What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part V: Essays

This is the foliage of destiny.

Welcome back to What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? In this post, we will discuss one of the most challenging parts of an Ivy League application: the essay, and any other personal writing samples you are asked to complete.

Oh, the personal essay. That most excruciating part of the application arms race, where they tell you they “just want to get to know you,” but they’re also judging you at the same time. Should you be honest? Can you be honest? Should you just try to impress them? What on earth should you write about?

As with other parts of the application, it’s generally best to begin by stepping back and asking what the point of the essay is in the first place – what are the admissions officers looking for?

“Delay always breeds danger; and to protract a great design is often to ruin it.” – Don Quixote

First off, they want to see if you can write decently. Make sure you proofread your essay thoroughly – you can even have your English teacher go over it with you. This means don’t wait until the last minute to write it. If you are scrambling to finish an essay before the midnight submission deadline, the probability of spelling and grammar errors appearing in your essay increases dramatically, and dumb mistakes like that do not impress admissions officers. I’m going to do you a favor and tell you to finish the first draft of your essay a month before the deadline so you can have plenty of time to polish it. Maybe you can even send your application in early!

Second, they want to see if you know how to present yourself well. They want to know if you realize how you sound when you talk to other people. They are looking for critical thinking and meaningful self reflection. Are you self-aware? Do you know what kind of an impression you make on people when you say certain things? Do you know how to make a good first impression? Do you know what’s important to you? Do you understand yourself?

They also want to know that you really want to go to their school and nowhere else. Part of their rankings are based on the percentage of admitted students who actually decide to go there. Imagine Harvard and Yale both admit the same 2,000 incoming freshmen, and 1,500 decide they’d rather go to Harvard and 500 decide they’d rather go to Yale. That would look bad for Yale. Because the same pool of students is applying to all these schools, the same student could potentially get into more than one and have to choose between the two just like this (the year I graduated from high school, a friend of mine had to choose between Harvard and Princeton). In your essay, you should mention why the particular school to which you are applying would be the perfect place for you to do whatever it is you want to do, citing specific opportunities and programs that are unique to that school.

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“You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.” – Mister Rogers

Lastly, they do actually want to get a sense of who you are, what you’re into, what drives you. They want to know what makes you unique from all the other students whose applications they’re slogging through. If they get two applications that are exactly the same it’s hard to justify picking one over the other. Distinctive is better than bland. Try to make this an essay that only you could have written, and don’t be fake. They can smell fakery a mile away – awkward quotations from “great authors” you never read or don’t care about, forced use of big SAT vocab words, saying you care about something when you don’t. The trick to writing these essays is to be absolutely honest, but polished. You want to present yourself, whoever you are, in the best light possible.

On that note, there is one other thing you should know about the admissions process. At these schools, one admissions officer reads your application and essays, and, if they like your application, they defend you before a committee of their fellow admissions officers and get them to accept you, too. If you get admitted, it’s because your admissions officer really believes you have what it takes, and he or she will know your name and have your application memorized. When you write your essays, you need to give your admissions officer something to fight for.

So, what should you write about? Prompts on the common application (which is generally accepted by most of the Ivy League schools, with special supplements) include:

  1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
  2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
  3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
  4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
  5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
  6. Topic of your choice.

It honestly doesn’t matter what topic you choose – I did the “topic of your choice” option. Whenever you write anything you want to start by thinking about what you want your reader to think or feel when they finish reading whatever it is you’re writing. In this case you want your reader to 1) like you/think you’re friendly/want to meet you, and 2) think you’re smart/passionate/hard-working.

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Thus, you should write about something that you love. Don’t write about something you dislike/disapprove of/are against. Keep things positive by writing about what you like/believe in/are in favor of. This should also preferably be something you know a lot about, and it should give you a chance to show off your knowledge. You sound smart when you teach the reader something new they didn’t know before, so take advantage of any unusual knowlegde you have of your topic. If you’re worried that you’re topic isn’t intellectual enough, try throwing in some history. Everything has a history, and adding a historical element can lend your topic some academic credence. It should also be something that you’ve done something about (maybe in an extracurricular activity) – something where you have accomplished something that you had to work for.

If you really want to talk about MLK, you need to go beyond the “I have a dream” speech.

Also, try to make your topic fairly unique. If you are writing an essay about a person who influenced or inspired you, avoid overused examples. If you are a devout Christian and want to write about your faith, instead of writing about Jesus, write about St. Francis or Martin Luther or another important figure in the church you admire – preferably one that wrote a book or started a movement (the same goes for other foundational religious figures like Mohammed or the Buddha). If you do decide to write about someone who is constantly held up as an example of an inspiring person, like Martin Luther King Jr. or Ghandi, you had better have a really in depth knowledge of their lives and works that goes beyond what you learned in school, and have a unique perspective, insight, or interpretation of these figures. Unless you have a really good reason, avoid writing about parents or family members. Even though the reality is that the most influential people in your life are the people who raised you, it would get boring for admissions officers to read hundreds of essay that are all about how important a prospective student’s parents are to him/her.

If you have a remarkable life story or have struggled against great adversity in order to make it to this point in your life, the essay is also the place to talk about these life experiences. Ivy League schools are always looking for remarkable people who beat the odds, so if you feel comfortable sharing information about tough things you’ve been through it could definitely be to your advantage. Just to be clear, I’m talking about real problems: poverty, homelessness, being a war refugee. Lesser trials and tribulations can make for good essays, too, but remember there are also people who have had things much worse.

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Whatever you write on these free response portions of the application, don’t lie. If you make stuff up in order to impress people, chances are they will see through it, or be able to disprove it with a quick google search. Eventually, it will catch up to you. The point of all this is to actually be yourself, and to show them the best parts of yourself. If they don’t want you for who you are, you probably wouldn’t be happy there anyway. Don’t worry that your interests aren’t intellectual enough or impressive enough – remember, like the video games extracurricular, there are ways to dress up just about anything.

Next time on What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?, we discuss teacher, counselor, and other recommendations as well as supplementary applications materials. Best of luck!

This post is part of a series. Other posts in this series include:

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part I: Grades

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part II: PSAT, SAT, and ACT

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part III: AP, IB, and SAT II Exams

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IV: Extracurriculars

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part V: Essays

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VI: Recommendations

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VII: Application Strategy

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VIII: Interviews

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IX: Checklist

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part X: Epilogue

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  1. I would really appreciate if you sent me a reply through my email or notify me that you’ve replied 🙂

    So i’m a junior in high school and I’m taking very demanding courses. I was offered AP english, but I denied it, because i wante to challenge myself. Yea, it sounds weird, but it’s true. My englsih honors teacher is very very very demanding.. We get quizzes, tests and projects like every day! But Ap englsih? They write one essay like once in 2 weeks. No quizzes, and their tests are ridiculously easy. So my course loads are very demanding, not most demangin. Would this look bad for competitive colleges???

    Also, if my passion is teaching, do you have any suggestions to show this?? I alread found organizations, did community services and tutor, etc.


    1. Jamie,
      Forgive the late reply.
      At many schools “Honors” and “AP” are the same course. The distinction “AP” mostly means that the course is geared toward preparing students for Advanced Placement exams, but you can take the AP even if you didn’t take an AP course (and, for the record, probably still should). Taking an honors class should still show that you’re serious about your education and look good on a transcript.
      As far as illustrating your interests goes–this is something you should try to figure into your personal essay where it’s appropriate. Try to make sure the show rather than tell admissions officers just how passionate you are about teaching, so having related extra-curriculars will definitely help–just be sure that your essay doesn’t simply recap your extra-curricular experience without providing an idea of how any of it shaped you.

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