I. INTRODUCTION: THE ADMISSIONS ESSAY
Writing a college admissions essay is an admittedly daunting task. Most likely, you have been repeatedly told that these five hundred painstakingly crafted words must complete the intimidating mission of distinguishing yourself from the legions of other college applicants, in order to leave your own personalized mark on the admissions officers. You’ve probably been reminded that your essay should strike a balance between being compelling and insightful, but not too contrived. You’ve likely heard varying accounts of how important the admissions essay actually is: from those who swear by their writing and predict that this little essay steered them clear of the rejection pile; to others who humbly say they were probably accepted in spite of their essay. With all the academic and extracurricular work that consumes what spare time you have outside of the application process, it’s almost certain that college essays aren’t what you’d like to be worrying about on your weekends.
At the same time, the admissions essay can be a boon to your application if approached carefully. Each year, college admissions rates plunge as the number of applicants grows, and the size of rÃ©sumÃ©s and activities lists expands. For applicants to competitive universities and Ivy League schools, having a top grade point average (GPA) along with sporting and musical prowess may not guarantee admission. The personal statement, however, is a blank slate that allows you to share and emphasize the qualities that make you stand out. It permits you to make a creative, distinctive, and even emotional appeal directly to the admissions officers. In a process dominated by test scores and statistics, the admissions essay provides a much-needed human touch. But where do you even start to find ideas for the essay, let alone write?
That’s what we’re here to help you do: navigate the confusing advice and vague guidance that pervades the current essay-writing process. We’ve provided you ten tips for writing a standout admissions essay, and we’ve included fifty real essays written by students who were ultimately accepted to Harvard Collegeâwith the expectation that these will give you a clearer sense of what works and what doesn’t. As fellow students who have been through the college application process, we understand the questions and concerns that essay-writers often face, and in this book, we seek to provide straightforward and realistic advice that will help steer you toward success.
In the end, however, there is no single formula to writing a successful admissions essayâjust as there is no single recipe for being a successful college applicant. In many cases, you’re given free rein to write what ever you wish. You’re the only one who can identify your greatest strengths and most debilitating weaknesses, and only you can weave that insight into a personal statement. Only you are able to articulate how different people and different experiences have molded you into the person you are today. The immense control that you have over your statement’s content and style is what makes the college admissions essay so challenging to writeâand incredibly revealing.
The Harvard Crimson has compiled some tried-and-true guidelines that will be helpful for writing almost any college admissions essay. Here are ten tips for you to keep in mind as you embark on the writing process:
1. Start thinking about the essay early. We understand that it isn’t always feasible to start writing months in advance. Nevertheless, as you barrel through your senior fall, keep an eye out for potential essay topics. Read through some essays that have worked in the past to get an idea of what an admissions essay ought to look like. Consider what you’re passionate about and why. Think back through your years and identify experiences, people, places, or lessons that have shaped your character and personality. Finding an essay topic is arguably the most challenging part of the whole process, so give yourself plenty of time to think of something that you really care about. Don’t be afraid to scrap ideas, even late in the process, if you come across something betterâyou’ll find that if your topic is heartfelt, the writing will come naturally.
2. Think strategically. The admissions essay is your opportunity to set yourself apart, to elaborate on who you are beyond your grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities. Spend the necessary time to reflect on yourself and your experiences, and get to know your strengths and weaknesses. This will help guide you in searching for a good essay topic. When writing, don’t rehash what’s already evident in your rÃ©sumÃ© or application, and don’t take on too muchâyou only have five hundred words. It’s often better to delve deeply into a single experience, showing that you are an observant individual capable of honest self-reflection, than to provide a superficial exposition of interesting aspects of your life. Talk about your hobbies, play up your unusual talents or areas of expertise, or describe something formative from your past. The possibilities are endlessâbe creative and find something that will supplement the rest of your application well.
3. Realize that the topic isn’t everything. Sure, some ideasâsuch as winning the state soccer championshipâhave probably been written about many, many times before you came along, and you should try to avoid those topics unless you can add something unique to the tale. Remember that your topic doesn’t have to be grandiose or sweepingâsometimes, seemingly mundane experiences, such as that summer job you once had, can be the launching point into a colorful and telling insight. Not everyone has exotic experiences or prodigious talents to showcase, but certainly every applicant has a unique and interesting background to illuminate. Creativity, thoughtful analysis, and skilled writing can make even the most routine happenings exciting. Take the time to think about your topic from various angles and figure out the best way to couch the material; showing that you can explain the “how” and the “why” of your topic is often more important than simply stating the “what.”
In 2005, I applied to college and got into every school I applied to, including Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT. I decided to attend Harvard.
In this guide, I’ll show you the entire college application that got me into Harvard - page by page, word for word.
In my complete analysis, I'll take you through my Common Application, Harvard supplemental application, personal statements and essays, extracurricular activities, teachers' letters of recommendation, counselor recommendation, complete high school transcript, and more. I’ll also give you in-depth commentary on every part of my application.
To my knowledge, a college application analysis like this has never been done before. This is the application guide I wished I had when I was in high school.
If you’re applying to top schools like the Ivy Leagues, you’ll see firsthand what a successful application to Harvard and Princeton looks like. You’ll learn the strategies I used to build a compelling application. You’ll see what items were critical in getting me admitted, and what didn’t end up helping much at all.
Reading this guide from beginning to end will be well worth your time - you might completely change your college application strategy as a result.
First Things First
Here’s the letter offering me admission into Harvard College under Early Action.
I was so thrilled when I got this letter. It validated many years of hard work, and I was excited to take my next step into college (...and work even harder).
I received similar successful letters from every college I applied to: Princeton, Stanford, and MIT. (After getting into Harvard early, I decided not to apply to Yale, Columbia, UChicago, UPenn, and other Ivy League-level schools, since I already knew I would rather go to Harvard.)
The application that got me admitted everywhere is the subject of this guide. You're going to see everything that the admissions officers saw.
If you’re hoping to see an acceptance letter like this in your academic future, I highly recommend you read this entire article. I'll start first with an introduction to this guide and important disclaimers. Then I'll share the #1 question you need to be thinking about as you construct your application. Finally, we'll spend a lot of time going through every page of my college application, both the Common App and the Harvard Supplemental App.
Important Note: the foundational principles of my application are explored in detail in my How to Get Into Harvard guide. In this popular guide, I explain:
- what top schools like the Ivy League are looking for
- how to be truly distinctive among thousands of applicants
- why being well-rounded is the kiss of death
If you have the time and are committed to maximizing your college application success, I recommend you read through my Harvard guide first, then come back to this one.
You might also be interested in my other two major guides:
What’s in This Harvard Application Guide?
From my student records, I was able to retrieve the COMPLETE original application I submitted to Harvard. Page by page, word for word, you’ll see everything exactly as I presented it: extracurricular activities, awards and honors, personal statements and essays, and more.
In addition to all this detail, there are two special parts of this college application breakdown that I haven’t seen anywhere else:
- You’ll see my FULL recommendation letters and evaluation forms. This includes recommendations from two teachers, one principal, and supplementary writers. Normally you don’t get to see these letters because you waive access to them when applying. You’ll see how effective strong teacher advocates will be to your college application, and why it’s so important to build strong relationships with your letter writers.
- You’ll see the exact pen marks made by my Harvard admissions reader on my application. Members of admissions committees consider thousands of applications every year, which means they highlight the pieces of each application they find noteworthy. You'll see what the admissions officer considered important - and what she didn't.
For every piece of my application, I’ll provide commentary on what made it so effective and my strategies behind creating it. You'll learn what it takes to build a compelling overall application.
Importantly, even though my application was strong, it wasn't perfect. I'll point out mistakes I made that I could have corrected to build an even stronger application.
Here’s a complete table of contents for what we’ll be covering. Each link goes directly to that section, although I'd recommend you read this from beginning to end on your first go.
Teacher and Counselor Recommendations
Harvard Application Supplement
Final Advice for You
I mean it - you'll see literally everything in my application.
In revealing my teenage self, some parts of my application will be pretty embarrassing (you'll see why below). But my mission through my company PrepScholar is to give the world the most helpful resources possible, so I’m publishing it.
One last thing before we dive in – I’m going to anticipate some common concerns beforehand and talk through important disclaimers so that you’ll get the most out of this guide.
My biggest caveat for you when reading this guide: thousands of students get into Harvard and Ivy League schools every year. This guide tells a story about one person and presents one archetype of a strong applicant. As you’ll see, I had a huge academic focus, especially in science (this was my Spike). I’m also irreverent and have a strong, direct personality.
What you see in this guide is NOT what YOU need to do to get into Harvard, especially if you don’t match my interests and personality at all.
As I explain in my Harvard guide, I believe I fit into one archetype of a strong applicant – the academic superstar. There are other distinct ways to impress, like:
- being world-class in a non-academic talent
- achieving something difficult and noteworthy – building a meaningful organization, writing a novel
- coming from tremendous adversity and performing remarkably well relative to expectations
Therefore, DON’T worry about copying my approach one-for-one. Don’t worry if you’re taking a different number of AP courses or have lower test scores or do different extracurriculars or write totally different personal statements. This is what schools like Stanford and Yale want to see – a diversity in the student population!
The point of this guide is to use my application as a vehicle to discuss what top colleges are looking for in strong applicants. Even though the specific details of what you'll do are different from what I did, the principles are the same. What makes a candidate truly stand out is the same, at a high level. What makes for a super strong recommendation letter is the same. The strategies on how to build a cohesive, compelling application are the same.
There’s a final reason you shouldn’t worry about replicating my work – the application game has probably changed a bit since 2005. Technology is much more pervasive, the social issues teens care about are different, the extracurricular activities that are truly noteworthy have probably gotten even more advanced. What I did might not be as impressive as it used to be. So focus on my general points, not the specifics, and think about how you can take what you learn here to achieve something even greater than I ever did.
With that major caveat aside, here are a string of smaller disclaimers.
I’m going to present my application factually and be 100% straightforward about what I achieved and what I believed was strong in my application. This is what I believe will be most helpful for you. I hope you don’t misinterpret this as bragging about my accomplishments. I’m here to show you what it took for me to get into Harvard, not to ask for your admiration. So if you read this guide and are tempted to dismiss my advice because you think I'm boasting, take a step back and focus on the big picture - how you'll improve yourself.
This guide is geared toward admissions into the top colleges in the country, often with admissions rates below 10%. A sample list of schools that fit into this: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, MIT, UChicago, Duke, UPenn, CalTech, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Brown. The top 3-5 in that list are especially looking for the absolute best students in the country, since they have the pick of the litter.
Admissions for these selective schools works differently from schools with >20% rates. For less selective schools, having an overall strong, well-rounded application is sufficient for getting in. In particular, having an above average GPA and test scores goes the majority of the way toward getting you admission to those schools. The higher the admission rate, the more emphasis will be placed on your scores. The other pieces I’ll present below – personal statements, extracurriculars, recommendations – will matter less.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to aim for a stronger application. To state the obvious, an application strong enough to get you Columbia will get you into UCLA handily.
In my application, I’ve redacted pieces of my application for privacy reasons, and one supplementary recommendation letter at the request of the letter writer. Everything else is unaltered.
Throughout my application, we can see marks made by the admissions officer highlighting and circling things of note (you'll see the first example on the very first page). I don’t have any other applications to compare these to, so I’m going to interpret these marks as best I can. For the most part, I assume that whatever he underlines or circles is especially important and noteworthy – points that he’ll bring up later in committee discussions. It could also be that the reader got bored and just started highlighting things, but I doubt this.
Finally, I co-founded and run a company called PrepScholar. We create online SAT/ACT prep programs that adapt to you and your strengths and weaknesses. I believe we’ve created the best prep program available, and if you feel you need to raise your SAT/ACT score, then I encourage you to check us out. I want to emphasize that you do NOT need to buy a prep program to get a great score, and the advice in this guide has little to do with my company. But if you’re aren’t sure how to improve your score and agree with our unique approach to SAT/ACT prep, our program may be perfect for you.
With all this past us, let’s get started.
The #1 Most Important College Application Question: What Is Your PERSONAL NARRATIVE?
If you stepped into an elevator with Yale’s Dean of Admissions and you had ten seconds to describe yourself and why you’re interesting, what would you say?
This is what I call your PERSONAL NARRATIVE. These are the three main points that represent who you are and what you’re about. This is the story that you tell through your application, over and over again. This is how an admissions officer should understand you after just glancing through your application. This is how your admissions officer will present you to the admissions committee to advocate for why they should accept you.
The more unique and noteworthy your Personal Narrative is, the better. This is how you’ll stand apart from the tens of thousands of other applicants to your top choice school. This is why I recommend so strongly that you develop a Spike to show deep interest and achievement. A compelling Spike is the core of your Personal Narrative.
Well-rounded applications do NOT form compelling Personal Narratives, because “I’m a well-rounded person who’s decent at everything” is the exact same thing every other well-rounded person tries to say.
Everything in your application should support your Personal Narrative, from your course selection and extracurricular activities to your personal statements and recommendation letters. You are a movie director, and your application is your way to tell a compelling, cohesive story through supporting evidence.
Yes, this is overly simplistic and reductionist. It does not represent all your complexities and your 17 years of existence. But admissions offices don’t have the time to understand this for all their applicants. Your PERSONAL NARRATIVE is what they will latch onto.
Here’s what I would consider my Personal Narrative (humor me since I’m peacocking here):
1) A science obsessive with years of serious research work and ranked 6th in a national science competition, with future goals of being a neuroscientist or physician
2) Balanced by strong academic performance in all subjects (4.0 GPA and perfect test scores, in both humanities and science) and proficiency in violin
3) An irreverent personality who doesn’t take life too seriously, embraces controversy, and says what’s on his mind
These three elements were the core to my application. Together they tell a relatively unique Personal Narrative that distinguishes me from many other strong applicants. You get a surprisingly clear picture of what I’m about. There’s no question that my work in science was my “Spike” and was the strongest piece of my application, but my Personal Narrative included other supporting elements, especially a description of my personality.
This might be what you're picturing as you read this Personal Narrative, which is good, because it's distinctive.
A good test of a strong Personal Narrative: if you swap out one item in the Personal Narrative, you'll get a feeling of a completely different person.
It’s far easier to grasp onto three strong points about a person than ten different thin threads. This, again, is why being well-rounded is so deadly – mix ten different paint colors together and you end up with an unappealing, indistinguishable mess.
Note also that point #2 is probably the weakest, least unique part of the Personal Narrative. Most people applying to top colleges have great test scores and grades, so this is rarely distinguishing by itself. By point #2, I meant to say that I wasn’t 100% hardcore science geek and was competent in other aspects of life.
Throughout the rest of my guide, I will keep referring back to my Personal Narrative so that you’ll see how strongly each piece of my application reinforces it, from my extracurriculars to personal statements and recommendation letters. You should get a very strong flavor of who I am, which is the hallmark of a memorable, effective application.
I’ll end this guide with strategies and questions for you to ponder for yourself. The major question for you to ponder as you read is – what is YOUR Personal Narrative, and how are you going to show it through every component of your application?
My College Application, at a High Level
Drilling down into more details, here’s an overview of my application.
- I had a 4.0 GPA, unweighted, with 12 AP courses (5 in senior year). I got perfect SAT and ACT scores (1600 and 36) and seven 5’s on AP courses by the time I applied.
- This put me comfortably in the 99th percentile in the country, but it was NOT sufficient to get me into Harvard by itself! Because there are roughly 4 million high school students per year, the top 1 percentile still has 40,000 students. You need other ways to set yourself apart.
- My extracurriculars and awards were what really got me into Harvard. In particular, I ranked nationally in the top 20 in the US National Chemistry Olympiad, and I participated in Research Science Institute, what was then (and may still be now) the most prestigious science research program for high school students.
- Your Spike will most often come from your extracurriculars and academic honors, just because it’s hard to really set yourself apart with your coursework and test scores.
- My letters of recommendation were very strong. Both my recommending teachers marked me as “one of the best they’d ever taught.” Importantly, they corroborated my Personal Narrative, especially regarding my personality. You’ll see how below.
- My personal statements were, in retrospect, just satisfactory. They represented my humorous and irreverent side well, but they come across as too self-satisfied. Because of my Spike, I don’t think my essays were as important to my application.
Finally, let's get started by digging into the very first pages of my Common Application.
My Complete Common Application, Page by Page
To set the stage, I applied Early Action to Harvard early in senior year, and this is the application I used to get in early. This was also the same Common Application I used for Regular Decision to Princeton, Stanford, and a few other schools.
Let’s start with the Common Application, which will form the bulk of the application. Then we’ll go into the Harvard supplemental application. Both applications have changed in format a bit since 2005, so I’ll be indicating what each section is now known as in the latest Common Application.
Now known as: Profile
This is a straightforward section where you list your basic information. But as I point out below, a lot is conveyed about you through just a few questions.
I’ve redacted some stuff here for privacy reasons.
There are a few notable points about how simple questions can actually help build a first impression around what your Personal Narrative is.
First, notice the circle around my email address. This is the first of many marks the admissions officer made on my application. The reason I think he circled this was that the email address I used is a joke pun on my name. I knew it was risky to use this vs something like email@example.com, but I thought it showed my personality better (remember point #3 about having an irreverent personality in my Personal Narrative).
Don’t be afraid to show who you really are, rather than your perception of what they want. What you think UChicago or Stanford wants is probably VERY wrong, because of how little information you have, both as an 18-year-old and as someone who hasn't read thousands of applications.
(It’s also entirely possible that it’s a formality to circle email addresses, so I don’t want to read too much into it, but I think I’m right.)
Second, I knew in high school that I wanted to go into the medical sciences, either as a physician or as a scientist. I was also really into studying the brain. So I listed both in my Common App to build onto my Personal Narrative.
In the long run, both predictions turned out to be wrong. After college, I did go to Harvard Medical School for the MD/PhD program for 4 years, but I left to pursue entrepreneurship and co-founded PrepScholar. Moreover, in the time I did actually do research, I switched interests from neuroscience to bioengineering/biotech.
Colleges don’t expect you to stick to career goals you stated at the age of 18. Figuring out what you want to do is the point of college! But this doesn't give you an excuse to avoid showing a preference. This early question is still a chance to build that Personal Narrative.
Thus, Irecommend AGAINST "Undecided" as an area of study – it suggests a lack of flavor and is hard to build a compelling story around. From your high school work thus far, you should at least be leaning to something, even if that’s likely to change in the future.
Finally, in the demographic section there is a big red A, possibly for Asian American. I’m not going to read too much into this. If you’re a notable minority, this is where you’d indicate it.
Now known as: Education
This section was straightforward for me. I didn’t take college courses, and I took a summer chemistry class at a nearby high school because I didn’t get into the lottery at my school that year (I refer to this briefly in my 4.0 GPA guide).
The most notable point of this section: the admissions officer circled Principal here. This is notable because our school Principal only wrote letters for fewer than 10 students each year. Counselors wrote letters for the other hundreds of students in my class, which made my application stand out just a little.
I’ll talk more about this below, when I share the Principal’s recommendation.
(In the current Common Application, the Education section also includes Grades, Courses, and Honors. We’ll be covering each of those below).
Now known as: Testing
Back then AP scores weren’t part of this section, but I’ll take them from another part of my application here.
I scored a perfect 1600 on my SAT (the SAT changed to a 2400 scale in 2005, and it’s changed back to 1600 in 2016), a 36 on my ACT, 800’s on all but one SAT Subject Test, and seven 5’s on AP tests.
I need to make one very important point that stresses a lot of students and parents out.
You do NOT need perfect scores to get into Harvard, Princeton, Yale or other top schools.
It’s true that colleges want you to take a very demanding courseload and to excel academically. After all, schools like Harvard have the pick of the litter, and there are plenty of students who get super high test scores AND have amazing achievements. Remember, over 40,000 students fit in the top 1 percentile of students nationwide.
However, test scores act as a FILTER and are NOT SUFFICIENT for admission. Top schools are generally looking to see that you fit in the top 1 percentile of the country. But within that 1 percentile, your score does NOT make a big difference in your chances of admission.
Just a sanity check: the average SAT score at Harvard is a 1540. The 75th percentile is a 1600, and the 25th percentile is a 1470. For the ACT, that’s an average of 34, and a 75th percentile of 35 and a 25th percentile of 32.
In other words, a 1530 on the SAT is NOT going to significantly change your chances, compared to a perfect 1600. In their eyes, you’ve already proven yourself academically. They know that there is some amount of chance every time you take a test, so a 1600 is more or less equivalent to a 1530.
NO ONE looked at my test scores alone and thought, "Wow, based on his GPA and test scores, Allen really deserves admission!”
However, their standards are still very high. You really do want to be in that top 1 percentile to pass the filter. A 1400 on the SAT IS going to put you at a disadvantage because there are so many students scoring higher than you. You’ll really have to dig yourself out of the hole with an amazing application.
I talk about this a lot more in my Get into Harvard guide (sorry to keep linking this, but I really do think it's an important guide for you to read).
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Let’s end this section with some personal notes.
Even though math and science were easy for me, I had to put in serious effort to get an 800 on the Reading section of the SAT. As much as I wish I could say it was trivial for me, it wasn’t. I learned a bunch of strategies and dissected the test to get to a point where I understood the test super well and reliably earned perfect scores.
I cover the most important points in my How to Get a Perfect SAT Score guide, as well as my 800 Guides for Reading, Writing, and Math.
Between the SAT and ACT, the SAT was my primary focus, but I decided to take the ACT for fun. The tests were so similar that I scored a 36 Composite without much studying. Having two test scores is completely unnecessary – you get pretty much zero additional credit. Again, with one test score, you have already passed their filter.
Finally, SAT Subject Tests are pretty easy if you get a 5 on the corresponding AP tests.
Now known as: Family (still)
This section asks for your parent information and family situation. There’s not much you can do here besides report the facts.
I’m redacting a lot of stuff again for privacy reasons.
The reader made a number of marks here for occupation and education. There's likely a standard code for different types of occupations and schools.
If I were to guess, I’d say that the numbers add to form some metric of “family prestige.” My dad got a Master’s at a middle-tier American school, but my mom didn’t go to graduate school, and these sections were marked 2 and 3, respectively. So it seems higher numbers are given for less prestigious educations by your parents. I'd expect that if both my parents went to schools like Caltech and Dartmouth, there would be even lower numbers here.
This makes me think that the less prepared your family is, the more points you get, and this might give your application an extra boost. If you were the first one in your family to go to college, for example, you’d be excused for having lower test scores and fewer AP classes. Schools really do care about your background and how you performed relative to expectations.
In the end, schools like Harvard say pretty adamantly they don’t use formulas to determine admissions decisions, so I wouldn’t read too much into this. But this can be shorthand to help orient an applicant's family background.
Extracurricular, Personal, and Volunteer Activities
Now known as: Activities
For most applicants, your Extracurriculars and your Academic Honors will be where you develop your Spike and where your Personal Narrative shines through. This was how my application worked.
Just below I’ll describe the activities in more detail, but first I want to reflect on this list.
As instructed, my extracurriculars were listed in the order of their interest to me. The current Common App doesn’t seem to ask for this, but I would still recommend it to focus your reader’s attention.
The most important point I have to make about my extracurriculars: as you go down the list, there is a HUGE drop in the importance of each additional activity to the overall application. If I were to guess, I assign the following weights to how much each activity contributed to the strength of my activities section:
Contribution to Application
Research Science Institute 2004
Jisan Research Institute
Pasadena Young Musicians Orchestra
Science Olympiad/Science Bowl/Math Team
City of Hope Medical Center
Hospital Quartet Performances
In other words, participating in the Research Science Institute (RSI) was far more important than all of my other extracurriculars, combined. You can see that this was the only activity my admissions reader circled.
You can see how Spike-y this is. The RSI just completely dominates all my other activities.
The reason for this is the prestige of RSI. As I noted earlier, RSI was (and likely still is) the most prestigious research program for high school students in the country, with an admission rate of less than 5%. Because the program was so prestigious and selective, getting in served as a big confirmation signal of my academic quality.
In other words, the Harvard admissions reader would likely think, “OK, if this very selective program has already validated Allen as a top student, I’m inclined to believe that Allen is a top student and should pay special attention to him.”
Now, it took a lot of prior work to even get into RSI because it's so selective. I had already ranked nationally in the Chemistry Olympiad (more below), and I had done a lot of prior research work in computer science (at Jisan Research Institute – more about this later). But getting into RSI really propelled my application to another level.
Because RSI was so important and was such a big Spike, all my other extracurriculars paled in importance. The admissions officer at Princeton or MIT probably didn’t care at all that I volunteered at a hospital or founded a high school club.
This is a good sign of developing a strong Spike. You want to do something so important that everything else you do pales in comparison to it. A strong Spike becomes impossible to ignore.
In contrast, if you’re well-rounded, all your activities hold equal weight – which likely means none of them are really that impressive (unless you’re a combination of Olympic athlete, internationally-ranked science researcher, and New York Times bestselling author, but then I'd call you unicorn because you don't exist).
Apply this concept to your own interests – what can be so impressive and such a big Spike that it completely overshadows all your other achievements?
This might be worth spending a disproportionate amount of time on. As I recommend in my Harvard guide and 4.0 GPA guide, smartly allocating your time is critical to your high school strategy.
In retrospect, one “mistake” I made was spending a lot of time on the violin. Each week I spent eight hours on practice and a lesson and four hours of orchestra rehearsals. This amounted to over 1,500 hours from freshman to junior year.
The result? I was pretty good, but definitely nowhere near world-class. Remember, there are thousands of orchestras and bands in the country, each with their own concertmasters, drum majors, and section 1st chairs.
If I were to optimize purely for college applications, I should have spent that time on pushing my spike even further – working on more Olympiad competitions, or doing even more hardcore research.
Looking back I don’t mind this much because I generally enjoyed my musical training and had a mostly fun time in orchestra (and I had a strong Spike anyway). But this problem can be a lot worse for well-rounded students who are stretched too thin.
Aside from these considerations about a Spike, I have two major caveats.
First, developing a Spike requires continuous, increasingly ambitious foundational work. It's like climbing a staircase. From the beginning of high school, each step was more and more ambitious – my first academic team, my first research experience, leading up to state and national competitions and more serious research work.
So when I suggest devoting a lot of time to developing your Spike, it’s not necessarily the Spike in itself – it’s also spending time on foundational work leading up to what will be your major achievement. That’s why I don’t see my time with academic teams or volunteering as wasted, even though in the end they didn’t contribute as much to my application.
Second, it is important to do things you enjoy. I still enjoyed playing the violin and being part of an orchestra, and I really enjoyed my school’s academic teams, even though we never went beyond state level. Even if some activities don’t contribute as much to your application, it’s still fine to spend some time on them – just don’t delude yourself into thinking they’re stronger than they really are and overspend time on them.
Finally, note that most of my activities were pursued over multiple years. This is a good sign of commitment – rather than hopping from activity year to year, it’s better to show sustained commitment, as this is a better signal of genuine passion.
In a future article, I’ll break down these activities in more detail. But this guide is already super long, so I want to focus our attention on the main points.
Short Answer: Extracurricular Activities
Now known as: Activities
In today’s Common Application, you have 50 characters to describe “Position/Leadership description and organization name” and 150 characters for “Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received, etc.”
Back then, we didn’t have as much space per activity, and instead had a short answer question.
The Short Answer prompt:
Please describe which of your activities (extracurricular and personal activities or work experience) has been most meaningful and why.
I chose RSI as my most significant activity for two reasons – one based on the meaning of the work, and another on the social aspect.
Reading the second paragraph now, it’s a bit cringe-y in its enthusiasm, but I really did have an amazing experience and am still good friends with some of my classmates from RSI, over a decade later.
(This is only the beginning of my cringe-y writing - wait until you get to my Personal Essays.)
Now known as: Writing --> Additional Information
In my application and in the Common Application, there’s an Additional Information section, where you can write about anything else. I chose to spend this clarifying my extracurriculars even further.
My main motive in this section was to add more detail around my most significant activities: what I did, why they should be noteworthy to the reader, and what I personally gained from them.
You can see how there’s so much more information than appears in my brief list of activities.
The only parts the reader underlined were the name of my research supervisor, and the fact that my research was then a Siemens-Westinghouse Semi-Finalist. Both of these legitimate my research.
I highly recommend you take the time to write an Additional Information section. You have so little space in your Yale application or Duke application to express yourself – this is purposely designed so everyone doesn't submit 100 pages of drivel. Here you have an extra 650 words to add more color around your life and accomplishments – DO IT.
Now known as: Education --> Honors
Along with Activities, Academic Honors is the other major area where you can really shine and develop a big Spike.
The higher the level of competition and the more prestigious the award, the more the honor is worth.
This has a log-linear relationship, because of how quickly the field is narrowed at each stage of competition. A state ranking is probably worth 10x that of a regional ranking; a national ranking 10x that of a state ranking; and an international ranking even more. This can also mean an international ranking is worth 1000x that of a regional ranking – again, why a big Spike is so impressive.
It’s obvious that schools like Yale and UChicago want the best students in the world that they can get their hands on. Academic honors and awards are a great, quantifiable way to show that.
Here’s the complete list of Academic Honors I submitted. The Common Application now limits you to five honors only (probably because they got tired of lists like these), but chances are you capture the top 98% of your honors with the top five.
Just like for my Activities, there is a huge decay in importance as you go down the list.
By far, the biggest academic honor I had was competing in the US National Chemistry Olympiad, where I ranked #6 in the country in junior year, out of roughly 11,000 students who took the first round test. This single honor probably contributed 90% of the value of this page.
That's a really big Spike.
If you don’t know about these academic Olympiads, they’re like the Olympics for math and science geeks. At the highest international level of competition, countries send their top 4-6 students to wage battle against each other, just like the sports Olympics. The best known subjects are Math, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology (in order of descending prestige, among nerds).
I ranked at the national level, before the US selected their final team – a study camp of 20 students. In junior year, I didn’t make it onto the international team to compete (I did in senior year, too late for college apps). But this was still a national level honor, in a well-known competition.
If you are nationally or internationally ranked for something meaningful, you really stand out in the reader’s mind, because most applicants only have regional and state honors, if even that. This is why I say a big Spike makes you stand out clearly among a bin of well-rounded applicants.
Note that even though I had a strong application, I clearly didn’t have the strongest application possible. At Harvard in my class, I knew International Math and Physics Olympiad gold medalists, people who were on their national teams for the hardest subjects AND ranked in the top percentiles worldwide. (And there were students with similar level accomplishments in other arenas, from music performance to writing.)
Earning this kind of honor was nearly a golden ticket to getting into schools like Harvard, because you literally are the best in the world at what you care about. So you don’t need anywhere near a “perfect” application to get in.
Charlie wins a Golden Ticket to Harvard.
I know this is intimidating if you don’t already have a prestigious honor. But remember there are thousands of nationally-ranked people in a multitude of honor types, from science competitions to essay contests to athletics to weird talents.
And I strongly believe the #1 differentiator of high school students who achieve things is work ethic, NOT intelligence or talent. Yes, you need a baseline level of competence to get places, but people far undervalue the progress they can make if they work hard and persevere. Far too many people give up too quickly or fatigue without putting in serious effort.
If you’re stuck thinking, “well I’m just an average person, and there’s no way I’m going to become world-class in anything,” then you’ve already lost before you’ve begun. The truth is everyone who achieves something of note puts in an incredible amount of hard work. Because this is invisible to you, it looks like talent is what distinguishes the two of you, when really it’s much more often diligence.
I talk a lot more about the Growth Mindset in my How To Get a 4.0 GPA guide.
So my Chemistry Olympiad honor formed 90% of the value of this page. Just like extracurriculars, there’s a quick dropoff in value of each item after that.
My research work took up the next two honors, one a presentation at an academic conference, and the other (Siemens) a research competition for high school researchers.
The rest of my honors were pretty middling:
- In Science Olympiad (this is a team-based competition that's not as prestigious as the academic Olympiads I just talked about), I earned a number of 1st place state and regional medals, but we never made it to nationals.
- I was mediocre at competition math because I didn’t train for it, and I won some regional awards but nothing amazing. This is one place I would have spent more time, maybe in the time I’d save by not practicing violin as much. There are great resources for this type of training, like Art of Problem Solving, that I didn’t know existed and could've helped me rank much higher.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, think about how many state medalists there are in the country, in the hundreds of competitions that exist. The number of state to national rankers is probably at least 20:1 (less than 50:1 because of variation in state size), so if there are 2,000 nationally ranked students, there are 40,000 state-ranked students in something!
So state honors really don't help you stand out on your Princeton application. There are just too many of them around.
On the other hand, if you can get to be nationally ranked in something, you will have an amazing Spike that distinguishes you.
Now known as: Personal Essay
Now, the dreaded personal statement. Boy, oh boy, did I fuss over this one.
“What is the perfect combination of personal, funny, heartrending, and inspirational?”
I know I was wondering this when I applied.
Having read books like 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays, I was frightened. I didn’t grow up as a refugee, wrenched from my war-torn home! I didn’t have a sibling with a debilitating illness! How could anything I write compare to these tales of personal strength?
The trite truth is that colleges want to know who you really are. Clearly they don’t expect everyone to have had immense personal struggle. But they do want students who are:
- kind and good-hearted
Whatever those words mean to you in the context of your life is what you should write about.
In retrospect, in the context of MY application, the personal statement really wasn’t what got me into Harvard. I do think my Spike was nearly sufficient to get me admitted to every school in the country.
I say ‘nearly’ because, even if you’re world-class, schools do want to know you’re not a jerk and that you’re an interesting person (which is conveyed through your personal essay and letters of recommendation).
Back then, we had a set of different prompts:
I chose to write on a topic of my choice, which no longer exists as an option (probably for good reason - kids just went all over the place).
After thorough brainstorming, I didn’t really identify with any of the other topics. I couldn’t think of a topic that wasn’t trite and that I cared about enough. I also felt a need to be distinctive and thought that a free essay topic might give me more freedom.
The way I saw it, the personal statement was a vehicle to convey my personality and my interests. To build my Personal Narrative, I wanted to showcase my personality and reveal a bit about my life experiences. Even though the life experiences I’d had weren’t distinctive in themselves, I thought I could package them from an interesting perspective.
The idea I used was to talk about my battle against the snooze alarm. I really did love sleep (and still do) and I thought it’d be interesting to frame my personality, interests, and life experiences from this perspective.
Frankly this personal statement is really embarrassing. Each time I read it, I cringe a bit. I think I sound too smug and self-satisfied. But again in the interest of transparency, here goes:
What did you think?
I’m still cringing a bit. Parts of this are very smug (see /r/iamverysmart), and if you want to punch the writer in the face, I don’t blame you. I want to as well.
We’ll get to areas of improvement later, but first, let’s talk about what this personal essay did well.
As I said above, I saw the theme of the snooze button as a VEHICLE to showcase a few qualities I cared about:
1) I fancied myself a Renaissance man (obnoxious, I know) and wanted to become an inventor and creator. I showed this through mentioning different interests (Rubik’s cube, chemistry, Nietzsche) and iterating through a few designs for an alarm clock (electric shocks, explosions, Shakespearean sonnet recitation).
2) My personality was whimsical and irreverent. I don’t take life too seriously. The theme of the essay – battling an alarm clock – shows this well, in comparison to the gravitas of the typical student essay. I also found individual lines funny, like “All right, so I had violated the divine honor of the family and the tenets of Confucius.” At once I acknowledge my Chinese heritage but also make light of the situation.
3) I was open to admitting weaknesses, which I think is refreshing among people taking college applications too seriously and trying too hard to impress. The frank admission of a realistic lazy habit – pushing the Snooze button – served as a nice foil to my academic honors and shows that I can be down-to-earth.
So you see how the snooze button acts as a vehicle to carry these major points and a lot of details, tied together to the same theme.
In the same way, The Walking Dead is NOT a zombie show – the zombie environment is a VEHICLE by which to show human drama and conflict. Packaging my points together under the snooze button theme makes it a lot more interesting than just outright saying “I’m such an interesting guy.”
So overall, I believe the essay accomplishes my goals and the main points of what I wanted to convey about myself.
Note that this is just one of many ways to write an essay. It worked for me, but it may be totally inappropriate for you.
Now let's look at this essay's weaknesses.
Looking at it with a more seasoned perspective, some parts of it are WAY too try-hard. I try too hard to show off my breadth of knowledge in a way that seems artificial and embellishing.
The entire introduction with the Rubik’s cube seems bolted on, just to describe my long-standing desire to be a Renaissance man. Only three paragraphs down do I get to the Snooze button, and I don’t refer again to the introduction until the end. With just 650 words, I could have made the essay more cohesive by keeping the same theme from beginning to end.
Some phrases really make me roll my eyes. “Always hungry for more” and “ever the inventor” sound too forced and embellishing. A key principle of effective writing is to show, not say. You don’t say “I’m passionate about X,” you describe what extraordinary lengths you took to achieve X.
The mention of Nietzsche is over-the-top. I mean, come on. The reader probably thought, “OK, this kid just read it in English class and now he thinks he’s a philosopher.” The reader would be right.
The ending: “with the extra nine minutes, maybe I’ll teach myself to cook fried rice” is silly. Where in the world did fried rice come from? I meant it as a nod to my Chinese heritage, but it’s too sudden to work. I could have deleted the sentence and wrapped up the essay more cleanly.
So I have mixed feelings of my essay. I think it accomplished my major goals and showed the humorous, irreverent side of my personality well. However, it also gave the impression of a kid who thought he knew more than he did, a pseudo-sophisticate bordering on obnoxious. I still think it was a net positive.
At the end of the day, I believe the safest, surefire strategy is to develop a Spike so big that the importance of the Personal Essay pales in comparison to your achievements. You want your Personal Essay to be a supplement to your application, not the only reason you get in.
There are probably some cases where a well-rounded student writes an amazing Personal Essay and gets in through the strength of that. As a Hail Mary if you’re a senior and can’t improve your application further, this might work. But the results are very variable – some readers may love your essay, others may just think it’s OK. Without a strong application to back it up, your mileage may vary.
Teacher and Counselor Recommendations
This is a really fun section. Usually you don’t get to read your letter of recommendation because you sign the FERPA waiver. I’ve also reached out to my letter writers to make sure they’re ok with my showing this.
Teacher recommendations are incredibly important to your application. I would say that after your coursework/test scores and activities/honors, they’re the 3rd most important component of your application.
The average teacher sees thousands of students through a career, and so he or she is very well equipped to position you relative to all other students. Furthermore, your teachers are experienced adults – their impressions of you are much more reliable than your impressions of yourself (see my Personal Essay above). They can corroborate your entire Personal Narrative as an outside observer.
The most effective recommendation letters speak both to your academic strengths and to your personality. For the second factor, the teacher needs to have interacted with you meaningfully, ideally both in and out of class. Check out our guide on what makes for effective letters of recommendation.
Starting from sophomore year, I started thinking about whom I connected better with and chose to engage with those teachers more deeply. Because it’s standard for colleges to require two teachers in different subjects, I made sure to engage with English and history teachers as well as math and science.
The minimum requirement for a good letter is someone who taught a class in which you did well. I got straight A’s in my coursework, so this wasn’t an issue.
Beyond this, I had to look for teachers who would be strong advocates for me on both an academic and personal level. These tended to be teachers I vibed more strongly with, and typically these were teachers who demonstrably cared about teaching. This was made clear by their enthusiasm, how they treated students, and how much they went above expectations to help.
I had a lot of teachers who really just phoned it in and treated their job perfunctorily – these people are likely to write pretty blasé letters.
A final note before reading my actual teacher evaluations – you should avoid getting in the mindset where you get to know teachers JUST because you want a good recommendation letter