On Writing an Ivy League Admissions Essay

These days, students applying to Ivy schools find themselves having to wade through a dense morass of conflicting advice about admission. With Harvard, Princeton and Yale denying far more valedictorians than they accept, many students are coming to the disquieting realization that overwhelming academic achievement and stratospheric scores may be not enough. Hence, the hope that a perfect essay might be where real distinction lies.

All the Ivies, however, use the Common Application with its single essay requirement. Students are given a choice of five prompts that ask them to tell a story that reflects their own identity, to recount a moment of failure, reflect on a time when they challenged a belief, describe a place of contentment, or discuss an event that marked their transition to adulthood. But the student who is applying to both Princeton and Pomona has to craft a personal statement that speaks to readers at both schools equally well.  As Jon Reider, a well-known high school counselor in San Francisco, says, “It has never occurred to me that one Ivy (or anywhere else) would want a certain kind of essay.  The whole point is that the main essay tell that kid’s own truth.  Colleges take what they get.”

Ivy admission officers would agree that in telling their truth, the topics that students choose more often reflect the reality of their own lives than they do the ethos of specific colleges. This year, for example, admission officers saw many more natural disaster essays (Sandy, Colorado flooding, Oklahoma tornadoes).  The subtle trends are even more interesting. Some admission readers have noted a shift in the overused “helping others in exotic locales” topic, from the old staple in which a student discover peasants that are happy in spite of their poverty, to one in which witnessing the deprivations of poverty spur students to express gratitude for their American prosperity. Others have the impression that students are often more comfortable celebrating a rather anodyne version of diversity, marked more by servings of both sushi and stuffing, masala and mashed potatoes, turkey and tamales, at the dinner table, than by political engagement.

Students’ desire to write an Ivy-inspired essay is also complicated by the nature of the Ivy League itself.  While the League shares a long tradition of academic excellence, exclusivity, and a set of admissions protocols that relate mostly to athletics (such as an Academic index that all Ivy athletes have to meet), the eight Ivies remain very distinctive institutions. It is hard to imagine how to write a Common Application essay that simultaneously speaks to Columbia’s focus on the intellectual value of a core curriculum, Brown’s notion that such value derives from the absence of a core, Cornell’s proud tradition as a land grant school, and Harvard’s exclusivity.

Of course, there is an element of self-selectivity that may set the essays of some Ivy applicants apart from others. Thoughtful applicants focus on how particular schools fit with their social and intellectual aspirations, and good essays mirror such self-awareness.  Elisha Anderson, an Associate Director of Admission at Brown, notes that when he used to work in the admission office of a smaller, nonconformist liberal arts college in Massachusetts, he saw so many essays on protests, filmmaking and the Food not Bombs movement, that, “It wasn’t until I started working at Brown – where I almost never read essays on any of these topics – that I realized how different the self-selection of the two applicant pools must have been.”

For the school-specific supplements to the Common Application students do, however, have to write more targeted essays.  Here a student needs to craft an essay that speaks to his or her fit with that particular institution, and some will ask the question very directly. “Tell us what you find most appealing about Columbia,” for example, or “Why Brown?” Dartmouth avoids additional long essays and Harvard’s is optional. The Ivies with engineering schools ask for additional essays from prospective engineers, but Cornell, not surprising given its seven colleges, ask every applicant for such an academic interest statement. Princeton and Yale are presumably looking for exactly the same qualities in their top applicants—academic aptitude, intellectual depth, awareness of others, leadership qualities, and knowledge of the institution. And to help them identify those elements, Princeton asks students to reflect on their own lives by writing, for example, in response to quotations on culture, service to the nation, and the practice of inequality. Yale, in contrast, asks simply that a student, “Reflect on something you want us to know about you.” Associate Director Rebekah Westphal of Yale explains that the question is, “open enough that students write about whatever they feel like at the time, to present themselves to us without trying to fit into a certain topic or question.”

It has been said that there are only two stories we tell each other: a familiar person leaves on a voyage, and a stranger comes to town.  This is no less true of college essays.  In a good essay the student embarks on a voyage to learn more about an idea, a place, or about herself, and she returns able to examine and understand what has been familiar with new eyes and a deeper perspective. In that narrative, Ivy admission officers are looking for qualities that are no different from those that readers at Stanford, Rice or Chicago are searching for, and for the greatest part, they are all likely to discern them in similar essays.

(A version of this essay was published by Quarts magazine, February 10, 2014)

Dreams deferred, Part II: some comments on being deferred in the early application season

By Andrea van Niekerk

PART II: What are student to do when deferred?

I spoke previously about the reasons why selective schools may choose to defer a large percentage – in many cases even a majority – of their early applicants.  But the question remained as to what this meant for deferred students who find themselves ecstatic to have the door still slightly ajar at their dream school, but also suspect that they may have to move on to Plan B after all?

Students are right to feel both emotions, because being deferred indeed means that you can still be accepted.  If you are denied early, it is the end of the road at that college.  If you are deferred, however, it means that someone will still have a second look at you in regular decision.  That means that at the very least, the committee thought it best to wait and re-read your application within the larger regular pool.

Schools vary quite a bit in the percentage of deferred students they will accept – for some schools the acceptance rate may be more or less the same as it would be for other students who applied regular decision, and for others, the acceptance rate may be markedly lower.  You should certainly ask schools about this, but don’t be too surprised if the answers are vague!  And don’t be too hard on the admission officers seemingly doing the spin – they are bombarded with hopeful parents and students who want to parse statistics in order to fix their own chances of admission, when such clarity is virtually impossible.

Meanwhile, you should respond to your deferment with both of these possible outcomes in mind.  If you are still wildly keen for the school in spite of their slightly lukewarm response, then tell the admission officer just that.  Some schools may offer you a form on which to state this, but even if the school does not, write the admission officer a letter telling him or her that in spite of your disappointment, all the reasons why you applied early to that institution – the good fit, the great programs – remain valid.  At the very least, you will momentarily reappear on that reader’s radar screen as he or she reads your letter.

You do not, however, want to sit on the radar screen like an annoying mosquito on a wall.  Irking the reader is the last thing you need, and since they just worked through the Christmas break while New Year saw them hunched over files, that is easy to do!  Don’t assume that they made the decision to defer you because they missed some piece of information, and therefore blast them with a repetition of stuff that is already in your file.  They read all of that the first time round! Do not run out to bother your senator, a local alumnus you met in a coffeehouse once, or a professor with whom you had a single email exchange, to write you letters of support.  Unless they can add useful new information that will be meaningful (and none of those examples will fall in this category!), you are wasting your energy.  The only thing the admission officer will be interested in will be new, relevant information (you just won some important academic prize or are newly elected to a significant position, for example) and a short and concise statement of your continued interest.  If you have raved for several pages about your burning desire to attend, the reader will have filed the note long ago and moved on.

Having sent off the note or the email, redirect your energy towards Plan B.  You may, at the end of the day, not get into your dream school, so make sure the rest of your applications are strong.  Be sure to apply only to schools that you would be very happy to attend – after all, you may even end up at your safety school, so make sure it is one where you will thrive.  By doing so, you will ensure that a few months after arriving at the school that did return your affections and accepted you, you will hardly remember having felt such a passion for that other place.  That post-deferment rejection will remain at most a slight rankle in the back of your mind.

 

Dreams deferred: some comments on being deferred in the early application season

by Andrea van Niekerk

PART 1: Why do schools defer students?

Most American colleges and universities these days offer students the opportunity to apply early.  Some schools may demand an early commitment, others may merely wish to gauge interest, but all early programs give students the chance to tell a school how much they would love to attend that institution.  But come December and April, students will find that while their dream school may accept their love, it may also turn them down unceremoniously or at best offer an ambivalently mixed message.

So why do schools defer students, and what can an applicant do about it?  As with so many good intentions gone awry, early programs began as a way for students to express their desire to attend one particular school, even as dwindling acceptance rates forced them to apply to a growing number of institutions.  To admission officers, it showed which students really, really wanted to attend that school and were therefore likely to commit if they were accepted. (When I worked at Brown, we would sometimes use the shorthand B4B to describe such a student: Burning for Brown).

But over time, this is of course not how things developed.  Now applying early is, for many students, unfortunately just part of the gamesmanship with which they feel forced to approach college admission.  For schools, faced with applicants who now routinely apply to ten or more schools, it has become a way of exerting some control over their matriculation rates.  After all, admission officers spend hours of work to identify the kids they want on their campuses, only to have those kids say ‘no thanks’ if a more prestigious institution comes calling.  Some schools have responded by taking a large number of students from their early application pool, or by forcing students to make an early commitment.  Schools with merit-based financial aid may even use scholarship dollars to sweeten the early pot for the students they really want.  Other schools (highly desirable schools that may, nevertheless, in the strange world of college admission, fall in a tier below the single digit acceptors) may offer students a two-step early program: they can apply early with all the same trimmings, but at a slightly later date, a period often squeezed in between the early notification date and the regular application deadline typical of very selective schools.

Regardless of how schools manage their early application process, they all want to do two things.  They want to accept enough reasonably committed students to ensure a high matriculation rate.  But they still want to leave space in their freshman class for wonderful students who may not have applied early anywhere (always a sizable number even in these crazy times) or who did not get into that fabulously selective school they dreamed about but are still perfect candidates for their school.

As a result, at the end of the early application period, some very happy students will receive a letter offering them admission to their dream school.  On the other side of the happiness spectrum, a relatively small percentage of students will be flatly denied – those students the school deem to have no chance of admission whatsoever during regular decision.  As an aside, many school counselors and admission officers believe that the percentage of students who are denied early should realistically be far higher than it often is at more selective schools.  (As a colleague of mine used to put it, “You got to rip the band-aid off!”)  It is difficult for schools to do that though, because even if they are unlikely to accept a student, they may still want to acknowledge his or her hard work or leadership role in school.  Sometimes admission officers may just want to avoid dealing with the unrealistic expectations and demanding ignorance of disappointed parents. I have always tended to favor letting early applicants down lightly by deferring them rather than denying them.  I believed, and I still do, that after the stress and sheer hassle of applying to a dream school, there is often little to gain by hitting the kid hard with a deny letter in December.  We encourage students to dream, and we should be careful about penalizing them for it.  Of course, I say that knowing some students do need help in redirecting their energy in a more productive direction, and being denied may sometimes do just that.

The vast majority of students to more selective institutions, however, will find themselves in a strange gray zone: neither denied nor admitted, hope kept alive but with a hard dose of reality thrown in.  In a next blog I will discuss what these students are to make of their fate, and whether they can improve their chances of escaping from no-man’s land, through the doors of their chosen paradise.