Last year, a student who'd applied to Harvard on his own called me in a panic.
"I've been waitlisted!" he told me. "What should I do?"
I'd known this student for a few years, so I knew that his grades and SAT scores weren't the problem. It was his essay.
It turns out that he'd talked about his dual interest in business and science. But clearly his essay hadn't been personal enough to make him stand out among all of the other remarkable applicants.
Over the next week, I helped him write a much more personal essay that showcased his vibrant personality. Explaining that he hadn't fully expressed himself in his first essay, he sent it in to the admissions office in the form of a letter.
A couple of weeks later, I received an email from him titled "!" He'd been accepted off the waitlist!
This is the power of telling the right story.
If you're a senior and you haven't yet finalized your personal statement for the January 1 deadline, you're probably wondering what the "right story" is for you. I've put together a list of the Top Three Qualities of a Remarkable College Application Essay.
1. Tell a deeply personal story about profound change
Now before you get nervous about this word "profound," let me clarify. I don't mean that you have to talk about how you became an Olympic gold medalist or how you traveled to Tibet to live with the monks. I mean that you want to tell a story of change that is significant to you.
Start here: think about what you were like at the end of middle school.
Got that image in your head? (If you're like me, you're thinking, "Awkward, self-conscious, socially anxious." Yeah, middle school's tough.)
Now ask yourself, "Who am I now?" What experiences or people have been important in creating that shift? It doesn't have to be a big, dramatic event. It can even seem quite small on the surface.
For example, one of my students who was accepted to Tufts wrote a beautiful essay about how wearing her hair in a ponytail changed her life.
This student had grown up using her pixie haircut to hide her cheekbones, which she felt were too wide. Creating the appearance of a narrow face became so all-consuming that she never went anywhere without a comb or a mirror, never played sports or drove with the windows down or went outside on windy days. So, when she finally got the nerve to pull her hair back, she freed herself from the prison of other people's ideas about what is beautiful.
This kind of internal shift, regardless of what caused it on the outside, is the kind of story you're looking for, too.
2. Make it vivid
If you want your reader to connect with your essay, your opening needs to leap off the page. Try to get as many senses involved as you can: sight, sound, smell, taste, feel.
Here's an example of a magnetic opening that I helped one of my students write a couple of years ago. (She's now attending NYU, her top-choice school.)
"My cousin Jack and I leap across the cushions of my parents' couch while a Japanese girls' group blasts from the speakers. A pair of leggings is draped around my neck, and one of my mother's red heels hangs from my left foot while my right foot is stuffed into her striped sneaker. Jack runs in circles around the living room, tripping over the yellow silk blouse he's wrapped around his waist, and pumps his fist to the music as he yells to our invisible fans, "Sing with me!" I hold out my cucumber microphone to the audience and urge them to join the chorus. "I can't hear you!" I scream."
Can you feel the energy of this opening? You can see, feel and hear these kids' love for music and performance. You know from the opening that the student is going to go on to talk about how creativity and love for music was so important to her development. In other words, you set the stage for the heart of your essay with a vivid scene.
You won't have space to weave in this level of detail throughout the whole essay, but once you've set the stage like this, a few colorful details woven throughout your essay will keep your story full of spark.
3. Offer a bit of mystery at the end
One of the hardest things my students struggle with is the ending to their essays. Either they feel like they have to tie everything up in a neat bow or they end up with overly-generalized and clichéd language.
Remember that you don't need to have everything figured out. It's okay if you don't fully understand how to make sense of your experiences. What's important is to make it clear that you're willing to stay with this confusion until the answers become clear.
One student wrote an essay about an uncomfortable experience she encountered on a trip to Laos and was struggling with how to end it. I encouraged her to let the discomfort remain in the ending. Here's what she came up with:
"Now, a year later, memories of the girls with the owl continue to force me to challenge ideas that I had always assumed were non-negotiable. And the girl in the threshold? For a moment that day, her gaze became mine, allowing me to consider the world from a perspective previously unknown. Those moments have enabled me to gain a little bit of comfort in facing difficult questions where the answers remain just out of reach."
When you allow a bit of mystery into the end, you let the reader know that you're okay with not knowing everything. That shows maturity, and it lets the colleges know that you're in a perfect place to dive into the complicated issues you're going to face in your college classes.
Elizabeth Dankoski has been working with elite students as a private tutor and college consultant for 15 years. Her unconventional approach -- ditching perfection in favor of passion -- has helped her students gain acceptance to all of the nation's top schools: Harvard, Caltech, MIT, Columbia, and Yale, among many others. www.elizabethdankoski.com
This prompt should tell you that Harvard holds leaders in high regard. Here, they test your self-knowledge as to where and how you can help fit society’s needs. In a similar way to Prompt 5, they are trying to see the type of graduate you will become.
If leadership has been central to your life experiences, be sure to make note of those roles here. Be picky when deciding what roles to highlight, though! Make sure the group you led has something to show for your leadership (whether that thing be tangible or intangible).
For example, if you helped a club on campus better the culture of its membership, talk about how your leadership contributed to that. If you helped a diverse set of teammates come together for a common goal, discuss what aspects of your citizenship helped bring everyone together. Your goal here is in two parts: create an assessment for your personal leadership skills, and address how your community or society has benefited from it (more than simply pointing to trophies or awards, this is intended to show how society itself can change because of you.)
Make sure you showcase your leadership style, and how you believe it was effective. More importantly, make sure to show why you think it will be effective in the future. Remember, this essay should relay back to you as a graduate of Harvard!
One strategy could be to build up your leadership skills, then direct them to a specific area where you feel inspired to change society. If you choose this route, be specific in terms of the needs you can fill. Ask yourself: What qualities of a leader does a good lawyer need to have? How does citizenship help you be a good engineer? Most importantly: How do those necessities in those positions lead back to who you are?
Remember to answer the other aspect of the question. Besides being a good citizen-leader, how will you be a good citizen? Admissions officers want you to discuss how you would be an important part of something greater than yourself. You could use an example of something you did as a part of an extracurricular activity of which you were not the president or the de facto leader. For example, if you built an app for a conference your town was hosting, helped organize logistics for a school recital, or even volunteered at a food bank throughout high school, this prompt would fit your experiences well.
Harvard finds it very important that the citizens of their learning community come from diverse backgrounds, allowing students to learn from one another. Think about how you can add to this environment of diversity, or discuss your experience in a diverse environment in relation to your citizenship within it. Essays about discrimination or inequality in your community, and your development as a citizen-leader as a result, could fit well to this prompt.