Can John Harvard’s ghost tell me about the art of writing?
I applied to Harvard under the Early Action round in 2016. After getting accepted, I decided not to apply to any other US school, so this post is definitely not a tried-and-true method. This is how I did it personally, and bear in mind that you might find it helpful or not. So pick whatever inspiration you can get from this and, ultimately, follow your gut.
My favorite analogy for the entire college admissions affair is matchmaking. ✨ The entire affair involves composing unclichéd love letter after love letter (essays), presenting an authentic yet attractive résumé of your merits (the Common Application), being appraised in face-to-face conversations over coffee (alumni interviews), and having those around you vouch for your suit (recommendations).
So, how to write a heartfelt love letter to your dream college that is true to who you are? Some universal pointers ring true: be genuine (hmm, who likes a pretentious impostor in love? not me.); present a compelling but focused narrative of yourself (how are you best defined? think Linkedin with an emotional punch.); a unique insight that ties together your past, present, and future (show them what you will be bringing to and taking away from the relationship).
Bearing these pointers in mind, I’ll touch on each of the following:
- How important is the essay?
- How to brainstorm?
- How to present your topic?
- How to finally write the essay?
- What are the essays for? i.e. “Why should I care?”
A lot of international applicants tend to underestimate the importance of the essays and put in double the amount of time on pulling up their standardized test scores (SAT/ACT). While scores are definitely important, my personal advice would be to spend the most time and thought on your essays — above every other component.
From your high school transcript, lists of activities and honors, and teacher recommendations, the AO is trying to piece together a coherent picture of who you are. Your essays are the biggest canvas for you to add that crucial, app-defining stroke that pulls all those disparate threads together in a strong, clear narrative — all in one move.
Only the essays can do that.
Everything else (scores, activities, recommendations, grades) are just floating bones in the ether. The essay is the flesh that anchors them, makes sense of them (why is this girl playing the piano, reading thrillers and volunteering at a homeless shelter?) and settles them in their order in the universe of YOU THE APPLICANT (what matters most to you, how you think, how you see the world).
In short, your essays configure the ‘individual’ that the AO sees, arranging the ‘bones’ of your application into a living, breathing person with a history and a story — a story in your own voice that should resonate and make the AO advocate for you with fervor during the committee meeting. 💓
- How to brainstorm my essay topic? i.e. “I’ve done a million random and interesting things, how do I choose what to zoom in on? Should I just write a 650-word autobiography of my life???”
Better than everyone else, you need to know why you should be getting into your dream college (if you have one, that is). Many people are unsure of why they should be admitted even after submitting their entire application. I believe that is a huge mistake. In my opinion, the pithy platitude to ‘love yourself first before you can find true love’ is gold.
there is no such book, in case you were wondering
This means you must, before you even open a blank Word Document, at least attempt to answer: I should get into my dream college because ________________________________.
Please don’t be modest! 😎
To facilitate the process, picture this. You have two minutes alone in the lift with the Dean of Admissions of your dream college and you have his/her full attention in this short span of time to sell yourself as an applicant. You’ve got to make the elevator pitch of your life.
What will you say?
The thing is, the whole application process is eerily analogous to the scene I just described. You only have your essays to make that direct pitch to the AO, but the AO doesn’t have a lifetime to get to know you; instead, your application will probably get a few hours of scrutiny on average. That’s the only shot you have, so make full use of what you get.
That’s tough because not everyone has done that life-defining one thing which absolutely screams to be meditated on. I was having trouble in the brainstorming stage since all my activities seemed pretty on par with one another, and I decided to do this:
Step 1: Create an ‘elevator pitch’, namely ‘Why should I get into my dream college?’ Mine came down to this: 1) writing for a cause; 2) passion for history, culture, politics, truth, and the narratives we tell ourselves; 3) international exposure and reconciling contradictory perspectives (travels and reading). Tips: Think along the lines of what sets you apart from other applicants. The T-shaped (well-lopsided) student is almost always more attractive than the O-shaped (well-rounded) one. Essentially, in this pitch, you think about what horizontal attributes you have (e.g. intellectual imagination and curiosity across disciplines, and strength of character) as well as the vertical (that which is normally called a ‘spike‘ — an in-depth passion, skill or talent that goes far deeper than your peers).
Step 2: This elevator pitch is going to be the personal narrative you drive home in EVERY SINGLE component of your application before your essays come in — this means your honors, activities, teacher recommendations (send your bullet points to your teachers for their reference), and additional information (if utilized).
It’s all about internal consistency. Your application should stand as a coherent story, with different parts reinforcing, resonating with, and complementing each other.
Step 3: Review your application thus far (your essays are still unwritten at this point) and think from the perspective of a stranger who is reading it all for the first time: what will you be most curious about this applicant by now? What needs to be expounded on the most? What is left dangling and untied? Whichever bullet point in your personal narrative that is, it is a perfect candidate for your Common Application essay. Then, tackle another strand of your personal narrative in the supplementary essay (if any). Note: Not every bullet point in your personal narrative needs an essay to catapult itself into the AO’s consciousness; it’s your judgment call.
Each essay component of your application should ideally show a different dimension of your exciting brilliant multi-dimensional self.
- How should I approach my chosen topic? i.e. “How can I make the AOs sit up — eyes shining and pen furiously annotating — on a blurry caffeinated night after reading ten essays in a row? 😵 “
Generally speaking, there are two main ways your essay can make a powerful impact: either your experience is one in a million OR you go through a pretty ordinary experience but arrive at a revelation that only you can reach.
The latter, what I call the uniqueness of insight, might just work better. The insight that was drawn, the reflections gained, and the perspective with which you view the experience are far more important than the specific topic itself. When you have a powerful insight, the experience does not matter much per se except as a plot device to lead the reader into the refreshing embrace of your insight.
Some questions that might lead you to deeper insights:
On experiences: Why is this experience part of your personal narrative but might not be for others? How has it uniquely shaped you in unexpected ways (think: personal growth)? What do you want to differently in the future now that you’ve had this experience?
On personality traits: How do you see the world differently? Are you able to uncover any small moments with big meaning that might pass others by? Who are you by the virtue of your motley of ideas?
On spikes: By virtue of the depth of your craft or the intensity of experiences it has brought you, what do you understand about your area of strength that others do not, or what higher revelation has that given you about how you want to lead your life?
- Now, write the essay — write it like a good writer, like a good storyteller.
The craft of good writing is sometimes intuitive, but more often than not it depends on practice — reading lots of good writing, imitating good writing, and discovering your own style.
Read the most evocative, atmospheric and powerful scenes in your favorite stories — see how they hooked you with dialogue, described an intense moment, and painted the setting. Books on writing such as The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White will be worth the time investment if you are not confident about your writing and need guidance. In particular, read successful college application essays (I must have read close to a hundred) to see how they do it in a limited word count.
There is a wide pool of successful college application essays online, but be discerning about them. After all, each essay must be looked at in the context of everything else, a context which you are not privy to. The college application essay is not meant to be read in a vacuum. Hence, there will be successful essays that will make you scratch your head and wonder what earned them the acceptance. A mindset that is helpful when reading such essays is to ask ‘what works for me and what doesn’t?’ and ‘why do I like this but not that?’, and to add those observations and reflections into your writer’s arsenal.
Here are the people & resources that helped me tremendously (to varying degrees):
- Various editions of 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays
- The people who gave feedback for my essays (3 is a good number — someone who knows you well, someone who doesn’t, and someone who is a good writer). Tips: seniors in the colleges that you are applying to can be great critics. Someone who doesn’t know you well can tell you what impression they have of you from your essay (if their impression wildly deviates from your personal narrative, it’s a warning sign to make some changes). It is also extremely important to have the tenacity to edit! If you can’t find anyone suitable to give you feedback, putting the draft down and looking at it again with new eyes around 1-2 weeks later can be immensely constructive.
- The New York Times publishes a handful of college application essays on money, work or social class each year. There are some gems — I’ve linked the 2015 edition below.
- I’m also making my Harvard supplementary essay available to all my blog subscribers. After subscribing at the sidebar on the right, if you’d like to read it, sign up here →
Finally, good luck! It’s a daunting, stressful time for everyone, but it is worth every last ounce of your focus and creativity. Go for it, believe in yourself, and ultimately, as it is in matchmaking, leave it up to destiny. While you’ve chosen your dream college, she needs to choose you too; and how that unfolds is as unpredictable as the human heart. So, know that sometimes who you love might not love you back, but there’ll always be your true love waiting – around an unexpected bend, the very personification of the finer irony of the vagaries of life. Love boldly, and the college you will belong at will find you unexpectedly.
Feel free to share this with whoever you think might find it helpful. 🍀 And see you on the other side!
Lots of love,