Ivy League schools already know plenty about you by the time they get to your admissions essays. They know where you were born, where your parents went to school, what activities you spent the most time on, what classes you thrived in and where you struggled, even whether your parents went to college and how much money they make. Despite all of this, though, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, and all the other top schools are missing one key variable in this equation: what are you like as a person?
It’s about more than whether you’re likable (although if you can come across as someone the reader would want to hang around with, it’s definitely a plus). It’s about whether you are intellectually adventurous, deep thinking, resilient, different, and so many other qualities you see again and again in top level students.
Your essay is the main way that top universities learn about your personality, and believe us when we say, your personality matters a lot more than your grades. Plenty of students with 2400s on the SAT get rejected from Harvard, but students with poor scores and amazing stories often make it in.
The reason for this is that your admission to Harvard really isn’t about you: rather, it’s about the university. Which students are going to make Stanford a more vibrant community? Which students are going to continue the atmosphere of high level critical thinking at Princeton?
Universities don’t want to admit a student who is going to stay in her room and study 24 hours a day because students like that are both selfish and short-sighted. They don’t get that at Harvard, you have an opportunity to serve the entire world community, both in the pursuit of knowledge and the amelioration of the human condition. Harvard doesn’t just want someone who will graduate with a 4.0. They want someone who will take what they learned in a sophomore organic chemistry class and use it to create clean drinking water in the Central African Republic. They want someone who will take what they learned in Sociology 201 and use it to improve learning conditions at inner cty schools in New York City. Harvard wants a great leader over a great student every single time.
It has been suggested that athletes have easier academic standards to get into the top schools– well, studies have shown that participation in varsity level athletics along with academic proficiency correlates to leadership skills and success after college. Harvard wants students who will expand and increase the value of the Harvard brand.
What does this mean for you?
It means that you have to show that you love something, and that you’re willing to commit yourself to learning about it and working for it for the rest of your life, not just the next four years. Did you work for a student newspaper? Yale wants to know the greatest story you ever discovered, and how you’re now curious about the way that reporting through the internet and television affects worldviews differently in different parts of the country. Were you an amateur sailor? Dartmouth wants to hear the story of the time you almost drowned after turtling a sunfish in a thunderstorm, and how it only made you want to spend more time on the water.
Life at Harvard, Stanford, MIT, or any other top school will give you an amazing array of experiences you couldn’t have had anywhere else. The reason you tell these types of stories in your essays is so that the Ivies can see how the experiences they can give you will help you grow and give back as a person. That’s what they’ll use to decide whether you deserve that spot in their next freshman class or not.
In the “Admissions Essays” chapter, our experts will tell you how to craft an essay which expresses who you are and what you hope to bring to the Ivy Leagues with you. Here are some short selections from the advice you’ll be getting:
“Don’t be afraid to brag about yourself! The essay needs to be a place where you showcase your proudest and best accomplishments – while not blatantly writing about how accomplished you are. Presenting your accomplishments as an experience comes off as humble and gives the application reader a full understanding of just how amazing your accomplishment was.” –Ashley Artmann
“I highly recommend you edit your essay before submitting it to an Ivy League college. You’d be surprised how many people fail to do this, and miss serious typos and other fixable errors that make you look unprofessional. It is always good to have fresh eyes read your essay, looking for grammatical errors of course, but also to ensure it truly gives an overall impression of you. I rewrote my general essay six times before it sounded like me, and not some abstract report.” –Atasha Jordan
“I think the biggest way the essay can be most productive is it almost allows something to be put into your mind, or put somewhere in your life where they can kind of get a feel for what kind of person you are, what kind of person they’re bringing in. I think they can almost make inferences about what this person’s going to be like based on what you give them.” –Tyler White
“It is quite acceptable to let a parent edit your essay; just be careful they don’t try to rewrite it in their own voice. They will be well meaning of course, but this essay needs to portray you, not your parent. Teachers are also a great choice for editors of your essay.” –Atasha Jordan
“A question that I ask myself whenever I’m applying for something, and the main question you want to answer in your application, is ‘so what?‘ You may have done a thousand things, but you have to show why they make you more interesting than the next person applying.” –Sandy Yu
“I did eventually write several essays that I used over and over again, one was about a teacher who I had in high school and how he had influenced my life, which was the memorable one. I don’t really remember what the other one was. I essentially had this essay I wrote about a particular teacher who had an influence on my life.” –James Watanabe
“Any passion, whether it’s intellectual curiosity, passion for helping people through volunteer work, or passion for a particular sport or extracurricular activity, is something that can be really powerful in your application to Stanford, Cornell, and other Ivy League schools.” –Sandy Yu
“It is a good idea to demonstrate how you will carry your usefulness forward into the greater community when you graduate from your Ivy League school. In my case, I focused more on my hope to be useful and helpful in the greater community because that is where my passion lies. This focus is not a hard-and-fast rule, though. I know a lot of people who wrote about more personal topics that didn’t really illustrate how the person would contribute to an outside community. These students chose topics that illustrated their passion and allowed their genuine personality to shine through. This gave the reader a picture of the kind of contribution this person would bring to the student body.” –Steven Rao