College Application Essay But I Have Never Been To College

But Mr. Cranberg thumbed his nose at that convention, taking on the tremendous cost of the piles of mail schools send to potential students, and the waste that results from the effort. He figured that he received at least $200 worth of pitches in the past year or so.

“Why, in an era of record-high debt and unemployment, are colleges not reallocating these ludicrous funds to aid their own students instead of extending their arms far and wide to students they have never met?” he asked in the essay.

Antioch College seemed to think that was a perfectly reasonable question and accepted him, though he will attend Oberlin College instead, to which he did not submit the essay.

“It’s a bold move to critique the very institution he was applying to,” said Mr. Bauld, who also teaches English at in . “But here’s somebody who knows he can make it work with intelligence and humor.”

Indeed, Mr. Cranberg’s essay includes asides about applicants’ gullibility and the college that sent him a DHL “priority” envelope, noting inside that he was a priority to the college. “The humor here is not in the jokes,” Mr. Bauld added. “It originates in a critical habit of mind, and the kind of mind that is in this essay is going to play out extremely well in any class that he’s in.”

Admissions professionals often warn people not to think that they can write their way into the freshman class. “The essay is one document that, even in the best of circumstances, is written by an individual telling one story,” said Shawn Abbott, the assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions at . “I don’t believe that any one writing sample should trump what they did over four years.”

Still, he acknowledged that his staff had been taken with the story told by Lyle Li, a 19-year-old resident who applied this year. He wrote about his family’s restaurant and his mother, an immigrant from who once wanted to be a doctor and now works behind a cash register.

“When I visit my friends, I see the names of elite institutions adorning the living room walls,” wrote Mr. Li, a senior at Regis High School in . “I am conscious that these framed diplomas are testaments to the hard work and accomplishments of my friends’ parents and siblings. Nevertheless, the sight of them was an irritating reminder of the disparity between our households. I was not the upper-middle-class kid on Park Avenue. Truth be told, I am just some kid from Brooklyn. Instead of diplomas and accolades, my parents’ room emits a smell from the restaurant uniforms they wear seven days a week, all year round.”

Mr. Abbott said that N.Y.U. received plenty of essays about the immigrant experience. So Mr. Li risked writing one of many stories about long odds and hard work in an unfamiliar, unforgiving place.

But he did not fall into that trap and will be attending N.Y.U. this fall. “His essay brought his family’s circumstance and background into Technicolor,” Mr. Abbott said. “He paints a very vivid picture of what life is really like in his home. I think he’s proud of his accomplishments and work ethic, but there’s also a humility each day when he takes off his preppy blue blazer in front of his mom.”

The essay by Ana Castro, an 18-year-old senior at the Doane Stuart School in Rensselaer, N.Y., is about not quite arriving, in spite of having been born in the United States. And her essay for , which she will attend in the fall, centers on her desire to serve in the . It opens with a joke about her hating clowns and leeches and tells a sad story of a visit to the , where her father refused to let her play with the destitute boy next door. “My heart broke, not because I was now stuck eating plantains by myself in the stinging sun, but because that boy experienced a level of poor I never knew.”

Then she makes a startling statement that stopped both me and Mr. Bauld as we were reading it for the first time. “I have never seen the United States as my country,” Ms. Castro wrote. “I have never felt total patriotism to any country. I do not instantly think of staying here to help ‘my home,’ because I do not consider the United States my home. The Earth is ‘my home.’ ”

To Monica Inzer, Hamilton’s dean of admission and financial aid, bold declarations like this one are a strong sign of authenticity if nothing else. “Lots of essays have been doctored or written by other people,” she said. “You know that a parent didn’t write this. I don’t know how I know, but I do.”

Mr. Bauld knows how he knows. “There’s always an attempt in some of these college admissions factories to smooth out a student’s edges,” he said. “But what I loved about this piece is that there is no attempt to smooth out anything.”

As for Ms. Kumar, the 18-year-old Princeton applicant, her essay wasn’t so much smooth as it was slick, gliding effortlessly from her breakfast table to the manicured campus of Princeton to the “occidental bubble” of her school classroom. There’s a detour onto the city bus and then a quick trip to before coming back to the “towering turrets” of again.

Nevertheless, Princeton rejected her, and when I approached the university to find out if it had anything to do with her essay, it cited its policy of not commenting on any applicants or admissions decisions. I told its spokesman, Martin Mbugua, that other schools had commented on their own applicants once the students gave them permission, but he was unmoved.

Ms. Kumar suggested that her grades might not have been quite high enough, but Mr. Bauld contended that Princeton should have been swayed by her words.

“One of the things that makes this essay is her tone,” he said. “It could have been, ‘Princeton should be poorer,’ but she opens it as an inquiry. What she does is that she listens very carefully to what you have assigned her to do, and as a response to that, she says, ‘Well, let me ask you this!’ ”

Next week, Ms. Kumar will take the stage as Marty in the Science production of and she’ll collect her diploma on June 21. In the fall, she’ll attend , for which she wrote no essays about the university’s level of affluence.

To Mr. Bauld, that’s Princeton’s loss. “She is that person who is always going to give an interesting answer, even to the most boring question,” he said. “That’s my confidence in reading it, and I’d want that person in my class as a teacher.”

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Getting into an elite college has never been more cutthroat. Last year, Harvard’s admissions rate dipped to a record low, with only 5.3% of applicants getting an acceptance letter. Stanford’s rate was even lower, at 5.05%.

These days, it takes more than impressive grades, a full roster of extracurriculars, and a deep commitment to community service to get into a well-ranked school. Experts say that a stellar essay is the linchpin that will win the admissions department over. But what is less well known is that different colleges favor particular topics and even specific words used in essays.

This is a key finding from AdmitSee, a startup that invites verified college students to share their application materials with potential applicants. High school students can pay to access AdmitSee’s repository of successful college essays, while college students who share their materials receive a small payment every time someone accesses their data. “The biggest differentiator for our site is that college students who share their information are compensated for their time,” Stephanie Shyu, cofounder of AdmitSee, tells Fast Company. “This allows them to monetize materials that they have sitting around. They can upload their file and when they check back in a few months later, they might have made several hundred dollars.”

Shyu says that this model has allowed AdmitSee to collect a lot of data very rapidly. The company is only a year old and just landed $1.5 million in seed funding from investors such asFounder.org and The Social + Capital Partnership. But in this short time, AdmitSee has already gathered 15,000 college essays in their system. Many are from people who got into well-ranked colleges, since they targeted these students first. The vast majority of these essays come from current college students who were admitted within the last two or three years.

AdmitSee has a team that analyzes all of these materials, gathering both qualitative and quantitative findings. And they’ve found some juicy insights about what different elite colleges are looking for in essays. One of the most striking differences was between successful Harvard and Stanford essays. (AdmitSee had 539 essays from Stanford and 393 from Harvard at the time of this interview, but more trickle in every day.) High-achieving high schoolers frequently apply to both schools—often with the very same essay—but there are stark differences between what their respective admissions departments seem to want.

What Do You Call Your Parents?

The terms “father” and “mother” appeared more frequently in successful Harvard essays, while the term “mom” and “dad” appeared more frequently in successful Stanford essays.

Harvard Likes Downer Essays

AdmitSee found that negative words tended to show up more on essays accepted to Harvard than essays accepted to Stanford. For example, Shyu says that “cancer,” “difficult,” “hard,” and “tough” appeared more frequently on Harvard essays, while “happy,” “passion,” “better,” and “improve” appeared more frequently in Stanford essays.

This also had to do with the content of the essays. At Harvard, admitted students tended to write about challenges they had overcome in their life or academic career, while Stanford tended to prefer creative personal stories, or essays about family background or issues that the student cares about. “Extrapolating from this qualitative data, it seems like Stanford is more interested in the student’s personality, while Harvard appears to be more interested in the student’s track record of accomplishment,” Shyu says.

With further linguistic analysis, AdmitSee found that the most common words on Harvard essays were “experience,” “society,” “world,” “success,” “opportunity.” At Stanford, they were “research,” “community,” “knowledge,” “future” and “skill.”

What the Other Ivies Care About

It turns out, Brown favors essays about volunteer and public interest work, while these topics rank low among successful Yale essays. In addition to Harvard, successful Princeton essays often tackle experiences with failure. Meanwhile, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania tend to accept students who write about their career aspirations. Essays about diversity—race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—tend to be more popular at Stanford, Yale, and Brown.

Based on the AdmitSee’s data, Dartmouth and Columbia don’t appear to have strong biases toward particular essay topics. This means that essays on many subjects were seen favorably by the admissions departments at those schools. However, Shyu says that writing about a moment that changed the student’s life showed up frequently in essays of successful applicants to those schools.

Risk-Taking Pays Off

One general insight is that students who take risks with the content and the structure of their college essays tend to be more successful across the board. One student who was admitted to several top colleges wrote about his father’s addiction to pornography and another wrote about a grandparent who was incarcerated, forcing her mother to get food stamps illegally. Weird formats also tend to do well. One successful student wrote an essay tracking how his credit card was stolen, making each point of the credit card’s journey a separate section on the essay and analyzing what each transaction meant. Another’s essay was a list of her favorite books and focused on where each book was purchased.

“One of the big questions our users have is whether they should take a risk with their essay, writing about something that reveals very intimate details about themselves or that takes an unconventional format,” Shyu says. “What we’re finding is that successful essays are not ones that talk about an accomplishment or regurgitate that student’s résumé . The most compelling essays are those that touch on surprising personal topics.”

Of course, one caveat here is that taking a risk only makes sense if the essay is well-executed. Shyu says that the content and structure of the story must make a larger point about the applicant, otherwise it does not serve a purpose. And it goes without saying that the essay must be well-written, with careful attention paid to flow and style.

Shyu says that there are two major takeaways that can be taken from the company’s data. The first is that it is very valuable for applicants to tailor their essays for different schools, rather than perfecting one essay and using it to apply to every single school. The second is that these essays can offer insight into the culture of the school. “The essays of admitted students are also a reflection of the community at these institutions,” Shyu says. “It can provide insight into whether or not the school is a good fit for that student.”

A final tip? If you want to go to Harvard and write about your parents, make sure to address them as “mother” and “father.”

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