I. INTRODUCTION: THE ADMISSIONS ESSAY
Writing a college admissions essay is an admittedly daunting task. Most likely, you have been repeatedly told that these five hundred painstakingly crafted words must complete the intimidating mission of distinguishing yourself from the legions of other college applicants, in order to leave your own personalized mark on the admissions officers. You’ve probably been reminded that your essay should strike a balance between being compelling and insightful, but not too contrived. You’ve likely heard varying accounts of how important the admissions essay actually is: from those who swear by their writing and predict that this little essay steered them clear of the rejection pile; to others who humbly say they were probably accepted in spite of their essay. With all the academic and extracurricular work that consumes what spare time you have outside of the application process, it’s almost certain that college essays aren’t what you’d like to be worrying about on your weekends.
At the same time, the admissions essay can be a boon to your application if approached carefully. Each year, college admissions rates plunge as the number of applicants grows, and the size of résumés and activities lists expands. For applicants to competitive universities and Ivy League schools, having a top grade point average (GPA) along with sporting and musical prowess may not guarantee admission. The personal statement, however, is a blank slate that allows you to share and emphasize the qualities that make you stand out. It permits you to make a creative, distinctive, and even emotional appeal directly to the admissions officers. In a process dominated by test scores and statistics, the admissions essay provides a much-needed human touch. But where do you even start to find ideas for the essay, let alone write?
That’s what we’re here to help you do: navigate the confusing advice and vague guidance that pervades the current essay-writing process. We’ve provided you ten tips for writing a standout admissions essay, and we’ve included fifty real essays written by students who were ultimately accepted to Harvard College—with the expectation that these will give you a clearer sense of what works and what doesn’t. As fellow students who have been through the college application process, we understand the questions and concerns that essay-writers often face, and in this book, we seek to provide straightforward and realistic advice that will help steer you toward success.
In the end, however, there is no single formula to writing a successful admissions essay—just as there is no single recipe for being a successful college applicant. In many cases, you’re given free rein to write what ever you wish. You’re the only one who can identify your greatest strengths and most debilitating weaknesses, and only you can weave that insight into a personal statement. Only you are able to articulate how different people and different experiences have molded you into the person you are today. The immense control that you have over your statement’s content and style is what makes the college admissions essay so challenging to write—and incredibly revealing.
The Harvard Crimson has compiled some tried-and-true guidelines that will be helpful for writing almost any college admissions essay. Here are ten tips for you to keep in mind as you embark on the writing process:
1. Start thinking about the essay early. We understand that it isn’t always feasible to start writing months in advance. Nevertheless, as you barrel through your senior fall, keep an eye out for potential essay topics. Read through some essays that have worked in the past to get an idea of what an admissions essay ought to look like. Consider what you’re passionate about and why. Think back through your years and identify experiences, people, places, or lessons that have shaped your character and personality. Finding an essay topic is arguably the most challenging part of the whole process, so give yourself plenty of time to think of something that you really care about. Don’t be afraid to scrap ideas, even late in the process, if you come across something better—you’ll find that if your topic is heartfelt, the writing will come naturally.
2. Think strategically. The admissions essay is your opportunity to set yourself apart, to elaborate on who you are beyond your grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities. Spend the necessary time to reflect on yourself and your experiences, and get to know your strengths and weaknesses. This will help guide you in searching for a good essay topic. When writing, don’t rehash what’s already evident in your résumé or application, and don’t take on too much—you only have five hundred words. It’s often better to delve deeply into a single experience, showing that you are an observant individual capable of honest self-reflection, than to provide a superficial exposition of interesting aspects of your life. Talk about your hobbies, play up your unusual talents or areas of expertise, or describe something formative from your past. The possibilities are endless—be creative and find something that will supplement the rest of your application well.
3. Realize that the topic isn’t everything. Sure, some ideas—such as winning the state soccer championship—have probably been written about many, many times before you came along, and you should try to avoid those topics unless you can add something unique to the tale. Remember that your topic doesn’t have to be grandiose or sweeping—sometimes, seemingly mundane experiences, such as that summer job you once had, can be the launching point into a colorful and telling insight. Not everyone has exotic experiences or prodigious talents to showcase, but certainly every applicant has a unique and interesting background to illuminate. Creativity, thoughtful analysis, and skilled writing can make even the most routine happenings exciting. Take the time to think about your topic from various angles and figure out the best way to couch the material; showing that you can explain the “how” and the “why” of your topic is often more important than simply stating the “what.”
4. Answer the question. If you’re given a specific essay prompt, make sure your essay addresses those questions. Don’t take an essay and stretch it to fit five completely different prompts; if your essay wasn’t intended to answer a specific question, it becomes awkward and unconvincing. If different schools ask you why you’d like to attend their college, do your research and think through your responses carefully. Simply drafting a universal response and filling in the blanks will not demonstrate to admissions officers that you have the ability to think critically and to understand nuance. Finally, try to show that you’ve put some genuine thought into the essay and the question at hand. As with any good essay, use evidence, supporting facts, and examples to prove your point.
5. Be careful with gimmicks. Some people have successfully written poems or drawn comics for their personal statements, but they are few and far between. If you’re confident that your creative efforts will turn out well, go for it. Just remember that, especially with this personal statement, execution is everything. A piece that is inauthentic most likely will not be distinctive in the way that you had hoped.
6. Know your thesis. As we suggested before, take the time to think through your essay topic and make sure that you know what points you’re trying to make. What is the purpose of your essay? Why will an admissions officer want to read and remember your essay? What message do you want people to take away from your essay? You’ll need to think through these questions in order to make sure that your message is on point and successfully delivered to the admissions officer. Knowing these answers ahead of time will also make your writing genuine, clear, and compelling. Avoid making clichéd statements and broad generalizations—everyone says they’ve learned from their mistakes and triumphed over adversity. Be tactful, try to write insightfully and critically, and, most of all, make sure that your message is clear.
7. Be yourself. The college admissions essay is a personal statement. Each person has his or her own writing style and tone, and essays should reflect that fluidity. It’s all right to include some humor and wit, but make sure it comes naturally and isn’t excessive or fabricated. While it’s a good idea to have a couple of knowledgeable individuals read over your essay and give suggestions for improvement, make sure that the end product is truly satisfactory for you. Don’t let too many people provide input, and don’t let even those people you trust manhandle the content and style of your essay. This is your chance to speak directly to admissions officers and to highlight what’s most distinctive about you, and you shouldn’t let that opportunity be diluted by the voices of others.
8. Be honest. Once you settle on an essay topic, don’t fall into the trap of exaggerating your experiences or the lessons you’ve learned. Instead, think critically about your topic, even if it seems mundane to you, and try to understand and articulate why that experience was valuable for you—not why it might be interesting to the admissions officer who’s reading your essay. Also, don’t use words you don’t know or wouldn’t ordinarily use—that’s what the SAT is supposed to test. There’s nothing quite as distracting in an essay as misused words. Don’t use a longer word if a shorter word captures the sentiment just as well. The admissions officers want to see that you’re a clean and capable writer, and they want to get a sense of who you are and why you’re distinctive. You can successfully achieve those ends without embellishing your writing or your experiences.
9. Revise and proofread. Write clearly and concisely, but make sure that your essay is engaging and colorful. Don’t overwhelm your readers with extraneous details, and make sure to stay on point. Do not make careless grammatical or spelling errors, and do not rely on your computer’s spellcheck application. Admissions officers have thousands of personal statements to read in a relatively short amount of time, so make sure your introduction is gripping. Is this an essay that you would find interesting and would want to read in your spare time? If not, keep thinking and revising. It’s also a good idea to have somebody else read your essay for clarity and correctness. Let your essay sit for a few days and come back to it—you’ll likely notice a lot of opportunities for editing that slipped past you the first time around. The college admissions essay is one part of your application that you have total control over, so make the most of this opportunity and keep working until you’re satisfied.
10. Relax. Approach essays one at a time and don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Remember: The essay is only one part of your college application. Be a thoughtful and systematic writer, and when the time comes, don’t be afraid to put down the pen (or walk away from the keyboard). You’ve done the best that you can. Give yourself a pat on the back and take a break—after all, there’s more to senior year than just getting into college.
And now, on to the fun part. The Harvard Crimson has gathered together fifty successful Harvard admissions essays and organized them into four categories:
• The Survivor: Overcoming Challenges and Adversity
• One Among Many: Presenting a Unique Applicant
• Storyteller: Experiences that Illuminate Character
• Through Their Eyes: Finding Yourself in Others
Following each essay is a brief commentary written by a member of The Crimson’s staff. We hope that these examples and analysis pieces will guide and inform you as you think about your own experiences and craft your admissions essays.
Happy reading, and best of luck!
Excerpted from 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays: Third Edition by Harvard Crimson.
Copyright 2010 by Harvard Crimson.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Griffin.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.