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)

Teaching Students to Show, Not Tell

Here is an article that is very relevant to college application essay writing, written by Mark Spitzer in Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2012.


In his epic poem A Season in Hell, the surly French poet Arthur Rimbaud proposes that the Devil likes writing that lacks “descriptive” qualities. Rimbaud then makes a stand in favor of descriptive writing by offering “these hideous pages from [his] notes of the damned.”

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that nondescriptive writing is evil in any religious or nonreligious sense, but I would agree that writing that fails to generate strong images or provoke significant feelings provides little incentive to be considered as literary. Nevertheless, I’ve just indicted myself for the exact crime that Rimbaud railed against. “Strong” and “significant” are perfect examples of words that I have spent the past 10 years telling college students to avoid.

When I encounter a vague word—like “cool,” “good,” “bad,” “small,” and “beautiful”—in a student’s creative work, I circle the word and ask how the writer can “show not tell” the details. After all, what’s “cool” for one person is often not “cool” for another, and when something is qualified so ambiguously, it frequently means nothing.

So I ask students to rethink how the details can be shown. I explain that identifying words that fail the Show Not Tell (SNT) test is an exercise in unlearning; that I’m challenging them to re-imagine what they’re shooting to articulate; that I’m trying to get them to take their descriptions to the next level in order to provide unique, colorful, action-packed visions that provoke the imagination—a concept in which the role of the image is key.

Writing teachers from all disciplines and at all levels have been struggling with the issue of show not tell for centuries. I can’t comment on how my colleagues encourage students to cast this demon out, but I can definitely remark on my own approach in introductory creative-writing courses. Basically, for the first half of the semester, I put my students through a drill in which they write “portraits” of people, places, and things. I tell them that what I’m looking for are physical details, and that I’m not interested in anything else. I don’t care what their subject matter is, I don’t want to see any clever summaries to put anything in perspective for the reader. I just want pure description in the realm of 150 words. Then, after they hand in their portraits, I come along with my red pen, circling words that “tell not show” like a tough-love tyrant.

Or a coach, because I’m getting them in shape. I tell them they’re in training for their midterm—at which time we meet at the campus art gallery and each of them picks a piece of art to write about in the form of a 100-word portrait. The grading is simple: An essay with no SNT violations equals an A+; one circled word equals an A; two is an A-minus; and so on. Because showing not telling, I inform them, is a scientific measure of creativity that incorporates a critical and rigorous component. If they can weed out adjectives like “ugly” and replace them with phrases like “toothless, pus-covered, and puke-inducing,” then they’re on the right track.

During the first few weeks of the semester, I provide advice on how to avoid the tyranny of my red pen. Using the example of a student who describes a party as “the bomb,” I explain why that phrase falls short. (Why is it the bomb? Don’t tell me it’s the bomb, show me it’s the bomb.) I then ask students to brainstorm the details of what such a party would involve by relying on the five senses. We discuss the subject in terms of sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch, and then I propose metaphors and similes as another technique in making writing more detailed. Then we move on to what I refer to as “wordinvention,” which can add texture to text—because creatifying creatures of contextio is a quickish way to frankenforge emotio-experience.

But mostly I concentrate on encouraging students to expand with description, rather than replace one vague word with another, which is what our instincts are programmed to do. In that sense, I take Jack Kerouac’s Beat mantra of “first word, best word” to task by advocating the sixth or seventh thought.

Take, for example, Hemingway’s minimalist sentence “It was a good fish.” (Sure, simplicity worked for Hemingway, but most of us aren’t Hemingway.) It was a healthy fish. It was a thrashing bass. It was a hull-slapping smallmouth bass. It was a hull-slapping, whoop-inspiring, DNA-pleasing Ozark smallmouth heading for my frying pan. It was a hull-slapping, “Yahoo!”-producing, green-gold-striped smallmouth from the Buffalo River whose filets would soon be dredged in a mixture of cornmeal, flour, and lemon pepper, and fried on the pebbly calico shore. And so on.

The idea is for students to flesh out the details to the point that readers encounter a specific image, one that means something beyond a “good fish.” To put it simply, the more we see, the more we feel. That’s what Rimbaud was talking about: employing details to conjure visions that trigger associations in the subconscious.

Rimbaud’s “alchemy of the word,” however, wasn’t intended to advance the dominant 19th-century literary trend now considered Realism; he was aiming to create a much more visceral effect. This is the visionary poet who wrote “Voyelles,” a poem in which different vowels are ascribed different colors with different sensory qualities, a theory dating to Greek antiquity, then popularized in music study with input from Newton and Goethe. Rimbaud’s vision of using physical details to create effects that play upon the senses later became a major objective of the Symbolist movement, which eventually evolved into Surrealism and became central to the Postmodern aesthetic.

But for my intro students, I keep it simple. We work on physical details, then shift gears into writing poetry, then fiction after that. That provides for a background in description that prepares developing writers for more-sophisticated explorations if they choose to move on to upper-level forms and workshop courses.

I also tell my students that this method will help them on their college papers and in their careers, adding that if they don’t believe my approach is worthwhile, they can always reject it in the end. But once we pass the semester’s halfway mark, there’s really no way they can look at their own writing without considering the hands-on process I put them through.

The scrutiny of details carries through to their final portfolio, which tells it all: They hand in two versions of six pieces (one short story and five poems) in a standard cardboard folder. One pocket is labeled “originals” and contains texts full of words I circled, and the other pocket is labeled “revisions.” In their final products, I see detailed descriptions, wordinventions, similes, and metaphors. In short, I see their mental sweat. But most of all, I see students thinking critically about what they’re composing—which is what the exercise is all about.

Mark Spitzer is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas and the editor of the literary journal Toad Suck Review, published by the university.