Students applying to Ivy League schools find themselves having to wade through a particularly dense morass of conflicting advice. With Harvard and Princeton denying far more valedictorians than they accept, many students are coming to the the disquieting realization that overwhelming academic achievement and stratospheric scores may be not enough. Hence, the hope that a perfect essay might be where real distinction lies.
It’s been said that there are only two stories we tell each other: a familiar person leaves on a voyage, and a stranger comes to town. This is no less true of college essays, but it doesn’t make writing them any easier.
All of the Ivies use the Common Application with its single essay requirement. Students are given a choice of five prompts that ask them to tell a story that reflects their own identity, to recount a moment of failure, reflect on a time when they challenged a belief, describe a place of contentment, or discuss an event that marked their transition to adulthood. But the student who is applying to both Princeton and Pomona has to craft a personal statement that speaks to readers at both schools equally well. As Jon Reider, a well-known high school counselor in San Francisco, says, “It has never occurred to me that one Ivy (or anywhere else) would want a certain kind of essay. The whole point is that the main essay tell that kid’s own truth. Colleges take what they get.”
Admission officers at Ivy schools would agree that in telling their truth, students choose topics that more often reflect the reality of their own lives than they do the ethos of specific colleges:
- Brown admission officers Louis Trujillo and Natasha Go note, for example, that this year saw many more natural disaster essays: Sandy, Colorado flooding, Oklahoma tornadoes.
- Others point to a shift in the overused “helping others in exotic locales” topic, from the old staple in which a student discover peasants that are happy in spite of their poverty, to one in which witnessing the deprivations of poverty spur students to express gratitude for their American prosperity.
- Many students write essays in which they celebrate a rather anodyne version of diversity, marked less by political engagement, for example, than by servings of both sushi and stuffing, masala and mashed potatoes, turkey and tamales, at Thanksgiving dinner.
Students’ desire to write an Ivy-inspired essay is also complicated by the nature of the Ivy League itself. While the league shares a long tradition of academic excellence, exclusivity, and a set of admissions protocols that relate mostly to athletics (such as an Academic index that all Ivy athletes have to meet), the eight Ivies remain very distinctive institutions. It is hard to imagine how to write a Common Application essay that simultaneously speaks to Columbia’s focus on the intellectual value of a core curriculum, Brown’s notion that such value derives from the absence of a core, Cornell’s proud tradition as a land grant school, and Harvard’s exclusivity.
Of course, there is an element of self-selectivity that may set the essays of some Ivy applicants apart from others. Thoughtful applicants focus on how particular schools fit with their social and intellectual aspirations, and good essays mirror such self-awareness. Elisha Anderson, an Associate Director of Admission at Brown, notes that when he used to work in the admission office of a smaller, nonconformist liberal arts college in Massachusetts, he saw so many essays on protests, filmmaking and the Food not Bombs movement, that, “It wasn’t until I started working at Brown—where I almost never read essays on any of these topics—that I realized how different the self-selection of the two applicant pools must have been.”
Unlike the Common Application essay, however, the school-specific supplements do require that students write more targeted essays. It is here that the student needs to craft an essay that speaks to his or her fit with that particular institution, and some will ask the question very directly: “Tell us what you find most appealing about Columbia,” for example, or “Why Brown?” Dartmouth avoids additional long essays and Harvard’s is optional, but last year when the Common Application did away with its so-called activity paragraph (“choose one of your extra curricular activities and tell us about it”), these Ivies decided, as did Columbia, that it was useful enough for their purposes to include it in the supplement. The Ivies with engineering schools ask for additional essays from prospective engineers, but Cornell, not surprising given its seven colleges, asks every applicant for such an academic interest statement. Presumably Princeton and Yale are largely looking for exactly the same qualities in their top applicants—academic aptitude, intellectual depth, awareness of others, leadership qualities, and knowledge of the institution. To help them identify those elements, Princeton asks students to reflect on their own lives by writing, for example, in response to quotes on culture, service to the nation, and the practices of inequality. Yale, in contrast, asks simply that a student “Reflect on something you want us to know about you.” Associate Director Rebekah Westphal of Yale explains that the question is, “open enough that students write about whatever they feel like at the time, to present themselves to us without trying to fit into a certain topic or question.”
In a good essay the student embarks on a voyage to learn more about an idea, a place, or about herself, and she returns able to examine and understand what has been familiar with new eyes and a deeper perspective. In that narrative, Ivy admission officers are looking for qualities that are no different from those that readers at Stanford, Rice or Chicago are searching for, and for the greatest part, they are all likely to discern them in similar essays.
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Getting into an elite college has never been more cutthroat. Last year, Harvard’s admissions rate dipped to a record low, with only 5.3% of applicants getting an acceptance letter. Stanford’s rate was even lower, at 5.05%.
These days, it takes more than impressive grades, a full roster of extracurriculars, and a deep commitment to community service to get into a well-ranked school. Experts say that a stellar essay is the linchpin that will win the admissions department over. But what is less well known is that different colleges favor particular topics and even specific words used in essays.
This is a key finding from AdmitSee, a startup that invites verified college students to share their application materials with potential applicants. High school students can pay to access AdmitSee’s repository of successful college essays, while college students who share their materials receive a small payment every time someone accesses their data. “The biggest differentiator for our site is that college students who share their information are compensated for their time,” Stephanie Shyu, cofounder of AdmitSee, tells Fast Company. “This allows them to monetize materials that they have sitting around. They can upload their file and when they check back in a few months later, they might have made several hundred dollars.”
Shyu says that this model has allowed AdmitSee to collect a lot of data very rapidly. The company is only a year old and just landed $1.5 million in seed funding from investors such asFounder.org and The Social + Capital Partnership. But in this short time, AdmitSee has already gathered 15,000 college essays in their system. Many are from people who got into well-ranked colleges, since they targeted these students first. The vast majority of these essays come from current college students who were admitted within the last two or three years.
AdmitSee has a team that analyzes all of these materials, gathering both qualitative and quantitative findings. And they’ve found some juicy insights about what different elite colleges are looking for in essays. One of the most striking differences was between successful Harvard and Stanford essays. (AdmitSee had 539 essays from Stanford and 393 from Harvard at the time of this interview, but more trickle in every day.) High-achieving high schoolers frequently apply to both schools—often with the very same essay—but there are stark differences between what their respective admissions departments seem to want.
What Do You Call Your Parents?
The terms “father” and “mother” appeared more frequently in successful Harvard essays, while the term “mom” and “dad” appeared more frequently in successful Stanford essays.
Harvard Likes Downer Essays
AdmitSee found that negative words tended to show up more on essays accepted to Harvard than essays accepted to Stanford. For example, Shyu says that “cancer,” “difficult,” “hard,” and “tough” appeared more frequently on Harvard essays, while “happy,” “passion,” “better,” and “improve” appeared more frequently in Stanford essays.
This also had to do with the content of the essays. At Harvard, admitted students tended to write about challenges they had overcome in their life or academic career, while Stanford tended to prefer creative personal stories, or essays about family background or issues that the student cares about. “Extrapolating from this qualitative data, it seems like Stanford is more interested in the student’s personality, while Harvard appears to be more interested in the student’s track record of accomplishment,” Shyu says.
With further linguistic analysis, AdmitSee found that the most common words on Harvard essays were “experience,” “society,” “world,” “success,” “opportunity.” At Stanford, they were “research,” “community,” “knowledge,” “future” and “skill.”
What the Other Ivies Care About
It turns out, Brown favors essays about volunteer and public interest work, while these topics rank low among successful Yale essays. In addition to Harvard, successful Princeton essays often tackle experiences with failure. Meanwhile, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania tend to accept students who write about their career aspirations. Essays about diversity—race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—tend to be more popular at Stanford, Yale, and Brown.
Based on the AdmitSee’s data, Dartmouth and Columbia don’t appear to have strong biases toward particular essay topics. This means that essays on many subjects were seen favorably by the admissions departments at those schools. However, Shyu says that writing about a moment that changed the student’s life showed up frequently in essays of successful applicants to those schools.
Risk-Taking Pays Off
One general insight is that students who take risks with the content and the structure of their college essays tend to be more successful across the board. One student who was admitted to several top colleges wrote about his father’s addiction to pornography and another wrote about a grandparent who was incarcerated, forcing her mother to get food stamps illegally. Weird formats also tend to do well. One successful student wrote an essay tracking how his credit card was stolen, making each point of the credit card’s journey a separate section on the essay and analyzing what each transaction meant. Another’s essay was a list of her favorite books and focused on where each book was purchased.
“One of the big questions our users have is whether they should take a risk with their essay, writing about something that reveals very intimate details about themselves or that takes an unconventional format,” Shyu says. “What we’re finding is that successful essays are not ones that talk about an accomplishment or regurgitate that student’s résumé . The most compelling essays are those that touch on surprising personal topics.”
Of course, one caveat here is that taking a risk only makes sense if the essay is well-executed. Shyu says that the content and structure of the story must make a larger point about the applicant, otherwise it does not serve a purpose. And it goes without saying that the essay must be well-written, with careful attention paid to flow and style.
Shyu says that there are two major takeaways that can be taken from the company’s data. The first is that it is very valuable for applicants to tailor their essays for different schools, rather than perfecting one essay and using it to apply to every single school. The second is that these essays can offer insight into the culture of the school. “The essays of admitted students are also a reflection of the community at these institutions,” Shyu says. “It can provide insight into whether or not the school is a good fit for that student.”
A final tip? If you want to go to Harvard and write about your parents, make sure to address them as “mother” and “father.”