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)