The following is an excerpt from the Ivy League Admissions chapter of our Best Book.
At the time I was applying to schools, I don’t think I tried to develop a persona to present to Stanford, Cornell, and the other schools I was applying to, but in hindsight, that’s exactly what I was doing.
A lot of my fellow students had the same academics, the same extracurriculars, similar test scores, which made it important to figure out how to present myself on paper as a unique individual.
For me, I was going for the well-rounded individual, and I tried to highlight different aspects of that throughout my application. I didn’t want it to come across that I was just academically strong, so I mostly focused on things outside of academics for my application – piano and my involvement with a volunteer organization.
I don’t recommend writing about academics in the essay, because half of the application is concerned with your academics. The admissions committees at universities can get a pretty good grasp of your academics from those parts of the application, so you don’t need to waste more time on it. Focus on the things you can’t show with numbers.
Most of the schools I applied to only required two letters of recommendation and some allowed an optional third.
Since I was interested in engineering, I made sure that I had a math, science, or computer science teacher to recommend me.
I also looked at it from a big picture perspective. Other than my SATs, GPA, and extracurriculars, what other aspects of my personality did I want to highlight? Which teacher could write about that?
My three letters came from my math/science teacher (the same person taught both classes), my English teacher, and the adviser for the volunteer program I was involved with. I asked my adviser so that he could write about my leadership skills. That is something that a lot of college admissions offices really want to see. You can write about in your essay, but it helps if someone else corroborates what you say about yourself in their recommendation letter.
For most students, it’s okay to pick a class that you did really well in and ask the teacher to write a letter, but if you don’t know the teacher very well, it can be hard for him or her to write you a good letter that doesn’t just look like everyone else’s.
I didn’t give my teachers any material to help them write the letter – I assumed they knew me well enough – but generally, it’s a good idea to consider giving your recommenders a brag sheet or resume that they can use to help them write a good letter for you.