Will My College Essay Get Me Into the Ivy League?

10/05/2017 08:52 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2017
Photo courtesy of Pixabay, 2017

Part 7 in our series, “Who Gets into Harvard?”

We’ve already covered most of the factors that contribute to a successful Ivy League college application in our ongoing series, “Who Gets into Harvard”. The final factor, and ideally the place where all of the rest comes together, is the college application essay. When it comes to this last element, students evaluating their chances of getting into a highly selective institution need to be asking these questions:

Have I successfully pulled it all together in my essay? Am I interesting?

Everyone is interesting in their own way, so the better question is—can you be interesting in writing? There is no magic formula, but the alchemy of taking personality and engagement and translating it into a 650 word written document that shares something important about the writer comes close. There is no surer way for me to ascertain someone’s chances of getting into an Ivy League college once I know about the basics (grades, rigor, scores, involvement) than to see how they write, both in general and about themselves.

Let me say up front that none of the following are interesting:

  • Substituting rap lyrics, a poem, or a list of words describing how the college makes you feel for a formal essay
  • Writing a meta-version of an essay—here I am writing my college essay, and there you are reading it
  • Comparing yourself to an inanimate object such as a bottle of soda, your home, or your favorite city

Overly long, forced metaphors and essays trying too hard to stand out inevitably take away from the very things you want them to focus on—namely, one of the actual ways in which you stand out. And the worst mistake you can make is trying to write your version of the Costco essay or some other “best college essay ever written” being shared this year on social media.

How can you tell if your college essay is successful? Unfortunately, this is probably the toughest part of your application to self-evaluate. Unlike test scores, grades, curriculum rigor, and even, to some degree, extracurricular activities, it is very difficult to assess the quality of your essay by comparing it to what others have done.

Instead, start by asking yourself if you’re being authentic and if the writing sounds like you. Ask someone who knows you well to read it—can they hear your voice in their heads as they do so? Are you offering us insight into your world, helping us understand why you do what you do or how you think or what you care about? If you have a distinguishing excellence of some kind, are we learning more about what drives that passion? Can you sum up what we learn about you in a line or two, and does that summation highlight something unique about you in a positive way?

Ultimately a great essay is a bit subjective. I have loved essays that my colleagues have not warmed to, and vice versa. But there is no denying the power of a genuine voice and a meaningful story that feels true to the writer. If you can create an application essay with those two features, you’re at least on the right track.

In our next blog, we’ll start wrapping things up with some final thoughts.

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