Advice on Topics from Ivy League Students
A Risky Approach That Worked
“My Stanford admissions essay topic asked me to write about an experience when I had to take a risk. I wrote about my very first time in a long time eating peanuts even though I was very allergic. For a long time, my allergy to peanuts controlled my life as I had to live in perpetual fear of it whenever I went out to eat. I wrote about how I finally took a stand against it one day during a big family dinner since I did not want to make a big fuss and ruin the mood. So I didn’t care if the Kung Pao Chicken had peanuts. We ordered it, and I ate it anyways. Apparently, I was still quite allergic to peanuts, but I’m glad I did it just to see if all that avoidance was warranted.”
“Thinking back about my essay, I realize I took a risk on how I wrote that essay. I personified peanuts as a real living enemy that I despised. I started off my essay with the line: “I looked at the peanut and the peanut looked back at me.”
It was a little quirky, and I tried to inject as much humor as I could into it.”
—Dan Tran, Stanford University
An Education Inside and Outside of the Classroom
“I wrote about two topics: the first was about my experience as part of a delegation that traveled to Tahiti and Easter Island, and the second was about my boarding experience in high school. I selected the former topic because the education I received as a delegation member (history and cultural lessons, singing and dance classes, etc.) and the cultural exchanges that took place on the trip opened my mind about my Polynesian ancestry even further than the run-of-the-mill history and performing arts classes at school. I wrote about the latter topic because the dorm was my home in high school and had a special place in my heart.”
—Anonymous, Yale University
Showing a Personal Connection with the University
“I remember distinctly the topic for Stanford, which was pretty open and flexible. It was to send in a picture and write about its significance for you.
I sent in a picture of my sister and her son. She had gone through Stanford while raising a kid. I picked this because it related to Stanford, but also because I was able to talk about how I want to get the chance to experience Stanford in a different way...a way my sister was never able to.”
—Selina Cardoza, Stanford University
The Mother-Daughter Bond
“I wrote about the topic, ’A picture is worth a thousand words. Select a picture or photo of your choice, and elaborate on its significance to you.’
Ultimately, it worked because I had something to say—I chose a photo of my mother and me; just before applying to college, my mom had survived cancer treatment. Her strength during this time showed me just how amazing she was and how strong our mother-daughter bond was.”
—Jessica S. Yu, Stanford University
Exemplifying a Different Kind of Diversity
“I wrote a bunch and got help from my favorite English professor who helped tell me which ones were complete garbage and which ones made me look like an all-star.
“I chose ones that either identified me as a really unique individual or instances in which I learned a life lesson in a rather unconventional way. The key is making yourself stand out. For the former I wrote about the fact that I come from a diverse background but that it is more interesting than the normal diversity. I’m half black half white and I wrote about the fact that my Italian parent took over making the corn bread while my African-American parent took over making the pizza and what it was like to grow up in a surprisingly diverse neighborhood.
“For the latter I chose to write about the fact that I did nOT read Great Expectations for freshman year English even though it was required. In the end I came to regret this decision because I Sparknoted it, and it sounded really awesome by chapter 24. I made an oath to myself after that to read every assigned book no matter what kind of hard work it took, even if the other kids were getting better grades than me by reading synopses.”
—Colin Adamo, Yale University
My Family and Heritage
“Since I applied to numerous colleges, several of which had different applications, I had to write a lot of different admissions essays. My favorite one, (the one I think of when someone asks me about my personal statement), was written about my family and my heritage. I have always been proud of my heritage and grew up with a very supportive family which influenced me a great deal through my childhood. I had been told that it was ideal to write about something you are passionate about and that is important to you, and as my love for my own culture had always given me a great appreciation for all other cultures and had opened my eyes to the world in a different way, I felt that it was the perfect topic. I used the concrete idea of a Lebanese game I learned as a child from my cousins to show how my heritage impacted me.”
—Maya Ayoub, Harvard University
A Confession about Anime
“I chose to write about an unusual interest, my attendance at anime conventions and my love for all things Japanese animation-related. I approached it from an entirely humorous perspective, as a confession/testimonial about my ’addiction.’ I have a lot of personality, and I like to write a little more informally in order to showcase that, which is why I picked that topic. Also, our prompt included submitting a picture, and I had a photo of me in costume that fit just perfectly with the scenario. It really just came to me; I am very grateful to my subconscious for working with me on that one.”
—Magali Ferare, Stanford University
Highlighting an Activity
“For my main admissions essay for Penn, I wrote about my experience at the International Space Settlement finalist competition after my junior year.
The reason I chose this was because it was something that I could tell in an interesting story format, and it wasn’t something that many people could say.
Also it was my main activity outside of school curriculum.”
—Mark Su, University of Pennsylvania
Inspiration at All Times of the Day and Night
“My essay was for the ’free theme’ section of the common application. As a child, I never did like to be told what to write, and I didn’t like even further to be told to write something that would ’sell’ myself like a commodity to the reader. I imagined myself in the reader’s shoes: does he or she really want to read a chronological tale of every award I have won since kindergarten no matter how cleverly disguised the tale is in the shape of an essay? If I was the college admissions officer, I would run away screaming after the fifth such essay.
“There was no constraint on the topic or style for the free essay, as long as I kept under 500 words. I found the freedom invigorating but at the same time a little scary. It was like being handed the wreckage of a typhoon and being told, ’Here, sort this out.’ There were so many phrases, images, and ideas floating around that it felt like trying to catch water.
“The essay was written in four or five different installments. The theme was beauty, in my eyes. I always had a habit of collecting pictures and phrases I find particularly beautiful or inspiring in my journal. Using those as a basis, I carried my essay around in a notebook. Whenever I had time, felt particularly happy, or just when inspiration hit, I sat down and scribbled something.
I really wrote my essay in some bizarre places! I wrote while stargazing at the beach; I wrote at 3 a.m. after a school dance (late nights are very good for creative writing!); I wrote in AP Physics class; I even wrote after coming home from a drag race.
“I don’t feel, by any means, that because of my method, I wrote the most convincing or self-flattering essay ever. Even now, I don’t know if my essays were the reason I got into Wharton or the reason I DIDn’T get into MIT (dream school), but I know for sure, that my essays represented me (as I was then), as honestly as a mirror.”
—Susan Sun, University of Pennsylvania
Tying an Event from the Past to the Present
“My essay was about a presentation I helped to give to the Cerritos City Council about a book that my elementary school had written about the city.
I chose this event because I felt that it showcased all the qualities that I was proud of—my flexibility, my ability to communicate well with others, my ease at public speaking, and my ability to work well on a team. I was able to weave these qualities into my telling of this story very well. My one concern was that the event took place too long before that time--so I was careful to emphasize the importance that this event had in the shaping of these qualities in me, and I also emphasized the fact that these qualities are still present and an important part of my life.”
—Michael Ayoub, Harvard University
Passion for Design
“For my admissions essay topic, I chose one aspect that I was extremely passionate about—design. Starting in high school I began to gain an interest in design—interior, architectural, etc. My admissions essay was about the process I went through in designing my own bedroom at home. The reason I chose this as a topic was because I knew I would be able to write about it fairly easy. It represents a concrete experience and manifestation of my passion for design, so I knew I would be able to reveal who I was, who I wanted to be, in that essay.”
—Fareez Giga, Stanford University
Balancing Activities and Responsibilities
“My essay topic was the way I balanced being on the basketball team with my responsibilities to my family at home. As my father was constantly gone working and my brother left home, I was the ’man of the house’ so to speak.
The topic developed after I wrote and scrapped several essays.”
—Robert Lee, Columbia University
Starting the School’s Newspaper
“My essay focused on starting my high school’s newspaper. I spoke of my family publishing business and my summer internships in the media industry and how those led me to start this newspaper. I discussed the challenges associated with starting the newspaper, the actions/steps that I took and the sacrifices that I made... and I related a lot of the situations back to growing up in a publishing family.”
—Zachary Richner, Harvard University
Zachary Richner is on the management team of Carter Admissions (www.
carteradmissions.com), a college admissions mentoring and essay editing service.
“Penn had an option asking to describe a time when you had a new experience. I couldn’t deal with the open-endedness so I decided to choose something. I wrote about going to India my sophomore year and meeting my great uncle. His children were wealthy but he still chose to live on a farm. I wrote about being able to understand it. It was the first time I had visited the country in 10 years. India had changed a lot over those 10 years from the early ’90s to early 2000s. In Bangalore the IT industry blossomed and bloomed, and it became overpopulated.”
—Ravi Patna, University of Pennsylvania
Showing Creativity with a Photo
“The topic I chose was to attach a picture to the application and to write about that picture. I chose that topic because I was looking for something that would allow me to be creative and original. I think it’s so important to write an essay that no other student possibly could have written. I didn’t want to feel stuck giving a ’cookie-cutter’ answer, and I wanted to let my silly side show, to complement my very serious academic/extracurricular record. I chose a picture of myself and a group of friends in shorts next to a 10-foot tall snowman we had built. I wrote about the experience of swimming in the ice-cold ocean in Maine in December. It was definitely not your typical essay, but I think it rounded out the rest of my application well.”
—Lauren Horton, Stanford University
Writing about My Heritage
“I wrote about my heritage as a Korean American because it spoke about who I was, who I am and who I want to become. It came naturally to me because it was something that had been a recurring theme in my life.”
—Anonymous, Yale University
Showcasing Leadership and Community Service
“When I was applying for Caltech, there were two long essays. One of the prompts was on how you discovered Caltech, the reasons why you decided to apply, and what you would contribute to the school. The second prompt gave a choice of writing on an event that changed your life or on an activity outside of math and science that is meaningful to you. The prompts have changed, and Caltech now uses the Common Application.
“In general, there were two topics that I decided to use for my personal statements. One was on a team project for a physics class, and the other was on playing the piano at a senior home. So for Caltech, I decided to use the team project as the topic for the first prompt and piano playing for the second prompt. I used the team project to exhibit skills such as leadership and creativity. I also weaved into the essay about how my interest in engineering developed from the project, leading me to search and find Caltech. For the second prompt, I incorporated playing the piano and volunteer work, combining passion with giving back to the community.”
Describing Personal Items and Their Signficance
“I was given three essay choices in my admissions application. Although I do not recall the actual text of the question, it basically asked me to name and describe a couple of personal items and how they related to my life. I ended up choosing this question because I felt that it gave me the most creative flexibility in trying to get my story across. I also chose it because as I was brainstorming all three questions, it was the only question in which most of my ideas seemed to flow together seamlessly.”
—Laura V. Mesa, Stanford University
Passions for a Musical Instrument and Language Study
“Two key themes that I chose for my admissions essay topics were: my interest in the tabla, a north Indian percussion drum and my interest in learning languages and specifically taking a Korean language class offered in my high school. I chose these because they conveyed my desire to really develop the few activities that I was MOST passionate about. A concern of mine is that students feel that they have to do anything and everything offered within their school and community in order to get into a top college, and I often found myself falling into this trap in high school. I wanted to convey in my college applications, that I would only dedicate time and energy to the activities that I was MOST passionate about, and this passion radiated through the right mix of sensory details and analysis of the emotional ties to the activities that I was engaging in.”
—Shreyans C. Parekh, University of Pennsylvania
Presenting a Brand as an Entrepreneur
“I wrote a Common Application essay that prompted me to ’Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.’ I chose to focus on a risk that I had taken for my essay because in my application I wanted to portray myself as a risk taking, self-starting entrepreneur. I framed my family’s move to Florida in the middle of my high school years as a personal risk; generally ’My family moved.’ is not interesting enough, so I had to spice it up a little bit.
“For my Harvard-specific supplemental essay, I described an ’academic experience (course, project, paper or research topic) that has meant the most to [me].’ instead of ’unusual circumstances, a list of books I have read recently or travel experiences in another country.’ Again, trying to craft myself as unique from the other 20,000 applicants and create a personal brand, I wanted to do something that would make me look like a daring businessman.
That was risky because Harvard and academia are not pro-business from my understanding and I would be pursuing a liberal arts degree. However, I knew this set me apart and I could make a compelling case. I described a summer program that taught entrepreneurship after 11th grade, which transformed my personality and career interests.”
—Jason Y. Shah, Harvard University
Conveying Intellectual Curiosities
“The process of selecting an appropriate admissions essay topic was a challenging task and not one that I took lightly. I had to sort through a variety of considerations before deciding on a specific idea or experience. How can I convey my passions, abilities, and reflections in a genuine and humble fashion? How can I possibly weave all of my divergent interests into a smooth, cogent essay? Finding that common thread was the challenge, for I needed an effective vehicle for expressing a complex amalgam of thoughts in less than 750 words.
“Eventually, I settled on the experience that I thought best captured my essential characteristics, my intellectual curiosities, and my fundamental passions. I chose an experience that truly illustrated the ideas I wanted to convey—instead of just telling the reader about the event, I showed them what had happened and drew them into the story. By establishing a relationship with the audience I could make my message more potent and much more compelling.”
—Jonathan Cross, Duke University
Connecting Jigsaw Puzzles to Medical Research
“I wrote my admissions essay about how I used to do jigsaw puzzles when I was younger as a metaphor for how I look at the world and my interest into going into medical research. I arrived at this by thinking a lot about habits/interests of mine and trying to find something at least slightly distinct and relevant to why I was a strong candidate. I really wanted to highlight my interest in science and the labwork that I had done and basically was looking for some sort of common thread about my personality that I could tie it to. I did a lot of initial brainstorming, outlined a couple ideas that seemed to fit this criteria and ended up going with this. Even though I changed my mind about going into science before I even got here, I think the metaphor still is a pretty good way of describing determination and interest in problem-solving.”
—Anonymous, Harvard University
A True R eflection
“With all my college essays, I wanted to give the reader a true reflection of myself. I conveyed what lessons really stuck with me throughout high school as well as showcased my activities and personality strengths. Even when I read my essays four years later, I can still say with certainty that my essay is a reflection of me as a senior in high school.”
—Anonymous, Princeton University
Dealing with a Loss through the Essay
“I chose to write about how the death of one of my closest friends changed my view of the world. I also incorporated how a recent trip to nigeria rein-forced my newly found appreciation for life after my friend’s death. I chose this topic initially as an outlet for my pain. While writing this essay I was still dealing with my loss and was able to come to terms with the ordeal after I wrote out my emotions.”
—Nnenna Ene, Duke University
Not Afraid to Be Cheesy
“My admissions essay topic was...well (as conceited as it sounds) a slightly humorous essay about me, with a play on words. But really the essays are supposed to showcase you in a way that might not show through in the rest of your application materials. It was really over-the-top cheesy, but that was what I was going for. I wanted my essay to stand out as someone who didn’t take themselves too seriously since I’m sure they get a million essays about triumphing over adversity or a life changing event. Those topics are fine, but really they just want to know about you as a person, and your essay doesn’t have to portray you as someone who will solve world poverty or be the next president. really you just need to show that you will be an interesting and valuable addition to their network. A teacher asked me a great question when I was brainstorming for my essay: What makes me different from the other thousand people that are applying?”
—Anonymous, Harvard University
A Personal Topic
“I selected a personal topic because I thought it would have the most force and leave the strongest memory possible in the admissions officers’ minds. I chose a topic that I thought was unique and very personal to me and am confident that no one could have said what I said in the exact same way—I knew what I was sending would be powerful in its own right.”
—Sarah Langberg, Princeton University
Growing into Leadership
“My admissions essay topic was based on my experiences as the leader (drum major) of my high school’s award winning marching band. This was the extracurricular activity that I felt was most significant in my personal development, as I evolved from a freshman band prodigy who was both distant and a bit arrogant, to a senior who emerged as an engaged leader and had built lasting friendships with my peers. It explored the fact that although I was always a standout member in high school music programs, I did not until my later years develop an ’emotional stake’ in the success of these programs and discussed the event that initiated my shift in attitude.”
—Devin Nambiar, Columbia University
Shaking Hands with the President
“When I applied, there were two essays—an optional one and a 500-word one. I wanted to communicate a lot, and having an optional essay was great.
For the 500-word essay, the topic was to describe the world you come from.
I wrote about being from Egypt, the macro perspective of the current situation in Egypt, my vision for where I wanted Egypt to be and how that it could be accomplished. In the last paragraph, I said that the issues require a lot of problem solving and leadership skills. I couldn’t think of a better place than MIT to prepare me for that. I think the end of the essay, the punchline, is very important. That’s the last thing the reader is going to see.
“The first line is also very important to attract them, to get them to pay extra attention. The admissions officers read tons of applications each day. If you make them enjoy your essay, it will definitely pay back.
“For the optional essay I wrote about a camp I attended, the Seeds of Peace. The program brings together youth from regions of conflict such as India, Pakistan, the Middle East and the Balkans. Through the program, I met Israelis for the first time. It was a very moving experience.
“For the first line of the essay, I wrote that I still remembered when I shook hands with the most powerful man in the world. The admissions officers were probably thinking, ’Why is he meeting the President?’ They probably wanted to read more. I linked the experience with my grandfather who had a strong role in my development and passed away after a 13 years struggle with cancer.
The last paragraph was about learning I had won a scholarship from Egypt that would allow me to apply to top colleges in the U.S. I ended with visiting my grandfather’s grave and realizing that he was smiling from up above. It’s important to make the essay as personal as possible. really be yourself.”
Showing What Makes You Different
“There were four options to choose from and a fifth option to write your own prompt. I chose the first essay option: ’Chicago professor W. J. T. entitled his 2005 book What Do Pictures Want? Describe a picture and explore what it wants.’ I chose this topic because I thought it was pretty interesting, and I felt this option would allow me to express my creativity the best and perhaps show why I too was uncommon. The other options were also pretty interesting but I chose the one I felt I could write the most about.
“For the personal statement I struggled a lot more to find a topic. My counselor and college advisor always told us to write about what makes us
’different’ from all other students. At first I thought that piece of advice was not helpful but looking back on it now, I think it’s the best way to start brainstorming. I had to reflect on my high school years and recall the experiences that impacted me the most and contributed to the person who I had become.”
—Angelica, University of Chicago
Choosing the Topic that Flows
“I wrote about my volunteer work, reading with children at our local library. I expanded the topic to reflect on my love for working with kids and the traits of children that I admire and hope to embody. This topic matched the requirements of a good topic—it was something I was passionate about and had a firsthand experience with. But ultimately I chose this topic because it was the one that worked the best. I made a list of many different possible topics. I started writing on a couple of them, and ultimately this was the topic that flowed the easiest for me.”
—Manika, University of Pennsylvania
A Blank Slate
“I chose the question that allowed me to pick my own topic. I thought this was the best way for me to express my true self, and I thought it was what UChicago was looking for based on their reputation.”
—Ashley Mitchell, University of Chicago
Balancing an Out There Topic with a More Conservative One
“I wrote two primary admissions essays because I used the Common Application, and most schools had supplements that asked for another piece of writing. This worked to my advantage because the topic of my ’first pick’
essay was a little out there, and I had the chance to give colleges a funky essay as well as a more normal one. I am a quirky person and wanted to reflect that in my admissions essay, so I pretty randomly decided to write an essay comparing my love of bacon to my love of learning. I don’t even like bacon, but I certainly wrote about it as though I did it in that essay!”
—Mariam Nassiri, Duke University
Sharing the Kind of Person You Are
“I used the Common Application and selected the third topic, ’Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.’ The reasons were: (1) I think one of the best ways to communicate is through stories, (2) I think a very personal essay has great potential to touch people and (3) I happen to have a personal story that is suitable for this purpose.
“Topic 2 about an issue of personal, local, national or international concern is an opportunity for one to express their thinking and make an argument. However, it could be a lot less personal. I believe it is more important to show what kind of person you are, rather than your intelligence. If I were an admissions officer, I would be much more interested in accepting a passionate student that has a lot more to learn, than a smart jerk.”
—Pen-Yuan Hsing, Duke University
An Inspir ational Teacher
“My Common Application essay and the one that Duke received was about my ninth grade English teacher, a former Black Panther who introduced me to spoken word poetry and socially conscious music. Those two subjects pretty much define who I am, so it was an easy choice.”
—Anthony Gouw, Duke University
Analyzing a Character
“Most of the schools to which I applied were on the Common Application, so from the list of possible topics, I chose to create my own. The summer before senior year, I had performed for the first time as a cast member in my school’s production of ’Anything goes’ by Cole Porter. I used this eye-opening experience as a starting block for my essay, which turned into an exposure of my own character and emotions.”
—Jean Gan, Duke University
Reflecting on Your Upbringing
“I chose to write about my upbringing in a low-income single parent household. When choosing the topic to write about, I thought about what shaped and defined me as a person.”
—Jackie Liao, Stanford University
A Love of Languages
“When I began writing my admissions essay, the first thing I asked myself was: what makes me different from all of the other thousands of people applying to Stanford? Surely, they all had amazing grades and a full load of extracurricular activities, so I needed something that was unique, something that made me stand out in the crowd.
“From a very young age, while still living in my native country of romania, I had developed an exceptional passion for the Spanish language. I thought it would be pretty rare to find another applicant who had grown up half-way around the world in Eastern Europe speaking one language, fallen in love with another language from watching Tv at age four, and immigrated to the U.S.
where yet another language was spoken, in a matter of less than nine years.
So I decided to write my essay on my love for Spanish and the different hardships that I had to endure in order to make sure that Spanish would always be in my life.”
—Oana Emilia Butnareanu, Stanford University
“For the Common Application essay, I decided to choose the prompt: ’A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.’
“By choosing this topic, I was able to sell myself to the admissions officers.
The main question that people want to know is ’What are you going to contribute if we admit you?’ This prompt allows the readers to see who you truly are. I really enjoyed this prompt because I was able to write about my personal experiences. One of the easiest things to write about is yourself.”
—Enrique Vazquez, University of Chicago
An Informal Education at Home
“For the two admissions essays, I wrote about my gymnastics career and my family. The first essay was about the valuable skills I gained from dedicat-ing 11 years of my life to the sport of competitive gymnastics. I pulled out specific skills (i.e. discipline, time management, team work, etc) and highlighted how I developed those skills from training and competing as a gymnast and then described how I would apply those skills as a student-athlete at Yale.”
“My second essay described my family. As the youngest of six children, in addition to having many other friends and family constantly moving in and out of our house, I had a very interesting and stimulating upbringing. My father was the headmaster of a boys’ school in Potomac, Maryland and would provide housing to some of the international exchange students who attended his school for as long as they needed (a year, two, ten!). growing up, I had several semi-big brothers from Bulgaria, Mexico, and Spain and even an African-American boy from inner city Washington, D.C. whom my father took in after befriending his family through his work in Anacostia with Mother Theresa and the Missionaries of Charity. I always thought he was my brother since he lived at our house from the day I was born. This allowed me to be exposed to several different cultures without even leaving my own home!”
“My blood siblings were also a part of my informal education at home.
Each of them is extremely bright but in very different ways. I learned through them every day. James, the eldest, was a Classics major at Hopkins who went on to receive his master’s at U.T. and is currently pursuing an M.B.A. at Duke.
Liz went to the University of Pennsylvania and received a B.S. and master’s in nursing, and later an M.B.A from Wharton. Catherine received her B.S.
in mechanical engineering at Princeton and J.D. at Suffolk. Joey went to the Coast guard Academy and received his B.S. in civil engineering, then went to virginia Tech for a master’s in civil engineering and is currently pursuing his M.B.A. at Berkeley. Mary went to the University of Maryland where she received a B.A. and master’s in special education.”
“Both my parents value education above all else and truly instilled a passion for learning in all of their children. My father (Harvard and georgetown Law grad) encouraged poetry recitation and constant reading. In addition to my formal education, this informal education I received at home was what really prepared me for Yale and the world beyond!”
—Anne McPherson, Yale University
Writing about a Picture
“I answered the question, ’A picture is worth a thousand words, as the adage goes. Include a photograph or picture that represents something important to you, and explain its significance.’”
“I thought this essay question was unique in the sense that the admissions committee wanted to see more than just text. Stanford was the only university that I applied to that asked for something other than an essay.”
“I ended up choosing a picture of myself standing in front of a castle in Segovia, Spain, named El Alcazar. I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship trip to Spain through the Spanish Honor Society. My essay topic resulted in a description of how my life changed after the trip, realizing I was a more independent individual. The picture represented my personal exploration of my individuality and how my personality evolves through important events in life. The essay topic essentially chose itself; I found it easy to write about such a huge event in my life.”
—Brian Aguado, Stanford University
A Business to Help People
“My admissions essay was about a computer repair business that I had started while in high school. While this business was not especially successful by any stretch of the imagination, when I worked on it I really enjoyed it, and I felt it showed how much I wanted to help people. I focused a lot of my application about how I would like to use my knowledge to help people, so it only seemed reasonable I talk about how I have helped people.”
—Mathew Griffin, Brown University
“I applied using the Common Application. I picked the essay on diversity because I thought that would be the one I would be able to say the most on.
I talked about my experience as an Indian American. I thought that would be the most effective thing to write on and would demonstrate what I’d be able to bring to the university community.”
—Aditya Kumar, Brown University
“I selected my own topic for my essay for University of Chicago. My topic was, ’All I know about leadership I learned from...’ I was having a lot of trouble expressing myself with the suggestions the university gave so I decided to create my own to highlight my strengths. I had been in student council all four years of high school and have held leadership roles, so I thought this would be perfect to write about. The idea was actually given to me by one of my student council advisors as a joke. But after seeing that leadership could be compared to almost anything, I saw this as a perfect topic to demonstrate my creative ability and my student council experience.”
—Victoria Tomaka, University of Chicago
A Crime-Scene Report
“I applied with the Common Application, and I chose to write on a topic of my choice. I spent weeks last year trying to come up with a good essay. My junior English teacher told us that we needed to make our essays stand out.
The admissions officers read hundreds of applications every day, and our essays needed to be unique. I wasn’t sure how to do this. I wrote one about a car wreck, but my English teacher quickly rejected it as bland and uninteresting (lots of people write about car wrecks apparently). A friend advised me to write my essay about something I enjoy doing. At the time, I was taking a forensics class which fascinated me. So, for my admissions essay, I wrote a crime-scene report in which I am searching for my future self at Duke University.”
—Lauren Sanders, Duke University
An Influential Person
“My essay was about my childhood and the difficulties I faced growing up in China with a single mother as well as the profound influence she had in my life. I chose this essay topic because I wanted to write something ’beautiful’, something that I really absolutely cared about and could pour my heart into. At first glance, you could say the essay topic is generic because it’s simply about an influential person in my life, but I made it mine because I meant every single word I wrote.”
—Lisa Kapp, University of Pennsylvania
Bringing Together Multiple Facets of Your Life
“I selected the theme of ’the power of people’ as my essay topic, and related two life events and my career aspirations to that theme. First, I related my experience while riding in the MS150 bike ride and explained that I felt a deep connection with the event and the other participants because my father has multiple sclerosis, and their help may help find a cure for it.
“Then, I described the selfless acts of kindness experienced by many people from the Houston-galveston area during Hurricane Ike, specifically in my own family.
“Finally, I displayed my true belief in the theme by showing the essay reader how my career aspirations (public health) relate to it.
“I chose a semi-broad topic to write about because I knew I could relate many different facets of my life to it and would not feel the need to repeat information in my essay. In addition, I could relay information about my personal beliefs, my family, my background, and my goals all in one concise, two-page paper. It was the easiest way to make all of these aspects of myself cohesive and interesting for the reader.”
—Suzanne Arrington, Columbia University
An International Conference
“I wrote about my experience as a youth delegate to the United nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.
My participation in this conference was my most impressive achievement at the time, and the conference happened to fall immediately prior to the start of my senior year of high school. As such, making it my admissions essay topic was a no-brainer.”
—Steve Schwartz, Columbia University
Showing Initiative through a Foundation
“I talked about a foundation I started when I was in 7th grade. It’s called Cuddle Buddies, and we collect new and slightly used stuffed animals for abused and underprivileged children. I chose it because it has been such a large part of my life, and it is something that I have worked hard on for so long. I also felt like it reflected my personality and values.”
—Anastasia Fullerton, Stanford, Brown
A Love of Music
“I wrote on music, specifically about my experiences in composition.
Seeing as music was my primary activity in high school (I was in band and choir for four years, was the lead in the school musical, was a drum major of the marching band, sang in the select vocal ensembles, was in all-state band and choir) and music was what I planned to study in college, it was a fairly easy choice. It was basically about how much I loved music and why it meant so much to me; in retrospect, it was pretty cliché.”
—Samuel Linden, Harvard University
“My general essay was about the struggles I have in Brooklyn which are a bit out of the ordinary when juxtaposed next to someone across the country.
It comically mocked the ’normal’ teenage life of working hard and discussed the major role I have as the biggest sister to my ten month old brother, two year old brother, and seven year old sister. I actually had no idea that I would talk about how mature I am and chaotic my life is while juggling the work I have to do with my siblings and the ton of work I have at Brooklyn Tech. My most influential teacher told me I should write about my struggles because she felt it would get at my essence. I did-and managed to keep a down-to-earth comedy that kept my story light hearted yet significantly strong.”
—Anonymous, Cornell University
The Importance of Motivation
“I actually had six admissions essays for MIT. Most of them were about science since I had to keep in mind the school for which I was applying, which is a very science-oriented school. At the same time though, I did include essays which had nothing to do with science that I thought were unique. Besides talking about what I have accomplished, I also explained why I accomplished it—what my motivation was. Anyone can do things, but what really sets you apart from the crowd is your journey—the steps and reasons for why you do what you do.”
—Ariela Koehler, MIT
Tying a Tragic Event to Family History
“I chose to write about my older brother’s death, while also tying in pieces of my family history. My brother’s death changed my life—I had to write about it.”
—Timothy Nguyen Le, Yale University
From Environmental Issues to Halloween Costumes
“I was really into environmental issues so I wrote about how I came to join different groups and what I liked about them. I also did AP environmental science as an independent study. I just talked about why I liked the environment, what fueled me to work on that area. I remember one essay asked about something I created and I talked about how I always made really intense Halloween costumes. I made a gumby, a Chiquita banana lady, mermaid, etc.
Some essays I talked about being a Mexican American and what it meant to me as a teenager in a Los Angeles public school.”
“I selected the essay that revolved around my life experiences and the challenges I faced because I felt that this question really helped connect me to the admissions officers. They would get to read into my personal life and see how hard I had worked to make it where I was. It would also a way to let them know about me and sell myself, because every challenge was a chance for failure, and maybe I did fail at times, but I managed to work hard and endure.
This meant that regardless of the challenge I would face, that Stanford would be the place for me, because no challenge was hard enough that I could not work though, as my life was a time of much challenge so far.”
Andres Cantero, Stanford University
“The first topic was about a risk you have taken. I wrote about my decision to try out for We the People, a competition civics team. I talked about how even though the program involved a lot of public speaking and I was very shy, I wanted to be on the team to improve my speaking skills.
“The second topic was a free-choice one. I wrote about how I was eating very unhealthily and it was having a bad effect on my complexion (A bit shallow, right? but it gets more than skin-deep. Pun intended). I completely changed my eating habits and discovered that I could achieve something that was extremely difficult (staying on a healthy diet) if I was determined enough.
“Both of my essays have a theme of self-improvement, which was very important to me. I chose these topics for this reason: because they show how I have taken it upon myself to grow in ways outside of academics.”
—Anonymous, Yale University
Inspiration from Robert Frost
“My essay was based on my love for the woods that surrounded my home and my experiences within them as a child. For the conclusion of my essay I used the last line of robert Frost’s well known poem ’Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’ I grew up on the new Hampshire border MA, so you can imagine that the area was similar to what robert Frost was actually writing about!”
—Mollie Mattuchio, Brown University