Undergraduate Admission Essays


I believe that the best tips about writing admissions essays come from admissions officers themselves. After all, they read thousands of essays each year, and they’re the people you’re trying to please. Some schools offer the full text of standout essays along with commentary about why they “worked.” Read as many of these as you can to appreciate the similarities and differences among successful essays – and to spark ideas of your own.

  • It’s important to grab your reader’s attention from the get-go. Here’s a list of some winning first lines from Stanford applicants.
  • In this five-minute video, a Yale admissions officer explains why essay writers should stay true to their own voice.
  • The folks at the Tufts admissions office dispense advice that applicants to all liberal arts colleges should consider. See especially their samples of Past Essays That Mattered and responses to the question “Why Tufts?”
  • A Tulane admissions officer offers similar advice on how to answer the question “Why Tulane?” Acing this question is key in light of a recent study that showed that, in response to record numbers of applicants, admissions officers are giving more weight to “demonstrated interest” in a university than to class rank or teacher recommendations.
  • Johns Hopkins University offers a good selection of “Essays That Worked” from the past four years, along with a link to some useful essay-writing tips.
  • Connecticut College provides a similar list here.
  • Here, a Harvard student provides some personal advice about what to write about.



The websites listed above provide better sample essays and advice than any book currently available. That’s because most of the essays on these sites answer the current Common Application prompts (though some prompts do change slightly from year to year) and adhere to its 650-word limit, imposed in 2014. That said, if you are going to buy a book about writing essays, this is the one to get: 100 Successful College Application Essays (Updated 3rd edition, 2013), compiled by the staff of the Harvard Independent. Note that it includes application essays to many top-tier schools (not just Harvard), along with commentary and advice from Princeton’s dean of admission.

Graduate School Admission Essays

  • “In Their Own Words: Admissions Essays That Worked” showcases six essays that won their writers admission to University of Chicago Law School.
  • The Stanford Graduate School of Business offers excellent tips for writing effective essays for admission to MBA programs.
  • Johns Hopkins provides some great suggestions and resources for anyone needing to write a personal statement for medical school.
  • Here, Carnegie Mellon admissions people offer some good tips on writing exemplary grad-school essays, including helpful examples on how adding detail can turn a weak essay into a strong one.
  • Business Insider showcases six essays that won their applicants admission to Harvard Business School. They are drawn from a book of 65 successful HBS essays.
  • MBA applicants should also check out The Economist’s Ten Tips for Perfectly Pitched Essays. It describes the writing and editing process almost exactly as I would.

College Admissions News and Views

One of the biggest stories in admissions this year is the introduction of the Coalition Application, which aims to increase low-income students’ access to college. Starting their freshman year, students may store and organize all their application materials and supporting materials (such as papers and projects) in a free “locker,” share them with counselors and recommenders, and apply to schools directly through the platform. Students may use these free organizational tools even if they also apply to schools through the Common App. Note that the Coalition’s essay prompts are slightly different than the Common App prompts, with a slightly shorter word limit (550 words). This year, fifty-six colleges and universities, both public and private, will accept the Coalition Application, and 36 more will sign on in 2017. Here’s an analysis of the Coalition Application from the Washington Post.

, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni cautions applicants not to brag about far-flung community service trips in their essays, especially ones that come at great cost to their families. As Raymond Carver once wrote, “No heroics, please.”

In More Essays, Fewer Applicants the New York Times provides evidence for a phenomenon I’ve observed firsthand over the years: that while students are applying to more schools than ever, due to the ease of the Common App, they are shying away from colleges that require supplemental essays. My advice: Take advantage of this trend and apply to these schools! Supplements are time-consuming, but they offer students a precious opportunity to charm the admissions committee and show their true interest in attending the school.

Top Colleges That Enroll Rich, Middle Class and Poor: In this excellent online feature, David Leonhardt of the New York Times provides fascinating, in-depth data about the vast differences in financial aid offerings and enrollment priorities among similarly ranked schools. For example, 23 percent of Vassar College students receive need-based Pell grants, while only 6 percent of students at Washington University in St. Louis do, even though Wash U’s endowment is six times as large as Vassar’s. This is a must-read for parents and students looking for competitive schools with generous aid packages.

Many elite colleges practice what they call “holistic admissions,” assessing applicants on factors beyond test scores, grades and extracurriculars. Some argue that this is necessary to ensure a diverse student body with a range of interests and talents, while others contend that the practice discriminates against high-achieving students who lack wealth and connections, particularly Asian Americans. Here are two articles addressing the controversy: “Let’s Sue Harvard and End Illegal Preferences in College Admissions,” by Steve Nelson, head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan, and “The Truth About Holistic Admissions,” by a former dean and admissions officer.

In his op-ed column “How to Survive the Admissions Madness” and the best-selling book it was drawn from, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni argues that top-tier private colleges aren’t necessarily the best choice for students who aspire to attend or are admitted to such schools. He suggests that strong students at top-tier schools end up feeling intimidated by the presence of even stronger students, while at less competitive schools, such students might feel more confident and emboldened to pursue difficult courses of study, start businesses, and so on. Bruni, who was admitted to Yale but chose to go to UNC, encourages students to spend their undergraduate years outside their comfort zone, choosing schools not just on the basis of their cachet or “brand” but according to their ability to upend students’ longheld assumptions about race, class and culture.

International Students

The US State Department’s Education USA website offers a wealth of information on what it is like – and what is required – to study in the United States, including details on visa requirements and application procedures.

The College Board – the company that designs and scores the Advanced Placement, PSAT and SAT exams used worldwide – offers helpful tips for international student applicants that go beyond test prep into topics such as researching schools and what to expect once you get in.

If you’re applying to US colleges from abroad, be sure to read US News and World Report’s “Five College Admissions Mistakes International Students Can Avoid.” The same publication, best known for its (controversial) annual college rankings, also has an informative blog dedicated to international applicants, who may also submit their specific questions to be answered by experts.

In this Huffington Post article, an admissions consultant notes that US colleges and universities consider “soft factors” such as application essays, extracurricular activities, and recommendations far more than universities in other countries do. To this end, international students should plan ahead. Two years before you apply, start cultivating the relationships with teachers that lead to strong, detailed recommendations and find activities that demonstrate your commitment to and interest in the world outside of school. And of course, when the time comes to apply, make sure you write standout essays!

Most US universities provide financial aid only to international graduate students, not to undergrads. Indeed, only five US universities – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT and Amherst College – offer need-blind and full financial aid to international undergraduates. Elsewhere, a demonstrated ability to pay tuition without financial aid may help you win admission (and lack of funds may hurt your chances). NAFSA, a nonprofit in support of international education, offers a helpful overview of how to calculate the cost of an undergraduate education in the US and provides links to possible funding sources.

“Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”


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