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11 Most Valuable Lessons Learned in Life: Essay Ideas

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Every fall, teens applying to college ask themselves the same well-worn questions. Who is my best role model…in an essay of 500 words. What experience have I learned the most from…in an essay of 500 words. It’s common to ask high schoolers about life lessons, but what are the 11 most valuable “lessons learned in life” essay ideas?

For this list, I’ve mined life lessons from a variety of sources, from contemporary writers and motivational speakers like Ashli Mazer and Barrie Davenport to Jesus Christ, Jane Goodall, and Edward R. Murrow. New York Times readers offered their own best life lessons and so did a poll of 2,000 parents in the United Kingdom. Many lessons came up again and again and I’ve ranked them based on frequency, awarding 1 point for each of the nine total source lists where that lesson appeared.

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I was pleased to see that clichés like “things happen for a reason” or “always smile” were not widely cited. Human beings are smarter and more complex than cross-stitch samplers. And there are plenty of less common life lessons that don’t make the cut for the 11 most valuable but are good to keep in mind anyway.

The wisdom of Jane Goodall encourages us to be kind to the Earth and ensure our legacy in caring for the environment. One New York Times reader gives the great advice to avoid con artists and egomaniacs — even if they’re related to us. Barrie Davenport reminds us that our children are their own people and need to have room to grow and be themselves.

Some of the less common life lessons are bittersweet, like learning about the luck of the draw and that time and forgiveness help to heal our emotional pain. Being honest with yourself is a great life lesson but one that is often the most hard fought. Life is not about money, but life without money is incredibly hard and limits our choices and opportunities.

Just barely missing the list were many important ideas worth mentioning, too. Manners go a long way. Choose a good life partner. Learn to get along and to resolve your differences. Maybe one of these lessons will spark a memory that you know will make a terrific essay even though it isn’t one of the most common overall life lessons.

I remember my alma mater offering a very welcome “none of the above” prompt on its application form, and I remember stopping short at an outlandish prompt offered by a very prestigious university. The college essay has almost become a parody, with prompts themselves joining in on the joke. (Maybe you remember Rory Gilmore realizing in horror that all her classmates had also chosen Hillary Clinton as their role model topic — and she attended a school like one of the 10 most expensive boarding schools in the world.) But the college essay is real, and it’s required, and you have these role models, life experiences, or life lessons stored in your mind. They’re waiting to get out.

Just wait, though, because after you graduate from the college of your dreams, you’ll be faced with an interview question that makes every job seeker long for an insipid college essay prompt instead: What is your greatest strength, and what is your greatest weakness?

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