Learn what Ivy League schools are looking for in admissions essays
College admissions can appear to be a faceless, enigmatic process that is difficult to understand. Applicants to highly selective Ivy League institutions may find the decision-making processes at these schools to be particularly opaque.
Nevertheless, as you may already be aware, admission rabbit provide students with the opportunity to highlight some of the more difficult-to-summarize, qualitative components of their application. These essays provide students with an opportunity to provide admissions officers with a feel of their personality, hobbies that are outside the scope of their résumé, or situations that have been particularly significant to them.
There are comprehensive guidelines to writing the Personal Statement and several types of college-specific prompts available at the links above. However, when it comes to writing the personal statement and supplemental essays for hyper-selective colleges, parents and kids are frequently confused about what Ivy League schools are looking for in applicants. Is it all about rewriting the Costco essay, or something else? (The answer is a categorical no.) This article delves into the characteristics of successful Ivy League essays and provides step-by-step instructions for assisting your child in the creation of such work.
The first step in addressing this question is defining what distinguishes Ivy League applications and expectations from those of other colleges and universities on a qualitative level. From Ivy League universities to liberal arts colleges, there is a type of trickle-down effect that we can see, so preparing your child for top-tier school applications can also prepare them to apply to mid-tier schools.
We have seen, however, that the most selective universities look for students who have a love for what they are doing, show leadership, take initiative, have intellectual vigor, and are memorable.
Keep in mind that admissions committees consider these essays as part of a candidate’s overall narrative; a well-written essay does not ensure admission. It is important to remember that admissions to Ivy League schools, in particular, is a complicated, multi-faceted, and constantly changing process, and that what makes one essay effective in one year may not be applicable to essays in subsequent years.
With this in mind, we’ve compiled examples of successful Ivy League essays from applicants who were admitted into one or more Ivy League or Ivy+ universities as a result of their application (such as Stanford, MIT, UChicago). Our analysis of these essays resulted in a list of ideas for producing an essay that would stand out in a highly selective application pool.
Ivy League essay prompts
Every year, the extra prompts differ slightly from the previous year. In the meanwhile, we’ve put together a list of Common App prompts from Ivy League institutions for the 2018-2019 school year. Between all of these questions and the Personal Statement, your child will most likely be able to come up with a variety of ways to demonstrate their strongest characteristics.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of all of the prompts for Ivy League institutions.
After that, we’ll speak about how to approach the subject matter and format of the essays in more general terms, but you can (and will be required to!) start with these questions as a jumping-off point. You might even be inspired by the University of Chicago’s lighthearted prompts and end up adopting one of those essays to answer a more serious Princeton question.
(Please note that Cornell University is not included in this list because their prompts differ depending on the program.)
The essay prompt for Princeton University is
Please prepare an additional essay of approximately 500 words in addition to the one you have written for the Common Application (no more than 650 words and no fewer than 250 words). Write about a person, event, or experience that helped you establish one of your values or that in some way influenced how you approach the world, using one of the topics listed below as a jumping off point for your writing. Please do not copy and paste the essay you produced for the Common Application, in its entirety or in part.
- Please tell us about a person who has had a big impact on your life and why.
2.”One of the great challenges of our day is that the discrepancies we face today have more complex roots and lead less directly to remedies than they did in the past,” says the author. Princeton University’s Omar Wasow is an assistant professor of political science. This quotation is derived from Professor Wasow’s speech at the Martin Luther King Day ceremony at Princeton University, which took place in January 2014.
- “Culture is what exposes us to the kinds of useful things that can enrich our lives. And to the extent that we are able to see the importance of those things and incorporate them into our lives, our lives are meaningful.” Gideon Rosen is the Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University and the chair of the Department of Philosophy.
Four. Starting with one of your favorite quotations from an essay or book you have read within the last three years, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or influenced your perspective on the way you view the world. Please include the citation, the title, and the author of your essay at the beginning of your paper.
Prompt for an essay at Harvard University
If you believe that the college application forms do not offer you with sufficient chance to convey vital information about yourself or your accomplishments, you may want to submit an additional essay. Choose a topic of your choice, or select one from the list below to write about:…
- You are experiencing unusual conditions in your life.
- Experiences with travel, living, or working in your own or other communities are encouraged.
- What you would like your future college roommate to be aware of about yourself
- An intellectual encounter (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poem, or research issue in engineering, mathematics, physics, or other modes of inquiry) that has had the greatest impact on you is one that you may share with others.
- What you intend to accomplish with your college education
- a list of the books you’ve read over the course of the last twelve months
Honesty is regarded as the cornerstone of our community, according to the Harvard College Honor Code. Please contemplate a time when you or someone you saw had to make a decision about whether or not to act with integrity and honesty as you explore joining our group that is committed to honesty.
The aim of Harvard College is to prepare our students to be responsible citizens and civic leaders in their communities. What would you do to make a difference in the lives of your students while helping to further this mission?
The number of students admitted to Harvard who defer their admittance for one year or who take time off while college increases significantly each year. What would you like to do if you were forced to choose between the two options in the future?
Students from a variety of backgrounds have long been valued at Harvard, which has long acknowledged the benefits of diversity. We want you to write about distinguishing aspects of your history, personal development, or intellectual interests that you believe will be of interest to your Harvard classmates in a piece for this publication.
Question for Columbia University’s essay
Formally describe your ideal college community in a few words or sentences.
(A maximum of 150 words)
Specify the titles of the mandatory readings from courses taken during the school year or summer session that you particularly enjoyed reading during the previous year. (A maximum of 150 words)
Specify the titles of the books you’ve read for enjoyment that you’ve found to be the most enjoyable throughout the previous year. (A maximum of 150 words)
Make a list of the titles of the print and electronic periodicals, as well as the websites, that you read on a regular basis. (A maximum of 150 words)
Make a list of the films, concerts, events, exhibits, lectures, and other forms of entertainment that you loved the most during the course of the past year. (A maximum of 150 words)
Please tell us what you appreciate best about Columbia and why you appreciate it. (No more than 300 words)
MIT’s essay Prompt
We are aware that you have a hectic schedule filled with numerous activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about anything you enjoy doing simply for the enjoyment of it. (A maximum of 100 words)
Despite the fact that you may not yet know what you want to major in, which MIT department or program interests you the most and why? (A maximum of 100 words)
At MIT, we bring people together to make a difference in the lives of those around us. MIT students try to improve their communities in a variety of ways, ranging from tackling the world’s most pressing problems to simply being a good neighbor. Tell us about a way in which you have made a difference in your community, whether it was in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, or another setting. (between 200 and 250 words)
Describe the environment in which you grew up, such as your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town; for example, What role has that world played in the formation of your hopes and aspirations? (between 200 and 250 words)
Tell us about the most significant struggle you’ve faced, or about anything essential that didn’t go exactly as you had envisioned. What strategies did you use to deal with the situation? (between 200 and 250 words)
Prompt for an essay at the University of Chicago
Select one of the six extended essay options and upload a one- or two-page answer to that option.
- A “tree-mail” program was launched in 2015 by the city of Melbourne, Australia, in which every of the city’s trees were assigned an email address, allowing locals to report any tree-related complaints. As a result of this unexpected development, individuals began to send charming and occasionally amusing letters to their favorite trees. Imagine that this has been enlarged to include any object (tree or otherwise) anywhere in the world, and then share with us the letter you’d write to your favorite of the bunch.
Hannah Lu (Class of 2020) served as an inspiration.
In the thirteenth century, you’re embarking on an adventure that will take you across the choppy seas. What if you were to suddenly find yourself at the end of the planet?
Chandani Latey, AB’93, was the inspiration for this piece.
- The act or practice of describing or regarding something as trivial or of having no value is referred to as floccinaucinihilipilification in the dictionary. In the mid-18th century, it was formed by combining the Latin terms for “of little use,” “of little use,” “of little use,” “of little use,” “of little use,” “of little use,” “of little use,” “of little use,” and “of little use,” all of which indicate “of little use.” Please invent your own word by combining elements of any language of your choice, explain what it means, and detail the scenarios in which it would be most appropriate to be used (even if they are only conceivable to you).
Ben Zhang, Class of 2022, was the inspiration for this piece.
- Have you misplaced your keys? Alohomora. Do you have a noisy roommate? Quietus. Do you have a strong desire to shatter windows for whatever reason? Finestra. Create your own spell, charm, jinx, or other way of causing magical mayhem for your own amusement. What is the procedure for putting it into effect? Is there any sort of incantation? Is there a potion or some other mystical object involved in this? If so, what exactly is it or what is it made of? What exactly does it do?
Emma Sorkin, Class of 2021, was the inspiration for this piece.
- Assume you’ve reached an agreement with Dean Nondorf, the Dean of Admissions at your chosen university. It works like this: you are promised admission to the University of Chicago, regardless of the circumstances surrounding your application. This agreement is predicated on the understanding that you will purchase a blank piece of 8.5 x 11 paper and use it to draw, write, sketch, shade, stencil, paint, or do anything else you want on it; the only restrictions will be the borders of both sides on a single page. Now, here’s the catch: for the rest of your life, your submission will always be the first thing that anybody you meet will see when they meet you for the first time. Whatever the situation: a job interview, a blind date, or your first Humanities class, before you even say “hello,” they’ll have already viewed your page and formed an initial impression of your personality. Demonstrate your page to us. What’s on it, and why is it there? If your art is mostly or entirely visual, please include an accompanying creator’s statement of at least 300 words, which we will gladly allow to appear on its own, separate page, with your submission. PS: Because this is a creative thought experiment, please keep in mind that choosing this essay prompt does not ensure your admittance to UChicago, nor does it absolve you of poor grades, criminal mischief, or any other “circumstances” that “may” “arise” in the future.
Amandeep Singh Ahluwalia, Class of 2022, was the inspiration for this piece.
- In the spirit of intrepid inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our previous prompts to consider further. Create something unique, imaginative, and thought-provoking. Inspire yourself with your best abilities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and enjoy yourself. You can find all of our previous prompts right here.
Is it possible for the University of Chicago, as you know it, to fulfill your need for a certain type of learning, community, and future? Please describe your own desires and how they relate to UChicago in as much detail as you are able.
Writing prompt for Stanford University
What do you believe is the most serious difficulty that society is now facing? (There is a 50-word restriction) What did you do with your time over the last two summers? (There is a 50-word restriction) You wish you could have been present at a historical moment or event. Tell us about it. (There is a 50-word restriction)
What five words would you use to define yourself?
What do you choose to read, listen to, or watch when you have the option to do so? (There is a 50-word restriction)
Describe one thing about Stanford that you are looking forward to experiencing. (There is a 50-word restriction)
Consider the following scenario: you had an extra hour in the day. How would you spend that time? (50% of the allowed words are allowed).
Inside and outside of the classroom, the Stanford community is filled with people who are passionately curious and driven to learn. Consider an idea or experience that has piqued your interest and motivated you to pursue more education. (between 100 and 250 words)
Stanford’s students are almost entirely housed on the Stanford campus. Write a note to your future roommate in which you share something about yourself or in which you help your roommate – and us – get to know you a little better. (between 100 and 250 words)
Tell us about something that is important to you and why it is important to you. (between 100 and 250 words)
How to write an Ivy League application essay
With structure covered in depth (hook, voice, larger importance, takeaway), we’ll move on to the specifics of what makes excellent Ivy League essays not only structurally attractive, but also fascinating and rich in texture and nuance as well.
- The first tip is to be as specific as possible.
Those essays that are successful in the Ivy League pool are frequently filled with specific facts that help to make the essay seem true to life and original. When writing, your student should avoid using clichés and making broad generalizations.
Take a look at Camille’s essay about her favorite teacher from earlier in the year. The following is how she introduces him:
The sun’s rays pounding down on his back appear to imbue him with a jovial spirit, which he then transfers to his weary classmates. When the book The Brothers Karamazov is dropped in one open hand, it has the ubiquitous marked portions and incomprehensible margin notes on the spine to prove it. The other person is making frantic gesticulations.
Take note of how Camille truly sets the tone in this scene. The instructor she’s portraying is right in front of us: the sun beams, the exhausted high school kids. Instead of just stating “a book,” she mentions the title of the book. She zooms in to display not only details, but details that tell a story.
The description of his gesticulation and the description of his marginalia give us the impression that this is a passionate and dedicated teacher. Not only do these details provide us with information about the teacher, but they also provide us with information about Camille, who is revealed via her observations and admiration of the teacher. She is the type of student who is inspired by others’ excitement and commitment to their study.
- Tip 2: Maintain a humble demeanor
Application essays are not the place to extol one’s own virtues. As a result, your child has been accepted into the Ivy League pool, and the non-qualitative components of the application—the Common App, the CV, and so on—will provide the admissions committee with information about their quantifiable achievements.
In fact, the essay can be a useful tool for recognizing and acknowledging errors, paradoxes, and uncertainties.
Take, for example, Rhea. She expresses herself as follows:
Words are the thread that connects me to the people and events in my immediate environment. Words assist me in comprehending a universe that is both connected and divided at the same time. Words serve to remind me that I am both unimportant and significant in the grand scheme of things, and that I am also a link in the chain of history.
In the final paragraph of the essay, Rhea concludes by reflecting on her own insignificance, which can serve as a counterpoint to an application designed to demonstrate to an admissions committee how she distinguishes herself from the competition. It is possible that this conclusion implies humility and perspective, but it also reveals a contradiction. Writing is essential to her in part because she is talented at it, but it is also important to her because it serves as a reminder that the world is much larger than she is.
- Step 3: Vary the words you choose to express yourself.
Key terms are rarely repeated in Simon and Jenna’s essays—unless, as in Jenna’s essay, the repetition is done on purpose in order to build a distinct voice. Instead of reaching for the most esoteric or formal phrase, strive to utilize language that is sharp and specific.
Consider the following advice from Janet Lavin Rapelye, a former Princeton Dean of Admissions: “Remember that your essay should not only tell something about you, but it should also exhibit your writing skills.” In any college application question, admissions staff are seeking to assess how well you communicate your thoughts and express yourself in writing. It serves as a doorway into your life for us.”
- Tip 4: Write with confidence and ensure that your message is understood.
Your kid should be confident in their subject matter and the message they are conveying in these essays, even though it is crucial to avoid bragging. We’ve spoken about how “takeaways” may be a powerful structural aspect of a good essay in the past. This type of “takeaway” can also be sprinkled throughout the text for added effect.
Take, for instance, this passage from her essay, “Words have spoken to me my entire existence.” They have been my solace, my haven, my outlet, and my delight,” says the author.
The above statement may appear to be an exaggeration or a generalization on the surface level. However, this clarity and confidence transmits important information to an admissions committee: this person is serious about their interests and is willing to put forth the necessary effort to pursue them.
- Tip 5: Think about including a title.
It will come as no surprise that some of the most popular pieces have a title, as you will see in the full-length writings provided below. This shows that your child has expended additional effort in stressing the key concept of the essay and that he or her views it to be a complete and well-written piece of writing
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- Tip 6: Encourage your child to read (and not just college essays written by others).
The kids we’ll be highlighting in this piece are excellent writers in part because they’ve been deeply involved with story for a long period of time. If your child is already a reader, it’s likely that they have favorite characters with whom they identify and who influence the way they think. If your child hasn’t yet fallen in love with words, consider reading to them a few essays written by truly great writers to get them started. College essay writers, on the other hand. This is the real stuff.
If you want to read something different, try James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind” or “Notes of a Native Son,” Joan Didion”s “Goodbye to All That” or “Notes from a Native Daughter,” Annie Dillard “Total Eclipse,” or any of the essays by David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, John McPhee, David Sedaris, Meghan Daum, Maggie Nelson or Anne Fadiman.