With the top applicants from every high school applying to the best schools in the country, it's important to have an edge in your college application. Check out ten Harvard application essays below from students who made it in, and hear from expert college consultants about what made these work.
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When I failed math in my sophomore year of high school, a bitter dispute engulfed my household -- “Nicolas Yan vs. Mathematics.” I was the plaintiff, appearing pro se, while my father represented the defendant (inanimate as it was). My brother and sister constituted a rather understaffed jury, and my mother presided over the case as judge.
In a frightening departure from racial stereotype, I charged Mathematics with the capital offences of being “too difficult” and “irrelevant to my aspirations," citing my recent shortcomings in the subject as evi. dence. My father entered a not guilty plea on the defendant's behalf, for he had always harbored hopes that I would follow in his entrepreneurial footsteps -- and who ever heard of a businessman who wasn't an accomplished mathematician? He argued that because I had fallen sick before my examination and had been unable to sit one of the papers, it would be a travesty of justice to blame my "Ungraded” mark on his client. The judge nodded sagely.
With heartrending pathos, I recalled how I had studied A-Level Mathematics with calculus a year before the rest of my cohort, bravely grappling with such perverse concepts as the poisson distribution to no avail. I decried the subject's lack of real-life utility and lamented my inability to reconcile further effort with any plausible success; so that to persist with Mathematics would be a Sisyphean endeavor. Since I had no interest in becoming the entrepreneur that my father envisioned, I petitioned the court for academic refuge in the humanities. The members of the jury exchanged sympathetic glances and put their heads together to deliberate.
Over the next year, however, new evidence that threw the court's initial verdict into question surfaced. Languishing on death row, Mathematics exercised its right to appeal, and so our quasi-court reconvened in the living room.
In hushed tones, they weighed the particulars of the case. Then, my sister announced their unanimous decision with magisterial gravity: "Nicolas shouldn't have to do math if he doesn't want to!" I was ecstatic; my father distraught. With a bang of her metaphorical gavel, the judge sentenced the defendant to "Death by Omission"-- and so I chose my subjects for 11th Grade sans Mathematics. To my father's disappointment, a future in business for me now seemed implausible.
Over the next year, however, new evidence that threw the court's initial verdict into question surfaced. Languishing on death row, Mathematics exercised its right to appeal, and so our quasi-court reconvened in the living room.
My father reiterated his client's innocence, maintaining that Mathematics was neither "irrelevant" nor "too difficult." He proudly recounted how just two months earlier, when my friends had convinced me to join them in creating a business case competition for high school students (clerical note: the loftily-titled New Zealand Secondary Schools Case Competition), I stood in front of the Board of a company and successfully pitched them to sponsor us-- was this not evidence that l could succeed in business? I think I saw a tear roll down his cheek as he implored me to give Mathematics another chance.
I considered the truth of his words. While writing a real-world business case for NZSSCC, l had been struck by how mathematical processes actually made sense when deployed in a practical context, and how numbers could tell a story just as vividly as words can. By reviewing business models and comparing financial projections to actual returns, one can read a company's story and identify areas of potential growth; whether the company then took advantage of these opportunities determined its success. It wasn't that my role in organizing NZSSCC had magically taught me to embrace all things mathematical or commercial -- I was still the same person -- but I recognized that no intellectual constraints prevented me from succeeding in Mathematics; I needed only the courage to seize an opportunity for personal growth.
I stood up and addressed my family: “I’ll do it.” Then, without waiting for the court’s final verdict, I crossed the room to embrace my father: and the rest, as they (seldom) say, was Mathematics.
For some, math concepts such as limits, logarithms, and derivatives can bring about feelings of apprehension or intimidation. So, Nicolas’s college essay reflecting on his personal conflict coming to terms with Mathematics offers a relatable, down-to-earth look at how he eventually came to realize and appreciate the importance of this once-dreaded subject. Not only does Nicolas’s statement use a unique, engaging approach to hook the reader in, but also he draws various connections from Mathematics to his relationship with his family, to his maturation process, and to his extracurricular involvement. A number of factors helped Nicolas’s statement add color to his application file, giving further insight into the person he is.
Nicolas’s choice of Mathematics as the focusing lens is effective for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is genuine and approachable. It is not about some grandiose idea, event, or achievement. Rather, it is about a topic to which many students—and people for that matter—can relate. And from this central theme, Nicolas draws insightful linkages to various aspects of his life. At the outset of his essay, Mathematics is presented as the antagonist, or as Nicolas skillfully portrays, the “defendant”. However, by the end of his piece, and as a demonstration of his growth, Nicolas has come to a resolution with the former defendant.
Adding to the various connections, Nicolas presents his case, literally, in an engaging manner in the form of a court scene, with Nicolas as the plaintiff charging the defendant, Mathematics, with being too difficult and irrelevant to his life.
Through Nicolas’s conflict over Mathematics, we gain a deeper understanding of his relationship with his father and the tension that exists in Nicolas fulfilling his father’s wishes of following in his entrepreneurial footsteps. His father’s initial attempts at reasoning with him are rebuffed, however Nicolas later acknowledges that he “considered the truth of his words” and eventually embraces his father, signifying their coming to a resolution with their shared understanding of each other. Furthermore, Nicolas connects his evolved understanding of Mathematics to his important organizational role in creating the business-focused New Zealand Secondary Schools Case Competition, acknowledging how “mathematical processes actually made sense when deployed in a practical context, and how numbers could tell a story just as vividly as words can.” As he states, “I needed only the courage to seize an opportunity for personal growth,” which he ultimately realizes.
Adding to the various connections, Nicolas presents his case, literally, in an engaging manner in the form of a court scene, with Nicolas as the plaintiff charging the defendant, Mathematics, with being too difficult and irrelevant to his life. Bearing in mind word count limitations, what would have been interesting to explore would be deeper insights into each of the connections that Nicolas drew and how he applied these various lessons to other parts of his life.
Nicolas employs a number of characteristics essential for a successful essay: a theme that allows for deeper introspection, an engaging hook or approach, and a number of linkages between his theme and various aspects of his life, providing insight into who he is and how he thinks.
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I learned the definition of cancer at the age of fourteen. I was taking my chapter 7 biology test when I came upon the last question, “What is cancer?”, to which I answered: “The abnormal, unrestricted growth of cells.” After handing in the test, I moved on to chapter 8, oblivious then to how earth-shattering such a disease could be.
I learned the meaning of cancer two years later. A girl named Kiersten came into my family by way of my oldest brother who had fallen in love with her. I distinctly recall her hair catching the sea breeze as she walked with us along the Jersey shore, a blonde wave in my surrounding family's sea of brunette. Physically, she may have been different, but she redefined what family meant to me. She attended my concerts, went to my award ceremonies, and helped me study for tests. Whenever I needed support, she was there. Little did I know that our roles would be reversed, forever changing my outlook on life.
Kiersten was diagnosed with Stage II Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of 22. Tears and hair fell alike after each of her 20 rounds of chemotherapy as we feared the worst. It was an unbearable tragedy watching someone so vivacious skirt the line between life and death. Her cancer was later classified as refractory, or resistant to treatment. Frustration and despair flooded my mind as I heard this news. And so I prayed. In what universe did this dynamic make any sense? I prayed to God and to even her cancer itself to just leave her alone. Eventually, Kiersten was able to leave the hospital to stay for six weeks at my home.
But the beauty that resulted from sympathizing as opposed to analyzing and putting aside my own worries and troubles for someone else was an enormous epiphany for me. My problems dissipated into thin air the moment I came home and dropped my books and bags to talk with Kiersten. The more I talked, laughed, smiled, and shared memories with her, the more I began to realize all that she taught me.
My family and I transformed the house into an antimicrobial sanctuary, protecting Kiersten from any outside illness. I watched TV with her, baked cookies for her, and observed her persistence as she regained strength and achieved remission. We beat biology, time, and death, all at the same time, with cookies, TV, and friendship. Yet I was so concerned with helping Kiersten that I had not realized how she helped me during her battle with cancer.
I had been so used to solving my problems intellectually that when it came time to emotionally support someone, I was afraid. I could define cancer, but what do I say to someone with it? There were days where I did not think I could be optimistic in the face of such adversity. But the beauty that resulted from sympathizing as opposed to analyzing and putting aside my own worries and troubles for someone else was an enormous epiphany for me. My problems dissipated into thin air the moment I came home and dropped my books and bags to talk with Kiersten. The more I talked, laughed, smiled, and shared memories with her, the more I began to realize all that she taught me. She influenced me in the fact that she demonstrated the power of loyalty, companionship, and optimism in the face of desperate, life-threatening situations. She showed me the importance of loving to live and living to love. Most of all, she gave me the insight necessary to fully help others not just with intellect and preparation, but with solidarity and compassion. In this way, I became able to help myself and others with not only my brain, but with my heart. And that, in the words of Robert Frost, “has made all the difference.”
Nikolas is candid, writing about how he could solve problems intellectually, but struggled to cope emotionally during Kiersten's diagnosis and treatment. Ultimately, he finds his way and gains a deeper perspective on life, and thus shares a story of overcoming and of complex intellectual and emotional growth.
Nikolas uses an unexpected approach in this essay, sharing a story of someone else’s struggle, as he highlights change within himself. The emotions and connection that he felt for Kiersten, his older brother’s girlfriend, are quite powerful, as is his recognition of his own attempt to navigate his way through the experience. Nikolas is candid, writing about how he could solve problems intellectually, but struggled to cope emotionally during Kiersten’s diagnosis and treatment. Ultimately, he finds his way and gains a deeper perspective on life, and thus shares a story of overcoming and of complex intellectual and emotional growth.
Nikolas’ use of imagery is terrific. We first see it in the essay when he describes one of his first impressions of Kiersten, with her blonde hair flowing in the wind by the Jersey Shore and how that contrasted with the dark hair of his family. That description then flows as we read the next paragraph, where he talks about the impact of her cancer. “Tears and hair fell alike after each of her 20 rounds of chemotherapy as we feared the worst.” Instead of explicitly sharing everyone’s heartbreak, through details that heartbreak becomes so very evident.
One missing piece here is an explanation of why Kiersten stayed with Nikolas’ family rather than returning home to her own family. Maybe a quick explanation would have helped the reader make sense of her location, and create an even stronger linkage with Nikolas and his family. Additionally, Nikolas might have taken one more step toward the end of the essay to connect this newfound emotion to other parts of his life. The final paragraph feels slightly repetitive, and a compelling route could have been to show how he went on to embrace the idea of “loving to live and living to love.” Nonetheless, Nikolas reveals that he is capable of growing through adversity, a character trait that this admissions committee clearly appreciated.
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Abigail gained national attention after reading her application essay on TikTok earlier this year, with over 19.9 million views on the first video. Her essay helped her to recieve a rare likely letter in the most competitive Harvard application cycle in history with a less than 4 percent acceptance rate, and now she uses her platform to help other college hopefuls navigate the application process. Watch her read the beginning of her essay here and check out her other writing tips on her TikTok.
I hate the letter S. Of the 164,777 words with S, I only grapple with one.
I hate the letter “S”. Of the 164,777 words with “S”, I only grapple with one. To condemn an entire letter because of its use 0.0006% of the time sounds statistically absurd, but that one case changed 100% of my life. I used to have two parents, but now I have one, and the “S” in “parents” isn’t going anywhere.
“S” follows me. I can’t get through a day without being reminded that while my friends went out to dinner with their parents, I ate with my parent. As I write this essay, there is a blue line under the word “parent” telling me to check my grammar; even Grammarly assumes that I should have parents, but cancer doesn’t listen to edit suggestions. I won’t claim that my situation is as unique as 1 in 164,777, but it is still an exception to the rule - an outlier. The world isn’t meant for this special case.
The world wouldn’t abandon “S” because of me, so I tried to abandon “S”. I could get away from “S” if I stayed busy; you can’t have dinner with your “parent” (thanks again, Grammarly) if you’re too busy to have family dinner. Any spare time that I had, I filled. I became known as the “busy kid”- the one that everyone always asks, “How do you have time?” Morning meetings, classes, after school meetings, volleyball practice, dance class, rehearsal in Boston, homework, sleep, repeat. Though my specific schedule has changed over time, the busyness has not. I couldn’t fill the loss that “S” left in my life, but I could at least make sure I didn’t have to think about it. There were so many things in my life that I couldn’t control, so I controlled what I could- my schedule. I never succumbed to the stress of potentially over-committing. I thrived. It became a challenge to juggle it all, but I’d soon find a rhythm. But rhythm wasn’t what I wanted. Rhythm may not have an “S”, but “S” sure liked to come by when I was idle. So, I added another ball, and another, and another. Soon I noticed that the same “color” balls kept falling into my hands- theater, academics, politics. I began to want to come into contact with these more and more, so I further narrowed the scope of my color wheel and increased the shades of my primary colors.
Life became easier to juggle, but for the first time, I didn’t add another ball. I found my rhythm, and I embraced it. I stopped running away from a single “S” and began chasing a double “S”- passion. Passion has given me purpose. I was shackled to “S” as I tried to escape the confines of the traditional familial structure. No matter how far I ran, “S” stayed behind me because I kept looking back. I’ve finally learned to move forward instead of away, and it is liberating. “S” got me moving, but it hasn’t kept me going.
I wish I could end here, triumphant and basking in my new inspiration, but life is more convoluted. Motivation is a double edged sword; it keeps me facing forward, but it also keeps me from having to look back. I want to claim that I showed courage in being able to turn from “S”, but I cannot. Motivation is what keeps “S” at bay. I am not perfectly healed, but I am perfect at navigating the best way to heal me. I don’t seek out sadness, so “S” must stay on the sidelines, and until I am completely ready, motivation is more than enough for me.
There's an honesty here as she reveals to the reader her attempts at filling this void in her life by constantly keeping busy. It's further satisfying to see these attempts at committing to various activities evolve into what she terms a double
Abigail’s essay navigates one of the most delicate sorts of topics in college applications: dealing with personal or family tragedy. Perhaps the most common pitfall is to take a tragic event and effuse it with too much pathos and sense of loss that the narrative fails to reveal much about the author’s own personality other than the loss itself. In short, a “sob story.” However, Abigail’s essay adeptly skirts this by utilizing wit and a framing device using the letter “S” to share a profoundly personal journey in a manner that is engaging and thought-provoking.
Rather than focus purely on the loss of one of her parents to cancer, Abigail reflects on her life and the adjustments she has had to make. It is particularly poignant how she expresses the sense that her life with only one remaining parent seems somehow anomalous, that the constant reminders of the completeness in the familial structures of others haunts her.
What also makes this essay all the more intriguing is how we get a glimpse into her internal life as she learns to cope with the loss. There’s an honesty here as she reveals to the reader her attempts at filling this void in her life by constantly keeping busy. It’s further satisfying to see these attempts at committing to various activities evolve into what she terms a “double S,” or “passion,” as she discovers things that she has become passionate about. Perhaps this essay could have been strengthened further by giving the reader a sense of what those passions might be, as we’re left to speculate based on the activities she had mentioned.
Lastly, we see a sense of realism and maturity in Abigail's closing reflection. It’s easy to end an essay like this with a sense of narrative perfection, but she wisely concedes that “life is more convoluted.” This poignant revelation gives us a window into her continuing struggles, but we are nonetheless left impressed by her growth and candor in this essay.
Elite Educational Institute has been helping students reach their academic goals through test preparation, tutoring, and college consulting services since 1987. Learn more at www.eliteprep.com.
When I was a child, I begged my parents for my very own Brother PT-1400 P-Touch Handheld Label Maker to fulfill all of my labeling needs. Other kids had Nintendos and would spend their free time with Mario and Luigi. While they pummeled their video game controllers furiously, the pads of their thumbs dancing across their joysticks, I would type out labels on my industrial-standard P-Touch with just as much zeal. I labeled everything imaginable, dividing hundreds of pens into Ziploc bags by color, then rubber-banding them by point size. The finishing touch, of course, was always a glossy, three-eighths-inch-wide tag, freshly churned out from my handheld labeler and decisively pasted upon the numerous plastic bags I had successfully compiled.
Labeling became therapeutic for me; organizing my surroundings into specific groups to be labeled provides me with a sense of stability. I may not physically need the shiny color-coded label verifying the contents of a plastic bag as BLUE HIGHLIGHTERS—FAT, to identify them as such, but seeing these classifications so plainly allows me to appreciate the reliability of my categorizations. There are no exceptions when I label the top ledge of my bookshelf as containing works from ACHEBE, CHINUA TO CONRAD, JOSEPH. Each book is either filtered into that category or placed definitively into another one. Yet, such consistency only exists in these inanimate objects.
Thus, the break in my role as a labeler comes when I interact with people. Their lives are too complicated, their personalities too intricate for me to resolutely summarize in a few words or even with the 26.2 feet of laminated adhesive tape compatible with my label maker. I have learned that a thin line exists between labeling and just being judgmental when evaluating individuals. I can hardly superficially characterize others as simply as I do my material possessions because people refuse to be so cleanly separated and compartmentalized. My sister Joyce jokes freely and talks with me for hours about everything from the disturbing popularity of vampires in pop culture to cubic watermelons, yet those who don’t know her well usually think of her as timid and introverted. My mother is sometimes my biggest supporter, spouting words of encouragement and, at other instances, my most unrelenting critic. The overlap becomes too indistinct, the contradictions too apparent, even as I attempt to classify those people in the world whom I know best.
For all my love of order when it comes to my room, I don't want myself, or the people with whom I interact, to fit squarely into any one category.
Neither would I want others to be predictable enough for me to label. The real joy in human interaction lies in the excitement of the unknown. Overturning expectations can be necessary to preserving the vitality of relationships. If I were never surprised by the behaviors of those around me, my biggest source of entertainment would vanish. For all my love of order when it comes to my room, I don’t want myself, or the people with whom I interact, to fit squarely into any one category. I meticulously follow directions to the millimeter in the chemistry lab but measure ingredients by pinches and dashes in the comfort of my kitchen. I’m a self-proclaimed grammar Nazi, but I’ll admit e. e. cummings’s irreverence does appeal. I’ll chart my television show schedule on Excel, but I would never dream of confronting my chores with as much organization. I even call myself a labeler, but not when it comes to people. As Walt Whitman might put it, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.).”
I therefore refrain from the temptation to label—despite it being an act that makes me feel so fulfilled when applied to physical objects—when real people are the subjects. The consequences of premature labeling are too great, the risk of inaccuracy too high because, most of the time, not even the hundreds of alphanumeric digits and symbols available for entry on my P-Touch can effectively describe who an individual really is.
Amusing yet insightful, perhaps the most outstanding quality of Justine’s personal statement lies in the balance she strikes between anecdotal flourish and honest introspection. By integrating occasional humour and witty commentary into an otherwise lyrical and earnest self-reflection, Justine masterfully conveys an unfettered, sincere wisdom and maturity coveted by prestigious universities.
Justine breaks the ice by recalling a moment in her childhood that captures her fervent passion for labelling. When applying to selective academic institutions, idiosyncrasies and peculiar personal habits, however trivial, are always appreciated as indicators of individuality. Justine veers safely away from the temptation of “playing it safe” by exploring her dedication towards organizing all her possessions, a dedication that has followed her into adolescence.
She also writes from a place of raw honesty and emotion by offering the rationale behind her bizarre passion. Justine's reliance on labelling is underpinned by her yearning for a sense of stability and order in a messy world—an unaffected yearning that readers, to varying degrees, can sympathize with.
She also writes from a place of raw honesty and emotion by offering the rationale behind her bizarre passion. Justine’s reliance on labelling is underpinned by her yearning for a sense of stability and order in a messy world—an unaffected yearning that readers, to varying degrees, can sympathize with. She recognizes, however, it would be imprudent to navigate all facets of life with an unfaltering drive to compartmentalize everything and everyone she encounters.
In doing so, Justine seamlessly transitions to the latter, more pensive half of her personal statement. She extracts several insights by analyzing how, in staunch contrast with her neatly-organized pencil cases, the world is confusing, and rife with contradictions. Within each individual lies yet another world of complexity—as Justine reflects, people can’t be boiled down into “a few words,” and it’s impossible to capture their character, “even with the 26.2 feet of laminated adhesive tape compatible with [her] label maker.”
In concluding, Justine returns back to the premise that started it all, reminding the reader of her take on why compartmentalizing the world would be an ultimately unproductive effort. The most magical part of Justine’s personal statement? It reads easily, flows with imagery, and employs a simple concept—her labelling practices—to introduce a larger, thoughtful conversation.
Elite Educational Institute has been helping students reach their academic goals through test preparation, tutoring, and college consulting services since 1987. Learn more at www.eliteprep.com.
The best compliment I ever received was from my little brother: “My science teacher’s unbelievably good at telling stories,” he announced. “Nearly as good as you.” I thought about that, how I savor a good story the way some people savor last-minute touchdowns.
I learned in biology that I’m composed of 7 × 10 27 atoms, but that number didn’t mean anything to me until I read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. One sentence stayed with me for weeks: “Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you.” It estimates that each human has about 2 billion atoms of Shakespeare hanging around inside—quite a comfort, as I try to write this essay. I thought about every one of my atoms, wondering where they had been and what miracles they had witnessed.
My physical body is a string of atoms, but what of my inner self, my soul, my essence? I've come to the realization that my life has been a string as well, a string of stories.
My physical body is a string of atoms, but what of my inner self, my soul, my essence? I’ve come to the realization that my life has been a string as well, a string of stories. Every one of us is made of star stuff, forged through fires, and emerging as nicked as the surface of the moon. It frustrated me no end that I couldn’t sit down with all the people I met, interrogating them about their lives, identifying every last story that made them who they are.
I remember how magical it was the first time I read a fiction book: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I was duly impressed with Quidditch and the Invisibility Cloak, of course, but I was absolutely spellbound by how much I could learn about Harry. The kippers he had for breakfast, the supplies he bought for Potions—the details everyone skimmed over were remarkable to me. Fiction was a revelation. Here, at last, was a window into another person’s string of stories!
Over the years, I’ve thought long and hard about that immortal question: What superpower would you choose? I considered the usual suspects—invisibility, superhuman strength, flying—but threw them out immediately. My superhero alter ego would be Story Girl. She wouldn’t run marathons, but she could walk for miles and miles in other people’s shoes. She’d know that all it takes for empathy and understanding is the right story.
Imagine my astonishment when I discovered Radiolab on NPR. Here was my imaginary superpower, embodied in real life! I had been struggling with AP Biology, seeing it as a class full of complicated processes and alien vocabulary. That changed radically when I listened, enthralled, as Radiolab traced the effects of dopamine on love and gambling. This was science, sure, but it was science as I’d never heard it before. It contained conflict and emotion and a narrative; it made me anxious to learn more. It wasn’t that I was obtuse for biology; I just hadn’t found the stories in it before.
I’m convinced that you can learn anything in the form of a story. The layperson often writes off concepts—entropy, the Maginot Line, anapestic meter—as too foreign to comprehend. But with the right framing, the world suddenly becomes an open book, enticing and ripe for exploration. I want to become a writer to find those stories, much like Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from Radiolab, making intimidating subjects become familiar and inviting for everyone. I want to become Story Girl.
By combining her previous interest with her newfound love for biology, Carrie is able to highlight how her past experiences have assisted her in overcoming novel challenges. This portrays her as a resilient and resourceful problem-solver: traits that colleges value heavily in their students.
Carrie begins her essay with a fondly-remembered compliment from her brother, introducing her most passionate endeavor: storytelling. By recalling anecdotes related to her love of stories, she establishes herself as a deeply inquisitive and creative person; someone whose greatest virtue is their unfettered thirst for knowledge. Curiosity is greatly prized by colleges, and Carrie’s inclusion of this particular value encourages admissions officers to keep reading.
Going on to explore the intersections between stories and science, Carrie reveals her past difficulties with AP biology; that is, until she learnt about the amazing stories hidden within the subject. By combining her previous interest with her newfound love for biology, Carrie is able to highlight how her past experiences have assisted her in overcoming novel challenges. This portrays her as a resilient and resourceful problem-solver: traits that colleges value heavily in their students.
Carrie ends her essay with her belief that through stories, everything is possible. She expounds on her future ambitions in regards to storytelling, as well as her desire to make learning both fun and accessible to everyone via the power of stories. By comparing her goals to that of a superhero, Carrie is able to emphasise her enthusiasm for contributing to social change. Most importantly, Carrie’s ambitions show how she can contribute to the Harvard community positively, making her a strong applicant.
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I have a fetish for writing.
I’m not talking about crafting prose or verses, or even sentences out of words. But simply constructing letters and characters from strokes of ink gives me immense satisfaction. It’s not quite calligraphy, as I don’t use calligraphic pens or Chinese writing brushes; I prefer it simple, spontaneous, and subconscious. I often find myself crafting characters in the margins of notebooks with a fifty-cent pencil, or tracing letters out of thin air with anything from chopsticks to fingertips.
"One's handwriting," said the ancient Chinese, "is a painting of one's mind." After all, when I practice my handwriting, I am crafting characters. My character.
The art of handwriting is a relic in the information era. Why write when one can type? Perhaps the Chinese had an answer before the advent of keyboards. “One’s handwriting,” said the ancient Chinese, “is a painting of one’s mind.” After all, when I practice my handwriting, I am crafting characters.
I particularly enjoy meticulously designing a character, stroke by stroke, and eventually building up, letter by letter, to a quote personalized in my own voice. Every movement of the pen and every droplet of ink all lead to something profound, as if the arches of every "m" are doorways to revelations. After all, characters are the building blocks of language, and language is the only vehicle through which knowledge unfolds. Thus, in a way, these letters under my pen are themselves representations of knowledge, and the delicate beauty of every letter proves, visually, the intrinsic beauty of knowing. I suppose handwriting reminds me of my conviction in this visual manner: through learning answers are found, lives enriched, and societies bettered.
Moreover, perhaps this strange passion in polishing every single character of a word delineates my dedication to learning, testifies my zeal for my conviction, and sketches a crucial stroke of my character.
"We--must--know ... " the mathematician David Hilbert's voice echoes in resolute cursive at the tip of my pen, as he, addressing German scientists in 1930, propounds the goal of modern intellectuals. My pen firmly nods in agreement with Hilbert, while my mind again fumbles for the path to knowledge.
The versatility of handwriting enthralls me. The Chinese developed many styles -- called hands -- of writing. Fittingly, each hand seems to parallel one of my many academic interests. Characters of the Regular Hand (kai shu), a legible script, serve me well during many long hours when I scratch my head and try to prove a mathematical statement rigorously, as the legibility illuminates my logic on paper. Words of the Running Hand (xing shu), a semi-cursive script, are like the passionate words that I speak before a committee of Model United Nations delegates, propounding a decisive course of action: the words, both spoken and written, are swift and coherent but resolute and emphatic. And strokes of the Cursive Hand (cao shu) resemble those sudden artistic sparks when I deliver a line on stage: free spontaneous, but emphatic syllables travel through the lights like rivers of ink flowing on the page.
Yet the fact that the three distinctive hands cooperate so seamlessly, fusing together the glorious culture of writing, is perhaps a fable of learning, a testament that the many talents of the Renaissance Man could all be worthwhile for enriching human society. Such is my methodology: just like I organize my different hands into a neat personal style with my fetish for writing, I can unify my broad interests with my passion for learning.
“...We -- will -- know!” Hilbert finishes his adage, as I frantically slice an exclamation mark as the final stroke of this painting of my mind.
I must know: for knowing, like well-crafted letters, has an inherent beauty and an intrinsic value. I will know: for my versatile interests in academics will flow like my versatile styles of writing.
I must know and I will know: for my fetish for writing is a fetish for learning.
We learn that he expresses his innermost self through an art that has become a relic within the information age. As we peer into his mind, we learn something essential about Jiafeng's character–that he is irrepressibly drawn to the intricate beauty of pure learning.
Jiafeng’s essay succeeds by using the metaphor of handwriting, and it’s immense physical satisfaction, to showcase the unbounded pleasure of pursuing knowledge. We can visualize spontaneously crafted letters filling his notebooks. We see him trace Chinese characters into air by chopstick and fingertip. We learn that he expresses his innermost self through an art that has become a relic within the information age. As we peer into his mind, we learn something essential about Jiafeng’s character–that he is irrepressibly drawn to the intricate beauty of pure learning.
Jiafeng goes on to reveal that his intellectual pursuit has been shaped by not one but three Chinese styles of handwriting, each reflecting a distinct element of his intellectual growth. We see Jiafeng’s logic when engaged in mathematical proof, rhetorical flair when speaking before Model United Nations, and improvisational spark when delivering lines on stage. He presents these polymath pursuits as united by writing, indicating to readers that his broad interests are all an expression of the same principle of discovery. By the time readers finish Jiafeng’s essay they have no doubts regarding the pleasure he derives from learning–they have experienced him enacting this celebration of thought throughout every line of this well-crafted personal statement.
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“Ella, what did you think of Douglass’s view on Christianity?” I gulped. Increasingly powerful palpitations throbbed in my heart as my eyes darted around the classroom – searching for a profound response to Dr. Franklin’s question. I took a deep breath while reaching the most genuine answer I could conjure.
“Professor, I don’t know.”
Dr. Franklin stared at me blankly as he attempted to interpret the thoughts I didn’t voice. My lack of familiarity with the assigned text wasn’t a consideration that crossed his mind because he was familiar with my past contributions to class discussions. I was a fervent critic of the corrupted culture behind Christianity of the Puritans in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and modern evangelicals involved in the puzzling divinity of Donald Trump. He arched his flummoxed brows as he began to open his mouth.
“Professor, what I mean is that I’m not sure whether or not I even have a say on Douglass’s statements on Christianity in his Narrative of the Life.”
In class, I often separated the culture of Christianity from the religion. To tie these immensely disparate concepts as one and coin it as Christianity would present fallacies that contradict with the Christianity I knew. Lack of tolerance and hostility were products of humans’ sinful nature – not the teachings of Christ. People were just using Christianity as an excuse to exalt themselves rather than the holy name of Jesus. These were the “facts.”
My greatest realization came when Douglass declared Christian slave-holders as the worst slave-holders he ever met because of their deceptive feign of piety and use of Christianity to justify the oppression of their slaves. I realized that I couldn’t bring myself to raise the same argument that I used to convince myself that my Christianity of love was the only true Christianity. To Douglass, Christianity was the opposite. I didn’t want to dismiss his story. People use this sacred religion to spread hatred, and to many, this is the only Christianity they know. Their experiences aren’t any bit falser than mine.
Christianity isn’t the only culture that harbors truth that transcends the “facts.” America’s less of a perfect amalgamation of different ethnic cultures and more of a society severed by tribal conflicts rooted in the long established political culture of the nation. Issues such as racism, white privilege, and gender disparity are highly salient topics of current political discussion. However, during a time when people can use online platforms with algorithms that provide content they want to see, we fail to acknowledge the truth in other people’s experiences and express empathy.
My protective nature drives my desire to connect with different people and build understanding. To do so, however, I step outside my Korean American Southern Baptist paradigm because my experiences do not constitute everyone else's.
As a Korean-American in the South, I am no stranger to intolerance. I remember the countless instances of people mocking my parents for their English pronunciation and my brother’s stutter. Because their words were less eloquent, people deemed their thoughts as less valuable as well. I protect my family and translate their words whenever they have a doctor’s appointment or need more ketchup at McDonald’s. My protective nature drives my desire to connect with different people and build understanding. To do so, however, I step outside my Korean American Southern Baptist paradigm because my experiences do not constitute everyone else’s.
Excluded from the Manichaean narrative of this country, I observe the turmoil in our nation through a separate lens - a blessing and a curse. Not only do I find myself awkwardly fixed in a black vs. white America, but I also fail to define my identity sandwiched between Korean and American. In the end, I find myself stuck amongst the conventional labels and binaries that divide America.
“You seem to work harder than most to understand other people’s points of view,” Dr. Franklin said after I shared these thoughts to the class.
“I find this easier because I spent my childhood assuming that my culture was always the exception,” I replied. As an anomaly, accepting different truths is second nature.
At a time in which the Black Lives Matters movement was sweeping America and racial tension was at a high, Ella was able to offer a powerful and brave perspective: how she feels to be neither Black nor White. The true strength of this essay is its willingness to go where people rarely go in college essays: to race, to politics and to religion.
This is a trait that exists in a powerful independent thinker who could push all kinds of debates forwards - academic ones or otherwise.
Her dedication to her religion is evident - but so is her willingness to question the manipulation of the word ‘Christianty’ for less than genuine purposes. It requires intellectual bravery to ask the hard questions of your own religion as opposed to succumbing to cognitive dissonance. This is a trait that exists in a powerful independent thinker who could push all kinds of debates forwards - academic ones or otherwise.
Her word choice continues to emphasize bravery and strength. “I protect my family” inserts Ella as the shield between her family and the daily racism they experience in the south because of their accents and heritage. Her humorous quirks show the insidious racism. She even needs to shield her family from the humble request for some more Ketchup at McDonalds! Imagine if one is nervous to ask for some more Ketchup and even such a mundane activity becomes difficult through the friction of racial tension and misunderstanding. This is a powerful way to deliver a sobering commentary on the real state of society through Ellen’s lived experiences.
She demonstrates her intellectual prowess in her discussion of somewhat high-brow topics but also grounds herself in the descriptions of her daily acts of kindness.
She connects major societal debates (Trumpism for example) with daily experiences (her translations at the doctor’s office) with a gentle but powerful cadence. She demonstrates her intellectual prowess in her discussion of somewhat high-brow topics but also grounds herself in the descriptions of her daily acts of kindness.
Creatively Ella weaves numerous literary devices in and out of her story without them being overbearing. These include alliteration and the juxtaposition of longer sentences with shorter ones to make a point.
Her final dialogue is subtle but booming. “....my culture was the exception”. The reader is left genuinely sympathetic for her plight, challenges and bravery as she goes about her daily life.
Ella is a bold independent thinker with a clear social conscience and an ability to wade in the ambiguity and challenge of an imperfect world.
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"Paint this vase before you leave today," my teacher directed as she placed foreign brushes and paints in my hands. I looked at her blankly. Where were the charts of colors and books of techniques? Why was her smile so decidedly encouraging? The sudden expectations made no sense.
She smiled. "Don't worry, just paint."
In a daze, I assembled my supplies the way the older students did. I was scared. I knew everything but nothing. And even in those first blissful moments of experimentation, it hurt to realize that my painting was all wrong. The gleam of light. The distorted reflection. A thousand details taunted me with their refusal to melt into the glass. The vase was lifeless at best.
As the draining hours of work wore on, I began wearing reckless holes in my mixing plate. It was my fourth hour here. Why had I not received even a single piece of guidance?
At the peak of my frustration, she finally reentered the studio, yawning with excruciating casualness. I felt myself snap.
"I barely know how to hold a brush," I muttered almost aggressively, "how could I possibly have the technique to paint this?"
She looked at me with a shocked innocence that only heightened the feeling of abandonment. "What do you mean you don't have the technique?"
It was as though she failed to realize I was a complete beginner.
And then suddenly she broke into a pitch of urgent obviousness: "What are you doing! Don't you see those details?? There's orange from the wall and light brown from the floor. There's even dark green from that paint box over there. You have to look at the whole picture," she stole a glance at my face of bewilderment, and, sighing, grabbed my paint,stained hand. "Listen, it's not in here," she implored, shaking my captive limb. "It's here." The intensity with which she looked into my eyes was overwhelming.
I returned the gaze emptily. Never had I been so confused…
But over the years I did begin to see. The shades of red and blue in gray concrete, the tints of Phthalo in summer skies, and winter’s Currelean. It was beautiful and illogical. Black was darker with green and red, and white was never white.
I began to study animals. The proportions and fan brush techniques were certainly difficult, but they were the simple part. It was the strategic tints of light and bold color that created life. I would spend hours discovering the exact blue that would make a fish seem on the verge of tears and hours more shaping a deer’s ears to speak of serenity instead of danger.
As I run faster into the heart of art and my love for politics and law, I will learn to see the faces behind each page of cold policy text, the amazing innovation sketched in the tattered Constitution, and the progressiveness living in oak-paneled courts.
In return for probing into previously ignored details, my canvas and paints opened the world. I began to appreciate the pink kiss of ever-evolving sunsets and the even suppression of melancholy. When my father came home from a business trip, it was no longer a matter of simple happiness, but of fatigue and gladness' underlying shades. The personalities who had once seemed so annoyingly arrogant now turned soft with their complexities of doubt and inspiration. Each mundane scene is as deep and varied as the paint needed to capture it.
One day, I will learn to paint people. As I run faster into the heart of art and my love for politics and law, I will learn to see the faces behind each page of cold policy text, the amazing innovation sketched in the tattered Constitution, and the progressiveness living in oak-paneled courts.
It won’t be too far. I know that in a few years I will see a thousand more colors than I do today. Yet the most beautiful part about art is that there is no end. No matter how deep I penetrate its shimmering realms, the enigmatic caverns of wonder will stay.
My favorite college essays begin with one moment in time and end by tying that moment into a larger truth about the world. In this essay, Elizabeth uses this structure masterfully.
This essay is a great example of a create essay. It's real strength, however, lies in showing how the writer pursues her goal despite frustration and grapples with universal questions.
The essay opens with dialogue, placing the reader right in the middle of the action. She shares only the details that make the scene vivid, like the holes in her mixing plate and her teacher’s yawn. She skips backstory and explanations that can bore readers and bog down a short essay. The reader is left feeling as though we are sitting beside her, staring at an empty vase and a set of paints, with no idea how to begin.
The SPARC method of essay writing says that the best college essays show how a student can do one (or more) of these five things: Seize an opportunity, Pursue goals despite obstacles, Ask important questions, take smart Risks, or Create with limited resources. This essay is a great example of a “create” essay. It’s real strength, however, lies in showing how the writer pursues her goal despite frustration and grapples with universal questions.
As the essay transitions from the personal to the universal, her experience painting the vase becomes a metaphor for how she sees the world. Not only has painting helped her appreciate the subtle shades of color in the sunset, it has opened her up to understand that nothing in life is black and white. This parallel works especially well as a way to draw the connection between Elizabeth’s interest in political science and art.
Written by Joy Bullen, Senior Editor at College Confidential
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I entered the surprisingly cool car. Since when is Beijing Line 13 air-conditioned? I’ll take it. At four o’clock in the afternoon only about twenty people were in the subway car. “At least it’s not crowded,” one might have thought. Wrong. The pressure of their eyes on me filled the car and smothered me. “看看！她是外国人！”(Look, look! She’s a foreigner!) An old man very loudly whispered to a child curled up in his lap. “Foreigner,” he called me. I hate that word, “foreigner.” It only explains my exterior. If only they could look inside.…
I want to keep reading because there is something she is saying about her identity--be it performative or actual--that I am curious about.
They would know that I actually speak Chinese—not just speak, but love. They would know that this love was born from my first love of Latin—the language that fostered my admiration of all languages. Latin lives in the words we speak around the world today. And translating this ancient language is like watching a play and performing in it at the same time. Each word is an adventure, and on the journey through Virgil’s Aeneid I found that I am more like Aeneas than any living, dead, or fictional hero I know. We share the intrinsic value of loyalty to friends, family, and society. We stand true to our own word, and we uphold others to theirs. Like Aeneas’s trek to find a new settlement for his collapsed Troy, with similar perseverance I, too, wander the seas for my own place in the world. Language has helped me do that.
If these subway passengers understood me, they would know that the very reason I sat beside them was because of Latin. Even before Aeneas and his tale, I met Caecilius and Grumio, characters in my first Latin textbook. In translations I learned grammar alongside Rome’s rich history. I realized how learning another language could expose me to other worlds and other people—something that has always excited me. I also realized that if I wanted to know more about the world and the people in it, I would have to learn a spoken language. Spanish, despite the seven years of study prior to Latin, did not stick with me. And the throatiness of French was not appealing. But Chinese, more than these other traditional languages, intrigued me. The doors to new worlds it could open seemed endless. Thus I chose Chinese.
If these subway passengers looked inside me, they would find that my knowledge of both Latin and Chinese makes me feel whole. It feels like the world of the past is flowing through me alongside the world of the future. Thanks to Latin, Chinese sticks in my mind like the Velcro on the little boy’s shoes in front of me. If this little boy and his family and friends could look inside, they would understand that Latin laid the foundation for my lifelong commitment to languages. Without words, thoughts and actions would be lost in the space between our ears. To them, I am a foreigner, “外国人” literally translated as “out-of-country person.” I feel, however, more like an advena, the Latin word for “foreigner,” translated as “(one who) comes to (this place).” I came to this place, and I came to this country to stay. Unfortunately, they will not know this until I speak. Then once I speak, the doors will open.
Your college essay should serve two purposes: allow the reader to gain insights about you that they are not able to do in other parts of your application and provide an example of your writing abilities. To the former, you are hoping to demonstrate five soft skills that most colleges are at least implicitly interested in gleaning, those that indicate your capacity to be a good student at their institution.
Alex arrives at both goals in an interesting way. Without seeing the rest of her application, I can only assume that she is possibly interested in pursuing a major in a language (if she is pursuing a major in an applied math, this essay would be extremely interesting) and she has likely participated in some kind of team sport to demonstrate the soft skill of teamwork. To be honest, as someone who speaks five languages myself and studied Latin in undergrad, I don’t necessarily agree with her assessment of the languages. BUT I’m interested. I want to keep reading. She isn’t supposed to get everything right in this essay; she’s supposed to demonstrate a capacity for learning. And she does that.
I want to keep reading because there is something she is saying about her identity--be it performative or actual--that I am curious about.
I want to keep reading because there is something she is saying about her identity--be it performative or actual--that I am curious about. With our work in college access and admissions, we’ve only worked in underserved communities, be they students of color or girls interested in STEM or first-generation college students or more. People make an assumption that we are exploiting these identities into sob stories that admissions readers will immediately hang on to. We’re not doing that. We are encouraging students to write about something similar to what Alex did—describe how your identity has created a learning opportunity or a moment of resilience or determination. Alex seems like someone who is well resourced: her access to certain text; language curricula and the amount of time she spent studying those languages; even her sentence structure, gives that away. But her openness to adapt with humility is a critical skill that is so necessary to be a great student, and unfortunately a skill that many students miss.
For the second goal, she does a tremendous job of demonstrating her writing abilities. Her sentence structures are varied and there aren’t egregious mistakes in grammar and spelling. The last two sentences of the second paragraph sold me on her skill-level and personhood. I also really appreciated that she wasn’t shying away from what she has been able to access as far as her schooling. Alex is smart, witty, and well-traveled, and you’re going to know it. I love that.
The essay works as an introduction to who she is and her soft skills, as well as a demonstration of her writing abilities.
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I had never seen houses floating down a river. Minutes before there had not even been a river. An immense wall of water was destroying everything in its wake, picking up fishing boats to smash them against buildings. It was the morning of March 11, 2011. Seeing the images of destruction wrought by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I felt as if something within myself was also being shaken, for I had just spent two of the happiest summers of my life there.
In the summer of my freshman year, I received the Kikkoman National Scholarship, which allowed me to travel to Japan to stay with a host family in Tokyo for ten weeks. I arrived just as the swine flu panic gripped the world, so I was not allowed to attend high school with my host brother, Yamato. Instead, I took Japanese language, judo, and karate classes and explored the confusing sprawl of the largest city in the world. I spent time with the old men of my neighborhood in the onsen, or hot spring, questioning them about the Japan of their youth. They laughed and told me that if I wanted to see for myself, I should work on a farm.
The next summer I returned to Japan, deciding to heed the old men’s advice and volunteer on a farm in Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. I spent two weeks working more than fourteen hours a day. I held thirty-pound bags of garlic with one hand while trying to tie them to a rope hanging from the ceiling with the other, but couldn’t hold the bags in the air long enough. Other days were spent pulling up endless rows of daikon, or Japanese radish, which left rashes on my arms that itched for weeks. Completely exhausted, I stumbled back to the farmhouse, only to be greeted by the family’s young children who were eager to play. I passed out every night in a room too small for me to straighten my legs. One day, I overslept a lunch break by two hours. I awoke mortified, and hurried to the father. After I apologized in the most polite form of Japanese, his face broke into a broad grin. He patted me on the back and said, “You are a good worker, Anthony. There is no need to apologize.” This single exchange revealed the true spirit of the Japanese farmer. The family had lived for years in conditions that thoroughly wore me out in only a few days. I had missed two hours of work, yet they were still perpetually thankful to me. In their life of unbelievable hardship, they still found room for compassion.
In their life of unbelievable hardship, they still found room for compassion.
When I had first gone to Tokyo, I had sought the soul of the nation among its skyscrapers and urban hot springs. The next summer I spurned the beaten track in an attempt to discover the true spirit of Japan. While lugging enormously heavy bags of garlic and picking daikon, I found that spirit. The farmers worked harder than anyone I have ever met, but they still made room in their hearts for me. So when the tsunami threatened the people to whom I owed so much, I had to act. Remembering the lesson of compassion I learned from the farm family, I started a fund-raiser in my community called “One Thousand Cranes for Japan.” Little more than two weeks later, we had raised over $8,000 and a flock of one thousand cranes was on its way to Japan.
This essay is very clean and straightforward. Anthony wisely uses imagery from a well-known historic event, the 2011 tsunami, to set the scene for his story. He visited Japan for two summers and provides depth about what he learned: In his first summer, he explored Tokyo and studied the language and culture; in his second summer, he lived in rural Japan and worked long hours on a farm.
We like to see how applicants learn, grow or change from the beginning to the end - and Anthony rightfully spends more time describing the hard work and lifestyle of farming and what he learned from this experience.
The beauty of the essay actually lies in its simplicity. Admittedly, it is not a groundbreaking or original essay in the way he tells his story; instead, Anthony comes across as someone who is very interesting, hardworking, intellectually curious, dedicated, humble and likable - all traits that admissions officers are seeking in applicants.
We like to see how applicants learn, grow or change from the beginning to the end - and Anthony rightfully spends more time describing the hard work and lifestyle of farming and what he learned from this experience. Anthony concludes with a reference to his opening paragraph about the tsunami, and impresses the reader with his fundraising to help victims.
It is not necessarily missing, but perhaps a sentence or two could have been added to explain why Anthony was in Japan in the first place. What was his connection to the country, language or culture? Does it tie into an academic interest? If so, that would make his already strong essay even stronger in the eyes of admissions officers.