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Reed College Essay Example: Breakdown + Analysis

Reed College is a liberal arts college in Portland that heavily emphasizes independent inquiry, independent art, and independent political activism: essentially, an “indie” Mecca. Since the 1960s, Reed has gained a reputation as a crucible for counterculture movements and alternative lifestyles. 


That said, Reed’s programs definitely stress the “thinker” portion of “free-thinker.” Reed values academic rigor, even if it de-emphasizes traditionalist measures like grades and rank. Notably, its expansive core curriculum and mandatory senior thesis showcase how far Reed pushes its student intellectuals. A high number of Reed graduates end up pursuing careers in academia, theory, and scholarship. 


This push-and-pull of creativity and discipline, fun and grind, tradition and iconoclasm is the soul of Reed. Call it the Reed Balance. And this concept will be the most important thing to keep in mind while writing your Reed essay. 


Below, we’ll analyze a Reed College essay prompt and show you brainstorming ideas. Then, we’ll dissect a Reed essay example by a real student. We’ll also discuss how you can utilize its strategies and write the applications essay for Reed. 


Please note: Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized. 


Reed College Essay Prompt

For one week at the end of January, Reed students upend the traditional classroom hierarchy and teach classes about any topic they love, academic or otherwise. This week is known as Paideia after the Greek term signifying “education” – the complete education of mind, body and spirit. What would you teach that would contribute to the Reed community? (200-500 words)

This is a long prompt, but thankfully that gives us lots of material with which to psychoanalyze Reed Admissions and tease out what they’re looking for. Follow the checkboxes below as you’re thinking about your own ideas.


☑  Notice the Reed Balance. In the introduction, we described this overarching concept as a balance between frivolity and seriousness, free-flowing inquiry and discipline, traditionalism and newness. You can see lots of whispers of the Reed Balance in this prompt: 


  • “Students upend” vs. “traditional classroom hierarchy”
  • “Academic” vs. “otherwise” 
  • “Mind” vs. “body” vs. “spirit”
  • Ancient Greeks vs. today’s students


Take note of this theme of Reed Balance. Add it to your mental toolkit – it’ll be your most important mental “check” as you progress.  If you need to, write REED BALANCE on a sticky note, or flag your essay with two different highlighter colors to make sure you have a good balance between opposing ideas and methodologies. 


You can embody Reed Balance in your essay by including your own dichotomies, like:


  • Arguing your case vs. presenting the opposition
  • Traditional seminar readings/discussions vs. games, field activities, building
  • Older, classical readings vs. modern-day, 21st-century contributions
  • Fiction vs. nonfiction readings
  • Traditional media (books, texts) vs. new media (online videos, games, film) 


☑  Don’t get tricked into triviality: although Reed states that your topic can be “academic or otherwise,” don’t view this “otherwise” as an invitation to be lightweight in your offerings or superficial in your approach. You need to come at the fun, frivolous things with the intent of self-enrichment.


It might help to know that Reed is echoing an ancient tenet of paideia here: Aristotle argued that all scholia (structured academics) ought to be intermixed with ascholia (see: Reed’s “otherwise” category). However, the purpose of ascholia was to provide rest, diversion, and happiness – not to supplant the scholia altogether. And Aristotle was adamant that even during ascholia, the mind was never supposed to be completely zoned out: you were always supposed to be paying attention, thinking, and exploring.


So take a page from Aristotle here: if your topic is something fluffy, like “Old Town Road” or The Office or dodgeball, then you should back it up with rigorous materials – and, yes, academic literature. Make sure that you provide a framework in which “leisurely” activities can be done mindfully (ex. A guided notes sheet, a class discussion afterwards). Preserve the Reed Balance and make Aristotle happy!


☑  Interpret “Paideia” expansively. When Reed highlights the importance of “mind, body, and spirit,” they mean it. In ancient Greece, paideia spanned a huge range of activities, from singing to wrestling to reading. As you’ll see in our example essay, this is a great opportunity to showcase an unorthodox pastime of yours, especially if you can’t do it in a traditional classroom.


Even if you want to write about something traditionally academic, it’ll benefit your essay if you brainstorm physical or creative activities to complement the core intellectualism. For example, if I wanted to talk about women’s work during the French Revolution, I could set up an activity that introduces participants to hand sewing, embroidery, or making bread. 


☑  Highlight your uniqueness: Reed uses the second person in the prompt, addressing “you” directly. Interpret this as an invitation to write about something unique to you – something which you’d want a good friend to know. Your goal should be to convince your admissions reader, in a few short paragraphs, that you’re an unmistakable addition to the campus. 


Admissions officers have to deal with thousands of names, and like the rest of us, they use personal details as identifiers: “the lacrosse girl”; “the JROTC guy”; “the girl who wrote about Aretha Franklin.” It’s to your advantage that you give them a strong, idiosyncratic topic with which to associate – and thus remember – you. 


☑  Demonstrate enthusiasm: Reed wants you to write about something you “love,” so make sure that love – or even just emotion – shines through with enthusiastic language.


  • Instead of “cool” → Fascinating, mesmerizing, wondrous
  • Instead of “difficult” → Frustrating, byzantine, dizzying
  • Instead of “little-known” → cryptic, obscure, esoteric
  • Instead of “entertaining” → ecstatic, addictive, flow-state-inducing


☑  Don’t forget the “Reed Community”: In the last line of the prompt, Reed asks you to articulate how your Paideia class would benefit everyone else on campus. So you should spend a few sentences describing the “so what” of your subject: why does it make people…better people?


This is a great time to introduce a social or political goal, or discuss how your class will foster open-mindedness. If you’re having trouble coming up with a huge socio-political relevance, you can simply phrase your topic in terms of enjoyment, positivity, and team-building. Leisure, as Aristotle pointed out above, is a crucial part of human well-being.


☑  Give your course a standout name: The essay below has a catchy title that’s endearing and sticks in the mind. Try to think up a buzzy title for your own interest – it can be a quote or pun or question, like “So You Think You Know X?”

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Reed College Essay Example


First, we’ll include the essay in full, before breaking it down into its successful components. 

“No! Make it stop! Get me out!” My 5-year-old self waved my arms frantically in front of my face in the darkened movie theater. Swarms of beetles scurried across the screen, their tiny forms flying straight at me. Their stark coloration patterns and blown-up eyes dominated my field of vision, their antennae whiskering toward my vulnerable being. To the understanding of my fellow movie-watchers frustrated at this outburst, this was my first 4-D movie experience, a memory ingrained into my being so potently that I still flinch at the sight of a harmless roach scuttling along my family’s patio floor outside. And don’t get me started on the time I woke up to a cricket sleeping on my arm. Oh man, those shrieks are still buried in the back of my mind. 


We are familiar with meat and vegetables as sources of our nutrition, but it seems that such a concept does not apply to the class of animals that make up 80% of the world’s total animal population. But with the rise of greater concern for where our food comes from, many sustainability enthusiasts have turned to these pests as a nutrition source. Not only are they high in protein, but they’re everywhere. It’s time for me to face my fears and the inevitable truth: bug farming is on the horizon. 


For my Paideia “It’s a Bug’s Life,” these little critters take center stage in an integrated lecture/hands-on seminar style focused on growing awareness for food sustainability and learning to cook savory bug-riddled meals. Recipes from Chef Hugo Ortega’s Mescal Worm Tacos (Houston, Texas) to Chef Cesar Moreno’s Grasshopper Almond Flour Cake (New York City, New York) will be dissected and recreated in an attempt to understand the insect harvesting process and proper (and sanitary!) methods of preparation. I hope that this class ultimately aids in breaking the Western stigma against the consumption of our fellow fuzzy creatures (which is already practiced in more than half of the world by population), as well as provide a platform for exploring sustainable food sourcing and consumption practices. 


Gone are the days where I flinch at the flutter of an insect’s wings. Bon appetit! Your cuisine des petites bêtes (see: dish of little beasts) has been served. 

Breaking Down This Reed Essay Example 


First, this essay fulfills all the checkboxes we listed in our initial breakdown. Here’s how:


☑  Give your course a standout name: How can you stand out more than “It’s a Bug’s Life”? Everyone has fond memories of that movie, and nostalgia does a lot of heavy lifting for a reader.


☑  Reed Balance: Throughout the essay, we’re presented with a smorgasbord of contrasts. This shows us that the applicant is a dynamic thinker capable of juggling

  • The West vs. different cultures
  • The fun of eating bugs vs. the environmental seriousness of eating bugs
  • Her personal experience vs. a global picture
  • Hands-on activities vs. ideas and attitudes
  • Preparing food vs. consuming food


☑  Demonstrate enthusiasm: The author does this through her use of narrative and emotions. In fact, her enthusiasm for bug food (“savory!” “Bon appetit!”) comes across as more rewarding because she begins with the contrasting emotions of fear (“swarms,” “shrieks”).


☑  Highlight your uniqueness: In the USA, it doesn’t get much more unique than eating bugs (although this is exactly what the narrator seeks to change).


☑  Interpret “Paideia” expansively: Our author has included cooking and eating for her Paideia class, so she fulfills the emphasis on non-traditional activities. 


☑  Don’t get tricked into triviality: The author frames the fun stuff (eatin’ grub and mezcal tacos!) with some serious reflections on the global food supply, Western biases, environmentalism, and nutrition. Although she doesn’t provide any specific academic materials, it helps her application that she’s able to cite statistics, like that bugs “make up 80% of the world’s total animal population.” These show that she’s done her research. 


☑  Don’t forget the “Reed Community”: The author gets to a larger social purpose in the third paragraph – “to provide a platform for exploring sustainable food sourcing and consumption practices.” Although she doesn’t mention Reed by name (we would recommend that you do), this is still sufficient to evoke the feeling of a campus context. 


The essay also develops a novel strategy of its own which is worth discussing: it prefaces the Paideia syllabus with a personal backstory. This is an eye-catching way to start – most people would jump right into explaining their course. So the author’s flashback to the movie theatre adds an immediate stylistic difference to her essay. 


We also get into her head as a person, exploring her childhood phobia from her perspective. This not only makes for more gripping reading, it offers a little bonus: the “design a syllabus” essay is also pulling double-duty as a personal narrative about overcoming fear and bias. We highly recommend this!


What could this essay do better?


No essay is perfect, and – obviously – this essay got the job done as it is! We just want to point out a few ways that it could be honed even further.


Most importantly, we’d recommend you include more academic materials than this example essay. Imagine how much more intellectual the course would be with a documentary on the nutritive benefits of insects, a study of Western stigmas against eating insects, and maybe some articles on the need for more global protein sources. This would also show admissions readers that the applicant is capable of doing sound research. 


We also recommend more structure: Paideia, after all, is a weeklong learning festival, so a proper syllabus should lay out plans for each day. Theming readings and assigning them to certain days/themes would show a lot of forethought and powers of organization. 


Final Thoughts


We hope this breakdown has helped you understand Paideia, feel more confident in your Reed supplement, and taught you plenty about how to read Aristotle and eat bugs (ideally at the same time). 


We have lots more information on Reed and its community, if you’re interested. And if you want to estimate your chances of getting into Reed, we recommend you check out our chancing engine, which is included in your free CollegeVine account. Sign up today to get started!

Short Bio
Maya St. Clair is a freelance writer and Renaissance historian from Illinois. She loves "writing about writing" and helping others achieve the best results with their own prose. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis.