Let Your Life Speak
Looking for examples of past college essays that worked? These are some admissions essays that our officers thought were most successful from last year.
Amir Abdunuru Rwegarulira '20
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
I grew up knowing exactly what it felt like to have parents everywhere. Of course, my biological parents - a retired social worker and an economist - had nothing omnipresent about them, it's just that in my immediate neighborhood, every adult automatically became my parent. This ideology was based on a Swahili saying “mkono mmoja hauuguzi mtoto” meaning one hand cannot nurse a child. I learned to respect neighbors the way I do relatives. There were no wedding invitations or funeral ceremonies that one could excuse oneself from attending. Everything was done with the welfare of the community as a whole in mind. As children we could not pass by a woman carrying a bucket of water without helping her, and adults would take the liberty of escorting us all the way home if we were returning late from school. Regardless of age or gender, there was an intangible sense of obligation that unified everyone and its importance was deeply instilled in me from a young age.
My life is still speaking; as I scale the ladder in education, sports and personal life. I continue to see the world through the lenses created by my community and treating everyone I encounter as part of it. Whether it is a primary school student struggling to finish his homework or a friend grieving over a lost loved one, I know that I am responsible not just for my own self but also for the people around me.
Sacdio Ali ’21
Jamaica Plain, MA
When I was in second grade, I wished my mom could talk to my teachers like the other parents did. Instead, I had to translate from English to Somali so that my mom could understand what was going on. Since my parents never went to school and I am the oldest of my siblings, I was used to this: if I went home, I had to be my own homework help, so I often stayed late at school to get help from my teachers. I was sad to see my friends working at home with their parents because I couldn't do that with my mom. I wanted to be them so badly--but even more, I wanted that for my siblings. I managed to do well in school thanks to my mother's constant encouragement, but I promised myself that I would never let my siblings feel sad that they couldn't come home for help. When my siblings were growing up, I read to them. Before they started school, I taught them how to read and do simple math. With time, they looked up to me for guidance and any help they needed outside of school. The strong connection I developed with my siblings helped me realize how much I enjoy working with children. I started helping other students like my classmates, which inspired me to become a school counselor so that I can explore how the environment and people around a child can influence his or her life.
Emma Tombaugh ’21
Dinnertime in the Tombaugh household is seldom dull. I sit down, never knowing what topic will be introduced that night. When the standard chatter subsides, and the last bits of food are being plucked off the plates, any innocent query can launch itself into a lengthy scientific discussion. Why does my dad's watch have a ratcheting bezel around the edge? I'm plunged into a lesson on why decompression stops are necessary for scuba divers. (Nitrogen bubbles in the blood vessels...Who knew?). Evidence for the theory of evolution is presented as neatly as the silverware next to my plate. I now know more than I ever thought I would about mimicry in animals and antipredator adaptation. The justifications for the demotion of Pluto (our favorite planet, discovered by Clyde Tombaugh) are hotly contested. Scientific and mathematical concepts are explored, debated, and questioned. How does one classically condition mice? Let me count the ways. Together, we marvel at the sheer enormity of the universe and in an instant might be awestruck by the small size of a single cell. Conversations like these feed my insatiable appetite for learning. I regard the world around me with inquisitive eyes; there is always something new to discover. Scientific phenomena exist to be doubted and scrutinized. In cultivating these investigations, my family has stimulated me to be curious and engaged. Never satisfied with the facts that are placed in front of me, I am constantly on the lookout for the hows, the whys, and the what-ifs.
Looking for more insider tips on the admissions process? We can help! The admissions officers blog about every aspect of applying to college here!
Joe Hyatt ’21
Five years ago, I became the member of a new community, a community of siblings. I was an only child for over twelve years. Life was great- I had my parents' undivided attention and no one stealing my toys. Then my world changed dramatically. Our family was blessed with three baby girls. I went from being the center of the universe ,to one of Pluto's moons. My life of order spiraled into disorder. "Me time" became "story time." Now I'm in high school with three baby sisters. They cry at my basketball games when the buzzer blares, escape onto the court during volleyball warm-ups, but melt my heart nonetheless. Plenty of my friends have younger siblings, but none are babies. While my friends were teaching their siblings how to skateboard and throw a fastball, I was changing diapers and rocking babies so my mom could shower. While buddies were helping their sisters with homework, I was feeding mine oatmeal in their high-chairs so my dad could grill. My sisters are finally old enough that I can teach them to shoot a basketball and skip and to create snowflakes from popsicle sticks and sparkles. I can now explain simple math on their fingers and perform science experiments with a coke can and a flame. Above all, I now also understand the meaning of the phrase "herding cats." My new micro-community has turned my world upside down, changing me forever. I wouldn't trade it for the world.
Celina Vidal ’21
From age three until nine I attended a Waldorf school, or as I affectionately refer to it, the "school of fairies and gnomes". While my high school classmates spent their childhoods decorating coloring books and watching cartoons, I crocheted a poncho, played the violin, and learned a type of rhythmic dance that allowed me to spell words with my body. As archaic and unproductive as these activities might sound, I am eternally grateful for the person I have become due to my lack of media exposure and excess of wooden toys throughout my youth. Primarily, I developed in an environment where I had the opportunity to test my creative outlets. This innovative drive has continued to fuel my academic experience through high school, and I constantly find myself searching for interactive ways to obtain knowledge rather than turning to textbooks. Also, in a society overrun with technology, having the prior knowledge of detachment allows me to observe my surroundings, not my phone screen, and inspires me to explore my community. Fond memories of third grade nature days in which we gained a basic knowledge of botany established my lasting appreciation for the outdoors. Finally, having a safe place to believe in fairy tales for so long preserved an innocence in me that guides me through our often disturbing world. As I continue to inquire and create during my college experience, I hope my Waldorf background will help me imagine new discoveries and inventions no matter how fantastical they may seem.
William Wilson ’21
I grew up in a town whose one traffic light only flashed yellow, there were more churches than gas stations, and the nearest clothing store was a thirty minute drive along a dusty road. Despite the barren land of the prairie, I kept busy by helping with chores around my household, serving pancakes as a cub scout at Lions Club feeds, and volunteering at the library to help my fellow peers with homework. My parents were both dynamic members of the city council in my home town. My mother worked as a courthouse clerk, my father was the mayor, and both were leaders in the local fire department as volunteer firefighters. Their impact on the community had an equal impact on me; I was encouraged to influence my surroundings in any way possible. This influence continued after I moved. I quickly found haven volunteering to help in children's education classes. In high school, I jumped at the opportunity to be in student government by running a campaign every year I was in school. My parents' active roles in my neighborhood inspired my love for having a positive influence on those around me. As I continue to grow, I aspire to enrich not only myself but also anyone else that I can impact.
Want to hear more from current students? Jumbo Talk has blogs from current students talking about every aspect of life at Tufts here!
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.”