In a tumultuous world economy, getting into an Ivy League school is more competitive than ever. Each year, Harvard, Yale and other Ivy League programs receive thousands of applications from candidates who have exceptional grades and SAT scores. How can you possibly distinguish yourself in such a formidable applicant pool? With an impressive and unforgettable set of essays!
Undergraduate applicants are required to submit several essays relating to their career objectives, life experiences and personal goals. For many students, they constitute the most important aspect of the application. While specific questions may vary among universities, the essays will require you to discuss:
a) Your career goals and potential for professional success
b) your unique personal attributes
c) your qualifications and experiences
The essays must also accomplish a fourth objective, which is to demonstrate that you possess both the hard (academic) and soft (interpersonal) skills required to succeed at an Ivy League university and as a leader in your chosen profession. Not an easy task!
Competition for Ivy League programs is fierce, as they are the most prestigious in the world. Your personal statement carries more weight in the admissions process than you may realize. Perfect grade point averages and SAT scores are expected at this level, as are maturity and excellent communication skills. Your best chance to stand out in the crowd is by conveying the exceptional personal attributes that will make you a unique, well-rounded addition to the university. Ironically, applicants often minimize the importance of the essay and the personal interview. Yet they are your best opportunities to demonstrate your strengths outside the classroom.
The essay is the only aspect of the admissions process in which money does not offer an advantage, as there are few resources available for its preparation. Wealthy students often take expensive preparatory classes for the SAT, ACT and TOEFL, gaining a competitive advantage in this area. Affluent students also have the benefit of attending expensive college-preparatory programs, which offer more electives and a more diverse educational experience. Yet the application essay is the same for everyone and effectively levels the playing field. It provides all applicants the same opportunity to demonstrate their personal strengths and unique contributions.
Admissions officers that I encountered told me that they seek the following traits in undergraduate applicants:
Your personal statement is your opportunity to show the committee that you are a unique, well-rounded, confident person who is committed to succeed in life. You cannot gain acceptance into an Ivy League school without compelling personal essays.
I recommend that you avoid four common pitfalls:
a) Rehashing of your academic achievements
b) Manipulative or argumentative essays on controversial issues
c) Technical essays that don't reveal your personal side
d) Idealistic, naive essays that suggest you will single-handedly solve the world's problems
In my admissions experiences, I frequently see well-intentioned essays fall flat because they don't capture the reader's interest and convey the writer's true personality. Far too often, the essays simply reiterate material that is presented elsewhere in the application, which wastes a golden opportunity to present a new side of you.
Don't underestimate the committee's interest in your maturity and interpersonal strengths (or lack of them). Due to the high ethical standards and level of critical thinking expected in the Ivy League, your character and motivation will be highly scrutinized during the admission process. Use the essay set to sell your whole self, not just the individual pieces that you think they want to see.
In a typical day, an admissions officer will read between 25 and 50 application essays from candidates around the world. What stands out and makes a positive impression? Contrary to popular opinion, it's not simply academic prowess. Indeed, many candidates with exceptional grades are rejected each year. For most competitive applicants, the key to admissions success is selling your unique (non-academic) strengths.
Before you write, consider your audience and their objective. Committee members are vibrant people with unique personalities and talents. Their goal is to select a class of diverse, passionate students who will best contribute to the class. The ultimate class roster will include talented athletes, musicians, scientists and poets. No two successful candidates are alike, nor are their essays. A "great essay" can be about football, a dance recital, a family vacation or an embarrassing moment. What's the common denominator? Your writing must reveal your true personality, whatever that may be. Show us who you are and what you will bring to our program. Show us the contribution that only you can make.
Are there specific guidelines to follow? Absolutely! I surveyed minimum forty admission officers on what they expect to see in college application essays. Here's what works:
1. Answer the question that was asked. Many candidates try to dodge tough questions, particularly those about ethical issues, personal weaknesses and failure. Yet the committee asks these questions for a reason. We want to understand how you respond to adversity and the specific insights you developed from those experiences. Answer the tough questions honestly and directly. Don't try to sell them the artificial "canned" response you think they want to hear.
2. Write naturally, but concisely. Use simple sentence structure and your normal everyday vocabulary. Don't waste time on fancy introductions; get to the point quickly and reinforce it with specific examples.
3. Use excellent grammar and punctuation. Use logical paragraph breaks to separate your thoughts and to make the essay easier to read. Proofread your work carefully before sending it in. Don't let simple carelessness ruin your chances.
4. Show your real personality (let us get to know you). Too many essays are long, boring theoretical pieces about politics, the economy or complex business issues. No matter how well-written or researched, they don't tell us a darn thing about the candidate. Anyone can write a rational, detached paper, but that's not what we are looking for. We want to get to know you and the unique contribution you will make to our school.
5. Personalize your essay as much as possible. Write about your own unique, funny, interesting experiences. Provide details to add color. Adopt a relaxed, conversational style.
6. Use humor only if it works. Few people can write humorous prose or recount funny experiences effectively. If you have this gift, by all means use it. Before sending us a "funny" essay, have several different people read your material to make sure it comes across well on paper. Avoid anything off-color or mean-spirited.
7. Convey a positive message (avoid cynicism). Many applicants choose to discuss a misfortune they have experienced and how it shaped their personality. Be very careful of your tone if you decide to write about a hard-luck story. Avoid the "victimization" perspective and focus on how you overcame the situation. Show us how the experience helped you to demonstrate your stamina, perseverance and intelligence. If written well, these essays show us that you can succeed in the face of terrible obstacles. If written badly, you may sound plaintive, self-righteous and bitter.
8. Write about topics you are passionate about. Nothing lifts an essay off the page more than genuine enthusiasm! Yet few candidates have the confidence to write about a passion if they feel it is silly or frivolous. Questions about your favorite hobby or childhood memory are designed to flesh out your non-academic side. Yes, we really want to know! Nothing is more precious than your unique memories about key people and experiences in your life. We've read magical essays about eating ice cream and singing in the shower and absolutely dreadful ones about triglyceride synthesis. When choosing your topics, pick what genuinely excites you. Your enthusiasm will show in the final product.
9. Use the active voice. Nothing is more tedious than trying to read an essay written in the cold, detached passive voice. While popular with scientists who publish in technical journals, it is pretentious and verbose in everyday writing. Keep your verbs simple and active. What's the difference?
Active Voice: The cow jumped over the moon.
Passive Voice: The moon was jumped over by the cow.
Yes, it sounds that silly when you use it, too!
10. Explain events whenever appropriate. Many of your accomplishments are of interest to the committee because of why you tackled them, what you thought about them and what you learned. Tell us the reasoning behind your decision and how your life changed as a result of the experience.
11. Be specific and focused. Rather than listing several items or events, give a full descript-xion of just one. The more details you include, the more personal your essay will be.
12. Proofread several times and get feedback from valued sources. Explain to them what you hope to convey in your writing and ask whether you met your objectives. The true test of your writing isn't what you intended to say, but what the reader actually understands.
13. Revise and polish until it is perfect. Give yourself enough time to do the essays well. Successful applicants usually invest several hours considering each question, deciding the correct approach, constructing an outline and writing a first draft. You may have to write and revise multiple drafts before you are satisfied with your essay.
In addition, they advise all applicants to avoid the following common mistakes:
1. Don't let anyone else tell you what to write. Well-meaning parents and advisors often interfere in the writing process, sabotaging the candidate's chances. Use your own best judgment in choosing a topic and writing your essay. Don't let anyone else influence you. Admission officers read thousands of essays each year, and have developed a keen eye for authenticity.
2. Don't oversell yourself or try too hard. Many candidates manage to squeeze every accomplishment they've ever had into a single one-page essay. Others explain emphatically how much they "really, really" want to attend our school. Don't take such a desperate approach. Answer the questions to the best of your ability and be yourself.
3. Don't rehash information that can be found elsewhere in the application. They already know your grade point average, standardized test scores, academic awards and honors. Use your limited essay space to discuss experiences that aren't revealed anywhere else. Consider your essay to be an informal interview, your exclusive "one-on-one" time with the committee. ¡°Show us why we should accept you into our academic community.¡±
4. Don't write a scholarly or overly academic paper. The essay is your opportunity to demonstrate your non-academic strengths, particularly your personality. Don't waste the opportunity to let us get to know the real you.
5. Don't appear overly idealistic or preachy. Don't use trite, tired themes for the focus of the essay. Be original. Each year, we receive hundreds of essays that discuss the horrors of nuclear weapons and the dangers of global warming. Sadly, they don't tell us anything we don't already know. If you choose to discuss a meaningful issue, do so in the context of your demonstrated commitment to change it, either through your career or volunteer work. Don't confuse passive idealism (or future intentions) with productive action. A demonstrated commitment to a cause is worth writing about; passive idealism is not.
6. Don't try to explain blemishes on your record. With rare exceptions, it is impossible to explain poor grades and test scores without sounding irresponsible or defensive. Neither will enhance your admissions chances. If you have a compelling excuse for an academic disappointment, place it in a separate addendum to your file, rather than in the body of an essay or personal statement.
7. Don't use large, pretentious words. Use the simplest possible language to explain your meaning precisely. Using three-dollar words to impress the committee usually backfires, as it comes across as presumptuous and arrogant.
8. Don't be boring and safe; tell a real story! A fresh and well-written essay will enhance your credentials and aid your application effort.
9. Don't lie or exaggerate. Applicants seldom realize how easy it is to detect lies and half-truths in admissions essays. Don't pretend to be someone you are not. After reading your file, committee members have an excellent "feel" for your character and can tell when a reported event or achievement isn't consistent with the rest of your history. Lying is a fatal mistake. A single misrepresentation on your application will lead us to doubt all of your other assertions.
10. Don't be gimmicky. Avoid using definitions to begin your essay. This crutch was extremely popular in the late 90's, but is now synonymous with sloppy writing. Avoid using cute or "meaningful" quotations, unless they perfectly fit the character and tone of your essay. Quotations are terrific if they are seldom-quoted and deeply relevant to your chosen topic. All too often, though, their usage is cliché and the resulting essay is unimaginative.
11. Don't play games with the word limit. Don't use a miniscule type size or invisible border to shrink an essay to the stipulated length. Except in extreme circumstances, your finished essay should adhere to the maximum word limit. In many cases, less is more. Convey your points quickly and efficiently; don't feel obligated to "fill" extra space.
From my experiences, the biggest mistake applicants make is trying too hard. Most essays are long, boring laundry lists of achievements that are already presented elsewhere in the application. Ironically, unsuccessful candidates rarely reveal enough about themselves for the reader to get to know them. Rather than reveal their unique personality, many try to impress the committee with their youthful idealism and good intentions. They write a long, boring piece about the need to promote world peace or end hunger. Sadly, these preachy "Miss America"-type essays are rarely successful.
The essays of successful applicants will probably surprise you. They are seldom academic in nature, and may seem risky (or frivolous) to those who are diligently trying to put their best foot forward. That's why studying them is so valuable. They reveal the heart and soul of each writer and demonstrate what the candidate would add to the university. They were accepted because they caught the eye (and captured the heart) of a receptive admissions officer.