Advice on Writing from Ivy League Students

50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays - Tanabe Gen, Tanabe Kelly 2009

Advice on Writing from Ivy League Students

Communicate Your Personal Voice

“Speak. Do not simply record your thoughts on paper, but use your words as a conduit for expressing yourself. The essay is the only opportunity you have to communicate your personal voice. While the resume and the questionnaire may be unique in the sense that no one has the exact skill set or range of experiences that you have, the language is dry and static. The essay, on the other hand, is a dynamic narrative that has the potential to explicate a personality. Your essay should capture some facet of your character, perhaps through an experience or a philosophy on some issue or event. The presentation of your voice is delivered in a language unique to you.

“Do not assume that your essay should follow some model or structure.

Yes, it is important to have structure and a coherent flow (and be grammatically flawless), but never feel that you have to copy another’s style to be successful. The essay is a vehicle for your voice—and it should be in your own language. Think of the admissions essay as a live interview with someone hard of hearing. Instead of speaking, you must resort to writing. The degree to which you activate your language, guide the reader along the contours of your narrative, and deliver the raw electricity of your experiences will determine your essay’s success.”

—Jonathan Cross, Duke University

Be Genuine

“Be confident and authentic about yourself; don’t try to be someone you’re not or try to fashion yourself into someone you think the admissions committee will like. Ultimately the committee is looking to build a class, and you never know if they’re looking for someone who is exactly like the genuine you.”

—Anonymous, Yale University

Not Trying to Be Profound

“I went through many different drafts of my college essay and tried to go in different directions with it. I tried to be introspective and serious in my essay but realized that at the age of 17, I didn’t have much to be profound about. I felt my strength was in my humor and wanted that aspect to show. After finding a more genuine voice, writing that essay became much easier and faster.

“When citing something specific like a personality trait or an event that significantly characterizes the student, I think it’s important to think hard about how to stand out from the crowd. I don’t intend this to mean sensa-tionalize or create a fictional story, but I do think everybody is unique or has something unique in their life to write about.”

—Dan Tran, Stanford University

Focus on One Aspect

“The essay is your chance to give them a taste of who you are. Select something that will embody you. But don’t try to describe all of yourself. That would be hard to do in 500 words. Instead focus on one experience and go in depth, describe it in detail. You are an interesting person just for wanting to apply to these colleges. Your story is worth reading, so tell it!”

—Selina Cardoza, Stanford University

Write about What You Want to Write about

“Write candidly, freely, and truly. Don’t worry about impressing admissions counselors with the ’perfect’ essay. The more you write about the things you want to write about, as opposed to the things you think you should be writing about, the more natural and eloquently it comes out.

—Jessica S. Yu, Stanford University

Chapter 22: Advice on Writing from Ivy League Students

Demonstrate How You’re Different

“Why are you different, really different, from all the other kids who are just as qualified? Don’t portray yourself so that any other student could fill the same spot you’re asking for.”

—Colin Adamo, Yale University

Start Early

“Start early so you have enough time to brainstorm an idea that will be enjoyable to write about. It’s very important to write about something that has either made a big impact on you, that you love, or that shows your personality.

That way, it will be less of a chore, and it will really show through if the essay is meaningful to you. Also, (a piece of advice I was given my junior year), if you start early, you can write up the essay early enough to go back and look at it after some time, returning with a fresh new perspective. This will help a great deal. Finally, be fully aware of all the essay topics, due dates, and any important announcements or changes, so that nothing stresses you out at the last minute. The college application process is a stressful chore, so it is best to be organized and have a good attitude from the beginning. Essay writing and editing is a lot of tedious work, but if you give yourself enough time for it, it can be a fun and transformative process as well.”

—Maya Ayoub, Harvard University

It’s Okay to Describe Yourself Like a Crazy Person

“For advice, I really can only say what Stanford, the UC system, and every other school I applied to encouraged me to do. Be yourself. Speak as you are, not as you think you want them to see you. I talked about myself like a crazy person but with a lot of humor and self-awareness. That’s my style—I observe, I criticize, and I satirize.

“My friend went a more ’traditional’ route and wrote about her time spent working with an after-school children’s program, but I doubt it was the content that got her noticed. Her love for the kids and her hopes for helping them in a greater capacity in the future shone through the page. Just be yourself.

Write about something that impassions or allows you to express you, and that will translate to any reader.

“Also, don’t be afraid to let lots and lots of people look at it. Don’t compromise on anything you’re set on doing, but listen to constructive criticism.”

—Magali Ferare, Stanford University

Explaining Why You’re Not the Same

“I would say one of the most important things is to identify something that sets you apart from all the other applicants. In the end, at the top schools you are going to get many students who have done similarly extraordinary things, so choose something that tells the admissions officer why you’re better, not just the same as, the next guy/girl. Also, it’s much easier to write with impact when it is about something that you have a very genuine interest in.”

—Mark Su, University of Pennsylvania

Write When You’re Fed, Warm, and Loquacious

“Write when you are in a good mood. Don’t write when it’s 11:30 PM, and the essay is due in 30 minutes at 12 midnight. Don’t write when you just failed a test. Don’t write when you just had a fight with your parents (presum-ably about why you haven’t finished your college applications yet).

“Write when you are feeling fed, warm, and loquacious. Write when a sudden idea makes you go Ooooohhh!! This may mean you have to resort to my dorky method of carrying a notebook around for a week or so (Yes, I know it’s weird; I’ve been told many times it is weird) but it is definitely worth the effort.”

—Susan Sun, University of Pennsylvania

The Importance of Freewriting

“I think the best piece of advice is to start early. The earlier you start, the more relaxed and satisfied you can be. I’d say start off by free-writing, that’s always how I get my best ideas. Start off with a blank sheet of paper (or a blank word document)—then write for five or ten minutes straight, without erasing anything and without ever stopping the flow of words. Once you find a topic, write a draft—then put it aside for a couple days. Only with the perspective of time (which is a luxury you’ll want to have, so start early) can you truly edit well.”

—Michael Ayoub, Harvard University

Think before Writing

“Sit down and think about yourself to figure out what specific qualities you like about yourself, and think of a story (symbolic or real, or both) that really exemplifies or shows those qualities.”

—Robert Lee, Columbia University

You Don’t Need an Extraordinary Story

“Write about something you are passionate about. Do not feel you have to show off your awards... but you shouldn’t be modest either. You want the essay’s focus to be something that the reader will remember. You want the reader to label you (e.g. ’the girl who likes to bake chocolate cookies’ or ’the gymnast who won an Olympic medal’) so that s/he can remember you throughout the process. remember that everyday events can be—and often are—best to write about... it is not necessary to have an ’extraordinary story’ to tell... you are aiming for the reader to get a sense of your personality and of what drives you.”

—Zachary Richner, Harvard University

Remember That Your Readers Are Adults

“I remember sitting on my bed, I didn’t know what they wanted me to do.

Did they want me to encapsulate my life? At 15 you haven’t had much of a life.

What I ended up doing is taking the Penn prompt to answer the open-ended prompt. If you’re faced with an open-ended prompt, find a prompt that you have relevant experience with. Make the essay entertaining with a nice story. If you have an essay already written, you can spin the conclusion, manipulating the essay to answer the prompt.

“My high school, Whitney High School, helped a lot. They had a two-week writing workshop. It made me get started early. By having to start in July or August, you’re constantly thinking about the essay. It only gets better as you get closer to the deadline.

“not everyone has that resource, but you can get started early and have many people read your essay. You want it to have wide appeal because you don’t know who will ultimately read it. You never want to sound so serious that an adult would laugh at your writing. An admissions officer has to read 1,000 essays, and he doesn’t want to be bogged down with a very serious piece. Put yourself in the place of the reader.”

—Ravi Patna, University of Pennsylvania

Showcase What’s Not Elsewhere in the Application

“I really think the most important thing is to let yourself shine through...

and especially the parts of yourself that aren’t listed anywhere else in the application. Be creative and make sure to tell a story. I knew that what was really missing from my application was my sense of fun and adventure, and my willingness to try just about anything. I think my essay captured that, and I hope that it caught the attention of the admissions officers!”

—Lauren Horton, Stanford University

Tell a Story

“Tell a story, and tell it well. I believe that telling a story is the most direct way of sharing a piece of yourself with someone else. I believe, however, that the story should also be able to express growth over time rather than a moment of self-realization (ex. climbing a mountain).”

—Anonymous, Yale University

Focus on Your Fit with the School

“Keep in mind the purpose of your essays! Sometimes people forget the purpose of the essay is to demonstrate how they are compatible with a school; instead, they just write a story that fits the prompt. However, admissions committees read hundreds of essays. They don’t have time to sit and guess what you’re trying to tell them. As a result, keep flowering unnecessary story details to the minimum. You want enough details to make your essays vivid and interesting, but you’re not trying to write a novel.

“Furthermore, you are trying to convince the admissions committee why you would fit in with the school. Something I found useful was to look up the mission statements of schools and demonstrate how I would fit in. For Caltech, they have a big emphasis on integrating research and education, an interdisciplinary atmosphere, and helping students develop into creative members of society. As a result, I tried to incorporate those details into my essays.

“Finally, please make sure you don’t submit essays about why you want to attend MIT! My roommate is part of the undergraduate team on the admissions committee, and she tells me that unfortunately, there are a number of applications with MIT in the essays. Obviously, the admissions committee doesn’t smile upon that—it’s one of the reasons why you should really put an effort to making the essays for each school unique. Just as you want to stand out to the admissions committees through your essays, the admissions committees want to see how their schools stand out to you and why you should belong there.”

—Anonymous, Caltech

Target One Idea

“At least when it comes to writing admissions essays, try to focus on one idea. This type of essay is difficult to write because it can feel like you’re trying to squeeze your entire life into a few paragraphs—which generally results in too many underdeveloped ideas that all fail to do you justice. Pick one idea and stick to it. Doing so will give you the flexibility to be creative and will help you feel as though you are in control of your writing.”

—Laura V. Mesa, Stanford University

Get Feedback from Current College Students

“First, reach out to as many high school alumni and friends who are attending the colleges that you are applying to and ask them if they would be willing to spend some time to critique and offer feedback for your essays. Ask for feedback early in the college admissions process to give them plenty of time to get back to you in case they are pressed for time as your college application deadlines approach.

“Second, read as many college essay samples as you can before your essays are due to help you get a feel for the key points that admissions essays touch upon, help you generate ideas and to get your creative juices flowing.

“Third, try to stand out when writing your essays in as many ways as you can: choose original essay topics, let your unique writing style shine, and de-pict unique reasons why you want to be admitted to a specific college.

“Lastly, write about activities that you are most passionate about. Only then, will the essay display your true energy and interest in the activity. This passion will speak for itself in your essays.”

—Shreyans C. Parekh, University of Pennsylvania

Write What You Know

“My best piece of advice when writing a college admissions essay is to be honest and reveal who you truly are. Admissions committees will see so many of the same essays, people describing their achievements and extracurricular activities. Choose something that makes you different, that makes you stand out from the rest of the crowd. It is refreshing to hear something new and exciting. More importantly, whatever makes you different, makes you stand out, is probably the thing that will be easiest for you to write about. Write what you know, reveal who you are, and make a statement.”

—Fareez Giga, Stanford University

Don’t Rely on Your SAT Vocabulary

“Be yourself. It is cliche and might not be as reassuring as other things, but with thousands of essays written, your SAT vocabulary and generic experiences that ’changed your life’ won’t get you as far as a starkly genuine voice.”

—Jason Y. Shah, Harvard University

Anything Is Possible

“First of all, remember anything is possible. When I told my advisors that I wanted to apply to Wharton with a 3.5 gPA, I got laughed at. I worked all summer on my application and my essay, and in the end, I was the one laughing. That being said, you really want your essay to be unique, not just creative. You want to have a story that nO OnE else can possibly have. This means don’t talk about being the president of a club, or about playing a sport.

Although I had a pretty impressive resume (I started a nonprofit to raise money for children’s hospitals and did research with Caltech affiliated Jisan research Institute), I still knew that there were hundreds of other candidates out there who had done research and had been involved with non-profits. So, I decided to write about a movie I made for my dad’s 50th birthday that was a parody of Forrest Gump. I knew that even though this was completely irrelevant to anything on my application, it would make me memorable and give the readers a glimpse into Alex volodarsky the person, not the student. When writing your essay, just remember: is it possible that there’s someone out there who can just change the name of the sport/club/organization and turn in the same essay? If the answer is yes, choose another topic.”

—Alex Volodarsky, University of Pennsylvania

An Everyday Experience Can Work

“My major advice in selecting a topic is that the essay doesn’t have to be about some sort of epiphany or life-changing moment—sometimes it’s easier to write about the everyday things that separate you from everyone else. You want to show who you are as a person - if there is one defining event that shows this, great, but if not, don’t try to force one. Instead do some introspec-tion, and try to highlight something about your personality or experience that stands out. Also, keep a fairly narrow focus—don’t try to write about everything that you’ve done in high school. Instead pick one thing that really highlights what you can bring to that college.”

—Anonymous, Harvard University

Recycle and Choose Wisely

“Start early! I started writing my essays in the summer, and all the essays I wrote during that time, I ended up throwing away. Also, recycle your essays for different schools and scholarships—it’s usually easy to modify your essays a little bit to fit various prompts. Also, choose your essays wisely. The combination of your long and short essays should give different perspectives of who you are.”

—Anonymous, Princeton University

Presenting Your Unique Qualities

“Write an essay that demonstrates your true self. I think that it is important to reiterate and to clearly show a school the positive and unique qualities that you can bring to their institution. I would also suggest staying away from stories that seem ’cliché’ and trying to focus on a topic that is idiosyncratic such as a trip oversees or a unique volunteering experience.”

—Nnenna Ene, Duke University

Get Help from Your Teachers

“Ask your high school teachers to look over your essay. They are usually happy to help, and when you get into a top choice school they like to feel like they contributed to your success.”

—Anonymous, Harvard University

Be Unguarded

“Write about something that you know is unique, maybe a bit personal, and powerful—either positively or negatively—to anyone who reads it. I think it’s helpful to remember that your essay is quite personal and that no one will ever put your face to your writing later on if you do choose to attend that college. Share as much as you want and don’t have fear that others will judge you for it or remember you for it later on in the game—they won’t. Think of your essay as a powerful tool that you can use to get you in, but not something that you have to be guarded about in the least—it’s pretty compelling to get to shape this part of your admissions packet in its full entirety.”

—Sarah Langberg, Princeton University

Connect to the Rest of Your Application

“Take stock of what you’ve done in high school, and try to find something that you have spent significant time on that has captured or transformed you, and write about that. It is also important that this activity or event resonates in the rest of your application. For example, my application essay on the emotional paradigm shift I experienced resonated in the fact that I was a member of several different bands (local, regional, and all-state) and music clearly per-meated my life.”

—Devin Nambiar, Columbia University

Your Essay Topic Is Individual

“Don’t try changing your skin. If you don’t have an interest in something, don’t write about it. If it’s something you think about a lot, if it’s in your blood, then that’s probably a topic you should choose. I was surprised when I visited the MIT campus and asked the tour guide what she wrote about. Her essay was on a conversation between her fingers. I thought, this is not me. It says a lot about her, but it wasn’t a topic that I was going to be able to do. Write about something that will allow your passion come out.”

—Anonymous, MIT

Explain Your Go als

“For the personal statement I have to tell you what I was told, ’Write about what makes you different.’ You have to do the best to describe who you are to the person who is reading your essay and make them feel like they know exactly what your goals and ambitions are and how you plan to reach them.

“Find examples of college essays and see what kind of details make a college essay memorable. I must also beg you to have your essays proofread by as many teachers who are willing to read them and go over them with you and make suggestions.

“If the application happens to be like the University of Chicago’s Uncommon Application, pick the topic that you find most interesting. Chances are if the topic interests you, you will find that you have a lot to write about, and the essay will probably be interesting too.”

—Angelica, University of Chicago

Have Editors for Different Purposes

“Allow plenty of time for editing and revision. Don’t just sit down the night before the application is due and throw something together. Prepare a rough draft and then have numerous people read it over. I had my English teacher read mine for grammar and usage, my parents read it for relevance, and my guidance counselor read it for appropriateness all before I sent it in.”

—Cameron McConkey, Cornell University

Don’t Get Carried Away with the Topic

“Everyone always says that your college admissions essay should be about something you are passionate about. While I agree with this advice because it definitely comes easier if you love what you are writing about, it is just as important to remember not to get too carried away with the topic. remember, that you have to find a way to relate the topic to you—your personality traits and your strengths. A lot of seniors choose great topics to write about but forget that the real purpose of this essay is to reflect who you are. You don’t necessarily have to be direct in describing yourself (’I am a wonderful person’); you can imply things about the type of person (’I tried twenty different times and my perseverance paid off’), but make sure that you convey the important things about who you are and why you’re a good match for the college.”

—Manika, University of Pennsylvania

Give Yourself E nough Time

“Make sure you give yourself enough time to write a rough draft of your essay and time for someone to proofread it. Also, be sure that you feel confident and proud about the essay.”

—Ashley Mitchell, University of Chicago

Don’t Write for the Admissions Officers’ Approval

“Don’t write what you think the admissions committee wants to read.

College admissions officers, I imagine, are tired of reading the same sorts of essays about how one fuddy-duddy person (used in many others’ essays) is the applicant’s hero or about how winning a school or academic competition was the greatest moment of an applicant’s life. Write about what you know, and write something that includes of bit of your personality. If you want to write about how Mr. Fuddy-Duddy is your hero, that’s perfectly fine, but just make sure you aren’t writing about him because it seems like the proper thing to do.”

—Mariam Nassiri, Duke University

Get Specific about the College

“Add a personal touch and emotions to your essay, regardless of what the topic is. remember to give the reader an idea of you as a person, and replace ambiguity (such as “I work very hard”, “I love subject X”) with very specific examples or experiences.

“Also, if possible, relate your story to something unique to the school you are applying to. For example, I am passionate about environmental issues, and Duke University has one of the best environmental programs in the U.S.”

—Pen-Yuan Hsing, Duke University

Don’t Compromise Your Message

“This seems petty, but don’t be afraid to swear or use verbally controversial words, as long as they serve a legit purpose. Many of my friends applying to college this year believe that an unnatural level of censorship is required for their essays. never compromise your message to appear more clean-shaven.”

—Anthony Gouw, Duke University

Tell a Story

“I know they always say not to write about tragic events or make ’sob stories’ because everyone does it and the admissions readers won’t pity you.

However, I feel that you should write about an experience that is unique to you (for me, this was my first time ever performing on stage in a musical instead of playing in the pit orchestra or working as stage crew). Also, tell a story! If you enjoyed your experience and were inspired by it, chances are your writing will reflect that emotional aspect and reveal something new and intriguing to you. The admissions officer will learn a lot about you, too!”

—Jean Gan, Duke University

Write about What Drives You

“Definitely write about something you are passionate about. College re-cruiters want to know what drives and motivates you.”

—Jackie Liao, Stanford University

Ask Others to Help You Find Something Differentiating

“Write about something that you are truly passionate about and care about because the enthusiasm and dedication you put into the essay comes across on paper. If you think there is absolutely nothing that distinguishes you from the rest of the bunch, nothing that makes you unique, ask your friends, your family members, and other people who know you well to describe one thing that they find interesting about you.

“Also, when you are writing your essay, don’t focus too much on writing about what you think the admissions officers want to hear—everyone else is doing the same thing! Instead, focus on telling an engaging, well-written, and meaningful story that has true value to you. In your essay, show what that experience meant for you and how it has transformed you. How has it affected your present, and how will it affect your future?”

—Oana Emilia Butnareanu, Stanford University

Write Multiple Drafts

“Write as many drafts as necessary. I wrote draft upon draft in order to perfect my essay. Dedicate as much time to the essay as needed. This essay can determine whether you are admitted or not, take your time on it. There were countless weekends where I’d stay home just to work on my essay.”

—Enrique Vazquez, University of Chicago

Don’t Try to Follow a Formula

“Try not to follow any formula that you think admissions officers are looking for. You should write about something that is personal and paints a picture of who you are as a person. Provide an honest portrayal of yourself which outlines why you are going to be an asset to the university. Many of the people you are competing against to receive a spot at the school will have similar test scores, class rankings, and grades so the essay and interview is an opportunity for you to differentiate yourself.”

—Anne McPherson, Yale University

Start Three Months Early

“First, start early. You want to spend at least three to four months editing and refining the essay to make it the best. Ask your English teacher, advisors, and parents to help you on it.

“Second, write the most interesting/creative introduction you can.

Admissions officers read thousands upon thousands of essays, and if you don’t captivate their attention with the first sentence, they may not be as inclined to read on.

“Third, remember, essays are the most important element to your application. Don’t count on SAT scores to get you into Stanford, Yale, Harvard, etc. They do not matter anymore, especially when you need to stand out.

Make a good impression on the essay, and spend most of your time on that!

remember, this is the only way for admissions to get to know you, so give them the chance to get to know you!

“Lastly, your essay should nOT be something you write a week before the deadline. College admissions officers are trained to spot out essays that were rushed and not well thought out. Don’t rush this part of your application!”

—Brian Aguado, Stanford University

Don’t Pass Judgment on Others

“Pick an aspect or event of your life that boldly shows an important part of your personality. If someone is very interested in human rights, I think they should write about that part of their personality and how they plan on foster-ing it with an education.

“Another overlooked but very important piece of advice that I really would like to share is: don’t ever pass any kind of judgment about others in essays.

I’ve read applications where people would write (only for a sentence) about how someone else is dumb or awkward (basically ’I am better than all of the other applicants because...’ or ’My awkward looking friend did this...’) and it always ruins it and makes the individual come off as arrogant, which I don’t think is good.”

—Mathew Griffin, Brown University

Feel Confident about Your Topic

“Leave plenty of time to write your essays. It took me a good two months to finally come up with my final product. I tried to use the topics provided first because I thought if I came up with my own topic they would not like it. I tried using two of their topics before I finally decided to take a chance and make my own. It was the best decision I made. I just did not feel confident about the other topics. I guess that is my other advice. Feel confident about your essay and the topic you choose. Make sure it highlights what you want everyone to know about you. Also, I would not recommend making up a story.”

—Victoria Tomaka, University of Chicago

Aim for Uniqueness

“Write about something unique. Essays need to be both memorable and interesting, especially if you plan to apply to a school where applicants are numbered in the thousands.”

—Lauren Sanders, Duke University

Treat the Essay Like It Matters

“Write something you care about—something that comes naturally and flows. Don’t write about what you think the college admissions officers want to hear, and make it unique. If you’re going to write about an important teacher, a memorable activity, etc. make it different and nuanced. give stark and vivid descriptions and examples, and they’ll know what you’re writing is yours. Also, treat this essay like it matters. I know of so many friends who wrote down the first thing that came to their minds and submitted it. I spent probably three weeks on my essay, looking over it every other day and getting teachers to edit it. nothing comes out perfect on the first try, and even if it’s good, it can always get better.”

—Lisa Kapp, University of Pennsylvania

You Don’t Have to Write about a Tragedy or Curing a Disease

“I have several pieces of advice, but I suppose they all relate to one idea: Be honest in your essay. There is a myth that in order to get into a top ranked school, you must have a)endured great tragedy in your life or b)have cured a disease, have a geometric theorem named after you, be a published author, etc. While all of these are excellent topics to write about, they don’t apply to everyone, and you don’t need to make up a story if they don’t fit your life. I’ve had an amazing childhood, my family is fantastic, and like most teenagers, I’m still waiting to do my world-changing work (assuming I have any in my future). So, I wrote about what was important to me: the small things I am doing currently to better the world and the bigger things I hope to do. Essay readers know when they’re being played, and they also realize that we’re just kids—we have the rest of our lives to do great things.”

—Suzanne Arrington, Columbia University

Be Unconventional

“Use plenty of anecdotes, and be sure to start ’in the moment’ to keep readers engaged. Admissions officers are skimming hundreds of essays each day, so you shouldn’t be afraid to be unconventional (within reason) to grab their attention.”

—Steve Schwartz, Columbia University

Shamelessly Promote Yourself

“I would say that you really need the essay to be in your voice and have it reflect how you feel not how you think they want you to feel. Don’t set out to sound really intelligent and scholarly, this is your only real chance to let them know the real you, not the you on paper. Also, this is one of the few chances where it is acceptable for you to shamelessly promote yourself so play up your good qualities. Think of something original to write on. You want to be different and stand out. So many people have written ’my grandfather inspires me because’ or ’I was standing on the field watching the seconds count down with a tied game.’ You should write something that only you can write.”

—Anastasia Fullerton, Stanford, Brown

Make Them Smile

“Try to make it original and funny. Since the admissions officers are reading thousands of essays, finding a way to make them smile is a good thing.”

—Samuel Linden, Harvard University

Stay True to Yourself

“Be yourself. There is no better way to delight counselors than with personal touches. If a senior is funny, it will naturally come out in the words. If a senior is the ’political activist’ it will also be perceived in the writing. Still check for grammar, spelling errors, and unclear language, but also remember to stay true to yourself.”

—Michelle Kizer, Cornell University


“I would say not being concerned about bragging. You have done so much, and this is your time to shine! Also, start early on writing the essays! It takes a lot more time than you expect. I started my essays about two months in advance, and I didn’t feel as it was enough time. As time goes on, you’ll learn to re-use essays and tweak them to make them work for different colleges and questions.

“Another good idea is to create a list of accomplishments, starting from as early as second or third grade. This comes in handy when filling out the awards/honors sections on the applications, although things really start ’counting’ from ninth grade on. In addition to accomplishments, I had every club I had ever joined, every award I had won in every competition, every leadership position I held in a club, etc. It might sound far-fetched, but it is easy to forget everything you have done in the hustle and bustle of application season. It is much easier to have the list handy and to work off that.”

—Ariela Koehler, MIT


“reflect. Think about what events in your life have shaped the way you are today. Think about what is important to you, who you are, and how you arrived where you are. Be authentic and creative. remember to not only tell a story, but reflect on its meaning. And convey your thoughts and feelings emotionally as well as intellectually.”

—Timothy Nguyen Le, Yale University

Focus on One or Two Major Things

“My best piece of advice would have to be to be genuine, go into detail, and focus on one or two major things, not every little thing you’re involved in. I remember going to a workshop where people read their essays for discussion and a lot of them were more like lists. The ones that stood out were the ones that had a single passion and really explained it and gave an in depth perspective. Don’t highlight what you think they’ll like, highlight what you like because that will sound the best to them, if you do it right.”

—Anonymous, MIT

Read Other Essays

“Start early! How? Select around eight schools. Three of them being schools which you have higher gPA/SAT scores than their average, two or three schools that you are right on average and two or three schools that are a reach because you may be on their average or not and it’s a gamble.

“Then review when applications come out, so you can take advantage of as much time to write the essay prompts. Think of it as an essay that will let the admissions officer get to know you and see a true reflection of you in your essays.

“I would also suggest to read essays and see typical essay questions so that you can begin outlines or construct ideas of how you would answer these questions. This will allow you to take advantage of the time and short amount of space allowed to write as much about you.”

—Andres Cantero, Stanford University

Don’t Try to Sound Impressive

“Be yourself. Don’t write what you think might sound impressive (or what was already listed in other parts of the application), just think about what experiences matter to you the most and what stories highlight your unique traits. I think what worked for me was talking about my weaknesses and showing how they have made me stronger. What also helped a lot was reading sample admissions essays from books like this one to get a feel for the writing they expect.”

—Anonymous, Yale University

Going Negative Is Okay If It Highlights Growth

“My advice is to say things about yourself in a way that shows off your best attributes. Also don’t be afraid to write something that shows you in a negative light if you show growth. Instead of writing how you’re perfect, write about something negative that happened to show personal growth.”

—Aditya Kumar, Brown University

Evoke Feeling

“Write about what you care about and what you know well! Do not write about what you believe the admissions officers want to hear. Instead, focus on something that you feel strongly about and try to translate those feelings onto paper.

“The best pieces of writing are those that evoke a feeling; I focused specifically on description and detail. I wanted to bring the reader into my essay and let them live vicariously through me for five minutes. If you can take the reader somewhere by means of the story you tell it will undoubtedly be memorable.

“One thing that helped me to begin writing after I decided upon the gist of my essay was writing down verbs and adjectives that came to my mind when I thought of the subject I was writing about. In my case it was the woods—I imagined it beyond aesthetics; I thought of smells, textures, and feelings. I wanted to make my writing as specific as possible.”

—Mollie Mattuchio, Brown University

What Makes Me ME

“The way I brainstorm is to just start writing and throw a bunch of ideas onto a paper, then toss out what I don’t like and start over until I am satisfied.

Sitting down and thinking about ’what makes me ME’ was a really rewarding experience and helped me gain a lot of confidence in knowing what made me exceptional.”

—Robert Lee, Columbia University

Nostalgia for the Family Business

“I learned that I actually had some nostalgia for the family publishing business, whereas I would have told you before that I did not like it AT ALL.”

—Zachary Richner, Harvard University

Reinforced What I Thought about Myself

“The essay certainly framed my experiences more formally and made my life seem like it made a little more sense, but there wasn’t anything I didn’t already know or think about myself.”

—Jason Y. Shah, Harvard University

The Role of Friendships

“I learned a great deal from writing my college application essay, more than I would have expected at the outset. Like most experiences, though, it was neither fully appreciated nor understood until processed reflectively.

“Writing my essay, which was about a trip to a science fair competition, gave me the opportunity—maybe even forced me—to reflect on the events and activities swirling around me at the time. not only did I recognize the role of this trip in the greater context of my junior year, but also I found certain gems in several, seemingly minor, events. Distancing myself from my experiences was impossible—I simply found myself retelling my story with a refined lens. This new perspective taught me a great deal about myself as well. I discovered how much friendships, despite their apparent brevity, affected me.

“Additionally, I recognized the role of these friendships in molding my experiences and perceptions. Fred, the main focus of my essay, showed me how the role of genuine passion could trump physical disabilities. I expect that this lesson would have never revealed itself had I not written my essay on Fred and taken the time to study the nature of his character.”

—Jonathan Cross, Duke University

Discovered Passion

“After I wrote my essay I thought, wow, I’m definitely not that deep—I wrote in a far more passion-filled and emotional tone than I normally think, feel, and live my life, but in the end, as I re-read the essay four years later, I am confident that the strong and perhaps out of the ordinary tone left a lasting impression on those who read it. I learned that I do have the power to create strong words and paragraphs, but that I don’t necessarily have to live my life in such a passion-filled way at all times.”

—Sarah Langberg, Princeton University

The Role of Others

“The thing I learned about myself while writing that essay is the role that people play in giving me a positive impression about something I am doing.

I think this is true in all facets of life; clearly for example, you will dislike your job if you dislike your co-workers. I was privileged to be surrounded by individuals authentically committed to what they were doing. One’s activities are not necessarily ends in themselves but rather are viewed as good or bad depending on the personal dynamic that accompanies them.”

—Devin Nambiar, Columbia University

The Process of Writing

“I learned I’m not really good at time management. It’s a great process. I really recommend for people in Egypt to apply to colleges in the U.S. because of the process of writing your essays. There’s a lot of self discovery. You want to tell people who you are, what you want, and what you like.”

—Anonymous, MIT

Cherishing High School Experiences

“I learned a lot about myself after writing my personal statement. I had never really thought about the many diverse experiences I had participated in and at the moment did not realize how they affected my ways of thinking.

I definitely cherish my high school experience a lot more after writing my essay.”

—Angelica, University of Chicago

Tying Activities to the Future

“I learned a lot about myself from writing my admissions essay. I spent some time thinking about what experiences were important and relevant to what I want to pursue later in life. This made me realize how important my extracurricular involvement was when it came to writing an essay for admission.”

—Cameron McConkey, Cornell University

Writing about an Uninteresting Food

“I did not discover anything particularly earth-shattering about myself while writing this essay, but I did learn that I can write passionately about a food in which I have no interest.”

—Mariam Nassiri, Duke University

Connecting the Dots

“Thinking about what to write made me think through all that happened in my life, where I am now, and my future. Writing this essay let me put my life into perspective and weave it into a structured story. I learned that in life, following your passions might seem risky, and looking forward you can’t see where you’re headed. But looking back years later, all the things you did are like dots that connect and form a beautiful picture.”

—Pen-Yuan Hsing, Duke University

Looking f or Yourself

“Sometimes you need to be looking for something to find it, and a lot of times you won’t be looking for yourself until you try to write about it.”

—Anthony Gouw, Duke University

An Epiphany

“My essay did turn out to be largely a reflection about my experience in the ensemble and what I gained from it. The piece tells my story of how I changed from a timid novice on stage into an enthusiastic performer—readers want to see this ’Aha!’ moment, this epiphany. This shows admissions people that you grew in some way and you got something out of your experience more than just spending a summer with 70 other cast members. Then, they will know that you can learn from life in college, which is what school is all about.”

—Jean Gan, Duke University

Evaluating My Goals

“The admissions essay provided a great opportunity to evaluate my goals and to really understand my passions in life.”

—Jackie Liao, Stanford University

Believing in Myself

“I think the most important thing I learned from writing this essay is to stop doubting, believe in myself, and trust that I am making the right decision.

When some of my family members read my essay, they scoffed at it and told me that if I wanted to get into Stanford, this was far from being good enough.

I remember them saying this was nothing to be proud of, because there are millions of people in the U.S. and around the globe who speak Spanish, and having this ability is nothing unique and out of the ordinary. Usually, I was very keen on listening to what others had to say, but this time, I was sure that they were mistaken and that my love for Spanish would get me far in life. So despite their objections, I sent in my essay and proved them wrong.”

—Oana Emilia Butnareanu, Stanford University

Embracing the Past

“I did learn a lot about myself. When I was writing my essay for the Common Application, I wrote about many incidents that shaped who I was.

I never really embraced those events until that moment. When I was writing, I had to sit there and really look within myself and see who I was. It was nice to know how my personality came about by past incidents.”

—Enrique Vazquez, University of Chicago

Reflecting on My Family

“I never really wrote about my family and my upbringing in such detail. It allowed me to really reflect on the uniqueness of my family and appreciate the values that my parents instilled in us.”

—Anne McPherson, Yale University

Being Thankful

“You know you have written a good essay if you go through a period of self-reflection. I learned about myself in the sense that I explored my individuality and what life meant to me at that moment. The essay forced me to count my blessings, which is something most people don’t do on a regular basis. I have been blessed with multiple opportunities in my life (i.e. being admitted to Stanford), and the essay made me realize how important it is to be thankful for everything in life.”

—Brian Aguado, Stanford University

A Positive Attitude

“I learned that even though I never participated much in extracurriculars or made many friends in high school, I still had grown a lot and (to my surprise) had a relatively positive attitude about life.”

—Mathew Griffin, Brown University

A Numbers Person

“I learned that I do not like the stress of writing a perfect essay. I am more of a numbers person. I always think everything I write is not good enough or could be better. I stressed myself out. It turned out ok because I got accepted to college but I would much rather take a multiple choice test than write an essay.”

—Victoria Tomaka, University of Chicago

How to Transfer My Personality to Paper

“I learned to transfer my personality to paper. An admissions essay is a glance into the mindset of a student. I don’t think previously I had to do this before the college admissions process.”

—Lauren Sanders, Duke University

Reflecting on Changes

“With the completion of any major task, there’s always a sense of accomplishment. However, finishing my college essay was different because it just felt right. It really made me reflect on my life and how much it’s changed and how grateful I am for everything that has happened to me.”

—Lisa Kapp, University of Pennsylvania

Shaped My College Career

“Writing the essay required me to analyze why I had become involved in the Un in the first place. It helped me to place my Un experiences within the broader context of my pre-college extracurriculars. It also helped me to determine my college major (political science).”

—Steve Schwartz, Columbia University

Reflecting on the Past Five Years

“I realized how far I have come in the past five years, and it was nice to have that time to reflect while I was preparing for such a large change in my life.”

—Anastasia Fullerton, Stanford, Brown

Come a Long Way

“If anything, I’ve learned that I do not credit myself as much as I should.

While writing, I realized that I’ve come a far way from eighth grade, and that my experiences have made me a very strong person.”

—Michelle Kizer, Cornell University

Trouble Writing about Myself

“I learned that I have a lot of trouble writing about myself. It’s a completely different experience than writing an essay in class. In addition, I learned to be proud of myself! I have done a lot!”

—Ariela Koehler, MIT

Thinking about My Brother

“In the process of writing this, I literally spent hours every day for months reflecting on my brother’s death. I have learned that reflection truly can be a very powerful thing. I do it every day—when I’m walking to school, washing the dishes, doing the laundry.”

—Timothy Nguyen Le, Yale University

Considered How I Sounded

“I did have to think about a lot of stuff when writing my essays. I guess all throughout middle and high school you write essays about books or history, etc. It’s very different to write about yourself. You have to think about how you sound. I tried not to overplay or underplay things, that was hard to do.

It was a humbling and empowering thing at the same time. I had to put some accomplishments aside and figure out what I was really proud of. I think it helps you figure yourself out to write these essays. I took a class about writing autobiographies during my freshman year.”

—Anonymous, MIT

Figured out My Academic Passions

“I learned that I had a lot more passion for certain academic fields than others and saw what I considered my strengths. This helped a lot my first year in college, because I went with these passions and took classes that would revolve around my passion, helping me enjoy my first year very much. It also taught me that with hard work and sufficient time, that I could do real well in a lot of things. The essays also reminded me a lot of my struggles and how even if college would be a struggle itself, that I had made it so far all right, and that I could definitely continue to do the same.”

—Andres Cantero, Stanford University

Scrutinized Myself

“I definitely learned something about myself when writing the essays.

These questions really made me scrutinize myself and my life in order to pick out the most important events that best shows the person I am.”

—Anonymous, Yale University

I’m Not as Boring as I Thought

“I learned that I am not as boring as I thought through writing my essay.

While I haven’t experienced anything horrific or accomplished anything on a global scale, I’ve done a lot of small, cool things that have made differences in both my life and the lives of others. I am unique and interesting, and writing my essay helped me realize that. I haven’t written an opera, but I’ve trained my legs to ride a bike 180 miles in two days. That’s something to write about.”

—Suzanne Arrington, Columbia University

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