significant piece of the puzzle in that it is one of the only opportunities students have to speak to admissions officers in their own voices and highlight something about their personalities or passions that allows them to stand our from other, similarly qualified candidates.

So what should students and parents take away from the Costco essay? Here are a few things Stinson did right that you want to try and emulate in your own essay:

Be specific. The lively scene Stinson paints is so compelling because of the incredible number of details she includes about her Costco experience. She contemplates other patrons' selections, describing "carts piled with frozen burritos, cheese puffs, tubs of ice cream, and weight ¬loss supplements." She recounts the tale of a shopper "losing control until the cart escaped her and went crashing into a concrete column, 52" plasma screen TV and all." Even the opening portrait of Stinson as a two year-old losing her churro (it "gracefully sliced its way through the air while I continued my spree") in her race to explore the aisles piques the reader's interest and establishes Stinson as an energized explorer of an exciting world we might have once viewed as mundane. The inclusion of these observations also substantiates the claims the writer ultimately makes about herself. They're the key component of the "show, don't tell" approach and are much more powerful, concrete demonstrations of her character than a sentence that simply says, "I have always been curious."

Connect your topic to your larger personality qualities and characteristics.
This essay about Costco is not really about Costco. It is about Stinson's intellectual curiosity, her untamable imagination and her ability to link these qualities back to one place in her life where those qualities revealed themselves. She writes:

"Just as I sampled buffalo¬ chicken dip or chocolate truffles, I probed the realms of history, dance and biology, all in pursuit of the ideal cart-one overflowing with theoretical situations and notions both silly and serious. I sampled calculus, cross¬ country running, scientific research, all of which are now household favorites."

Stinson's desire to taste all life had to offer is clearly not relegated to formerly-frozen food served up in tiny Solo cups.

Lean into your voice. Just like a seventeen year-old leans into a fully-stacked Costco shopping cart. By the time admissions reads your essay they know many things about you, but they don't know what it would be like to sit in a room and have a conversation with you. Reading Stinson's essay, you get a sense of her lightness and humor. She isn't stiff or fake. She seems both genuine and genuinely like a person you want to be around. This is accomplished by trusting your instincts and writing in a way that feels natural to you. Maybe the following lines, amusing as they are, do not sound like things you would say or write: "Perusing the aisles gave me time to ponder. Who needs three pounds of sour cream? Was cultured yogurt any more well ¬mannered than its uncultured counterpart?"

Fret not and trust yourself. You will find the words that sound like you.

Notice how none of this advice suggests you "write in metaphors" or "search for weird topics." For all the good that can come out of combing through Stinson's carefully crafted words, there is a danger in leaning too heavily on essay examples of former applicants.

Students can be easily spooked by stellar admissions essays, especially when these applicants are in the vulnerable position of trying to get their own personal perspectives out of their subconscious and onto the page. It can be discouraging to compare your earliest ideas and drafts to final, edited masterpieces. "What if I'm boring?" they tend to ask themselves. "What if I can't figure out how to write about why I am just like a toaster oven or how my trips to Costco changed my life and worldview?"

This is why it is crucial to internalize that this Costco essay represents just one example of an approach that might work in a winning admissions essay. It worked for Stinson because this style allowed her to honestly and creatively represent her passions, thought processes, quick wit and blooming imagination. Put the strategies in your shopping cart and keep moving down the aisles. After a lot of brainstorming, some careful contemplation, and maybe even a Costco ice cream cone or two (to fuel brainpower, obviously), you'll know when you've found the right combination of topic, voice and style, be they oversized or a bit more subdued. Then it's time to hit the checkout counter and bring it all home.