An Example Essay

I worked with this student over several drafts before we arrived at the final version below. I added the title to make it easier to refer to the essay.

Tourné

As I exited the classroom, I watched in horror as the ramekin containing my chocolate soufflé began to slide, piercing the outline of piping chocolate, smearing raspberry coulis across the plate. My instructor remained quiet as she watched me place my ruined dessert on the table. A few minutes later, my instructor turned over my score sheet with a failing grade. “You’ve got one last shot tomorrow to retest,” she said. “Otherwise you’ll go back to your unit for failing to meet course standards.” There was nothing to do now but focus on my second chance.

I thought back to my first week of class, when I’d quickly learned that I was behind my classmates. I had trouble making a tourné, which entailed cutting a potato into a two-inch-long seven-sided football-shaped product with flat ends. I watched as my classmates deftly turned one large potato into eight perfect tournés while I fumbled to make just one. Over the course of the next six weeks, the tourné came to represent the broader challenge of culinary school as a whole.

Before cooking school, I had always managed to excel in the army because of what I thought of as natural talent. Being bested by a French potato football was a lesson in humility. I realized that it would take hard work to compensate for my evident lack of cooking talent. I began to bring sacks of potatoes back to my hotel room and set up in front of the TV for long sessions of carving. It was two weeks before I could consistently make more than one tourné out of a single potato. By the fourth week, I was up to four tournés and began to receive compliments from the instructors. My boosted confidence helped me excel on our practical exams covering hors d’oeuvres and a dinner for two.

The night before my retest, I thought things over in my hotel with a big sack of potatoes in front of me. I reflected on how I was facing the first prospect of significant failure in my four and a half years in service. I contemplated the mistakes I had made that day and developed strategies to guard against them. I wrote out a comprehensive schedule for the three-hour testing period in order to keep myself on track. I carved my last tourné and went to bed.

During the retest the next day, my hard work paid off. I crafted my salad meticulously, so that it was a near carbon copy of the instructor’s example. I took my time as I carved each tourné, then pushed myself to ensure that all of the entrée’s components came together on one beautiful plate. As I balanced the demands of the entrée course, I worked feverishly to whip my soufflé’s egg whites into stiff peaks. With less than twenty minutes left, I frantically folded the egg whites into my soufflé batter and filled the ramekins. I decorated my dessert plate and hurried to the judge’s table with my final course. Nervous, excited, and fatigued from this three-hour culinary battle, I watched as the judge examined each of my courses. She rolled my lightly browned tournés with her fork to inspect them, then stabbed through to see that they were perfectly cooked. After what seemed like an eternity, she turned to me and said, “Congratulations, chef.”

I felt a rush of exhilaration. All the hard work and dedication I had put into those six weeks had finally paid off. My time in culinary school was both humbling and empowering. On the one hand, it showed me that talent won’t always see me through. On the other hand, it showed me that I can make up for my shortcomings with discipline and practice. I look forward to bringing this same perspective and work ethic to law school, and I know that it will help me succeed.

Why it Works

1. The essay tells a story.

Something happens—the author passes his cooking test—and the author both learns and changes.

In the first draft of “Tourné,” the author passes the second test without considering why he failed the first one. Though he tries harder the second time around, he doesn’t learn anything. The key to revision was discovering the story’s lesson: the author realizes that he’d been overconfident, and that he could make up for poor cooking skills with hard work.

2. The essay is full of specifics.

The author uses the narrow challenge of the tourné as a stand-in for the broader challenge of cooking school, which makes his struggle more concrete. He also heightens the drama with details, noting for example how the ramekin pierced “the outline of piping chocolate” on his disastrous first run, and how the judge “rolled [his] lightly browned tournés with her fork” in the triumphant do-over.

3. The author takes action to solve a problem.

We reveal our character not by being acted upon, but by acting. It’s okay to write an essay in which something happens to you, but better to write an essay in which you do something.

You can see my actual feedback on the first draft here.

Looking for more examples? Check out this roundup of six of the best essays we've ever worked on.

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