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.”
4. Answer the question. If you’re given a specific essay prompt, make sure your essay addresses those questions. Don’t take an essay and stretch it to fit five completely different prompts; if your essay wasn’t intended to answer a specific question, it becomes awkward and unconvincing. If different schools ask you why you’d like to attend their college, do your research and think through your responses carefully. Simply drafting a universal response and filling in the blanks will not demonstrate to admissions officers that you have the ability to think critically and to understand nuance. Finally, try to show that you’ve put some genuine thought into the essay and the question at hand. As with any good essay, use evidence, supporting facts, and examples to prove your point.
5. Be careful with gimmicks. Some people have successfully written poems or drawn comics for their personal statements, but they are few and far between. If you’re confident that your creative efforts will turn out well, go for it. Just remember that, especially with this personal statement, execution is everything. A piece that is inauthentic most likely will not be distinctive in the way that you had hoped.
6. Know your thesis. As we suggested before, take the time to think through your essay topic and make sure that you know what points you’re trying to make. What is the purpose of your essay? Why will an admissions officer want to read and remember your essay? What message do you want people to take away from your essay? You’ll need to think through these questions in order to make sure that your message is on point and successfully delivered to the admissions officer. Knowing these answers ahead of time will also make your writing genuine, clear, and compelling. Avoid making clichÃ©d statements and broad generalizationsâeveryone says they’ve learned from their mistakes and triumphed over adversity. Be tactful, try to write insightfully and critically, and, most of all, make sure that your message is clear.
7. Be yourself. The college admissions essay is a personal statement. Each person has his or her own writing style and tone, and essays should reflect that fluidity. It’s all right to include some humor and wit, but make sure it comes naturally and isn’t excessive or fabricated. While it’s a good idea to have a couple of knowledgeable individuals read over your essay and give suggestions for improvement, make sure that the end product is truly satisfactory for you. Don’t let too many people provide input, and don’t let even those people you trust manhandle the content and style of your essay. This is your chance to speak directly to admissions officers and to highlight what’s most distinctive about you, and you shouldn’t let that opportunity be diluted by the voices of others.
8. Be honest. Once you settle on an essay topic, don’t fall into the trap of exaggerating your experiences or the lessons you’ve learned. Instead, think critically about your topic, even if it seems mundane to you, and try to understand and articulate why that experience was valuable for youânot why it might be interesting to the admissions officer who’s reading your essay. Also, don’t use words you don’t know or wouldn’t ordinarily useâthat’s what the SAT is supposed to test. There’s nothing quite as distracting in an essay as misused words. Don’t use a longer word if a shorter word captures the sentiment just as well. The admissions officers want to see that you’re a clean and capable writer, and they want to get a sense of who you are and why ...
HBS students at graduation
On March 22, Max Wibaux made a quiet exit from his office in Kansas City just before noon EST. He drove the five minutes to his apartment, rushed to his computer and then sat briefly paralzyed in front of the screen, desperately wanting to know if Harvard Business School would admit him and not so desperately wanting to know if it didn’t.
Wibaux, marketing manager for Russell Stover chocolates, had invested a lot of time and energy in the decision. By his own estimate, the 30-year-old native of France spent nearly 50 hours over two to three months on as many as 30 drafts of his HBS essay. He also wrote essays for Stanford GSB, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and INSEAD.
“I had gone home at lunch time because I knew the posting would go up at noon on the dot,” he recalls. “So I went home, turned on my computer and stared at it for a number of minutes until I watched the clock roll past 12. I was so hesitant to push the button to see what my status was. I finally clicked on it and then jumped up and down.”
THE HARDEST PART OF HIS HBS ADMIT? KEEPING QUIET THAT AFTERNOON IN THE OFFICE
The latest edition of the MBA Essay Guide from The Harbus costs $61.49
He spent the next hour at home, relaying the good news of his HBS acceptance to family and friends. The hardest part of the experience was returning to his office that afternoon, with the widest grin he ever wore on his face, and not sharing the news with anyone other than his boss and his second recommender, the only two people at his employer who knew he had applied to Harvard’s MBA program.
Wibaux will start the MBA program on Aug. 28, but since his acceptance into HBS, he has been involved in a rather unique exercise: Reviewing the essays of recently successful applicants to HBS for inclusion in the just published summer 2017 edition of the MBA Essay Guide from The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper at Harvard.
At first, Wibaux merely volunteered to share his own essay. But when the newspaper’s leadership team found out that Wibaux boasts nearly 10 years of Brand Management experience working for GlaxoSmithKline, L’Oreal, Reckitt Benckiser, and Lindt & Sprüngli, he was drafted as the new product manager for The Harbus.
29 ESSAYS FROM 29 NEWLY ADMITTED STUDENTS TO HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL
His conclusion from reading nearly 50 essays, 29 of which are included in the new guidebook? “It would have taken a lot of the nervousness out of the process to see the wide range of essays out there,” says Wibaux. I was going off the premise that I just wanted to do my own thing. The reason why I went through so many iterations is I didn’t know what I was up against. I think I could have cut by drafts in two.”
The 29 submissions in the new guidebook, available for downloading at just over $60, are just a small fraction of all the 941 essays written by successful candidates who will become students at HBS by months’ end, of course. But they are representative of a wildly diverse student body from all walks of life, all industries, functions and geographies, and all ways of thinking. They come from HBS-bound applicants in Pakistan, India, the Ivory coast, Zimbabwe, and Egypt, among other places. They were written by people who worked in oil and gas, healthcare, nuclear engineering, transportation and community service, not merely consultants and financiers. The stories vary greatly as well, from a student who delivers a first-hand account of how it feels to run a triathlon to another who candidly describes a serious bout of depression that led to suicidal thoughts.
Ultimately, the real benefit of the guide is not that it will teach future applicants how to expertly craft the perfect HBS essay that will gain them an admit. Instead, like Wibaux himself learned, you may not have to be nearly as fussy as you think when answering the HBS prompt “what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?”
‘YOU CAN HAVE A KILLER ESSAY BUT GET REJECTED IF YOUR APPLICATION IS WEAK’
Incoming HBS student Max Wibaux
That’s because this inside peek at winning essays will allow you to read well-crafted writing worthy of The New Yorker as well as fairly unremarkable essays that could have been written for a college freshmen intro class. What you can’t know is how important these essays were in Harvard’s admission decisions.
“It has been said over and over again that the essay is just one component,” concedes Wibaux. “So yes you can have a killer essay but if the application is weak, it won’t make a difference. Or conversely you can have a bad essay but still get in. Even so, it’s the only chance for you to get your story across in a way that is not formatted by the admissions committee. It is one of the few pieces in there that is truly in your own voice. It is purely you.”
Some of the successful applicants who forked over their essays to The Harbus make even Wibaux look like a piker for his 25 to 30 drafts. Almost all the essays in the book are the result of days, if not weeks, of work and multiple iterations. One 2+2 candidate from Canada, who had worked as a consultant, claims to have powered through 75 versions of the essay over a period of 50 to 60 solid hours of effort. The French Canadian even consulted a a psychologist to help him write his 963 words with with deep introspection.
A SUCCESSFUL INDIAN APPLICANT OFFERS SOME KEY TAKEAWAYS
Not surprisingly, many were highly methodical in their approach. A successful round one applicant from India who applied to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and Chicago Booth say she started thinking about his esays in June. “I laid out my entire life on a linear storyline and starting hunting for defining moments that I could talk about,” he explains. On Stanford’s iconic “what matters most to you and why” prompt, he invested three to four weeks and did eight to ten iternations. On his HBS essay, he spent four to six weeks, with as many as a dozen drafts.
Starting Harvard’s MBA program later this month, he shares key takeaways:
- Spend adequate time brainstorming for defining moments and discuss them with someone who knows you really well
- Adopt a simple writing style, with short sentences and cause-effect relations clearly laid out. Run a grammar/text bloat test towards the end.
- Don’t read into the feedback you get from your reviewers too much. Often times feedback will be contradictory. Go with what you think is best.
- Wrap up the essays at least two weeks before submission and lay primary emphasis on other elements of your application – CV, referrals, short responses.
- Take time to discuss your application with your recommenders and prime them with interesting instances they can talk about while writing you referrals.