So what does the admission essay of a superstar who landed four Ivy League acceptances look like? Below is the essay Tso submitted to Princeton University that landed her the nod.
Here was the prompt from Princeton:
Using this theme as a starting point, write about a person, event, or experience that helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approach the world. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application.
"Princeton in the Nation's Service" was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150th anniversary of the University. It became the unofficial Princeton motto and was expanded for the University's 250th anniversary to "Princeton in the nation's service and in the service of all nations." Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879, served on the faculty and was Princeton's president from 1902-1910.
Here is the response from Tso:As Woodrow Wilson noted in Princeton's 150th anniversary address, the university's history is a story that is still being written today through education and political service. I resonate with this on a personal level as my own story to date begins and ends with the act of public service.
There is a Quaker saying that states, "Let your life speak." If my life could speak for itself, it would speak in vehement tones and a passionate voice. It would speak about the story of a girl who was born into a dream, a dream which she took and turned into a reality through the act of service that Woodrow Wilson spoke so fondly of.
On November 15, I was sitting in the Oklahoma State Department of Education awaiting my turn to interview for the United States Senate Youth Program. Four short months later, I found myself sitting in the White House as one of the two selected delegates from Oklahoma, awaiting the arrival of President Obama. There I was, sitting in the historic home of the presidents who had worked to define the American Dream. Interestingly enough, the American Dream is the means by which I have made my own dreams come true. It's the magnetic pull that compels me to pursue public service as a career. It's the testimony that my life speaks of in abundance.
Without a doubt, being raised by immigrant parents taught me about the importance of public service. Both my parents were born into poverty, and were only given the bare necessity to make a living: an education. My grandparents told my parents not to pay them back, but to pay it forward by using their education to change the world for the goodwill of others. That's how my parents' American Dream began, and how it continues to exist through me. Despite having much more than my parents had at my age, my parents continue to instill in me this same mindset. The American Dream is about working hard to ensure not only your own prosperity, but the affluence of society as a whole. They taught me that community service - the act of making the world a better place - is the best way to utilize the skills and education that I've been given. As a result, my life now speaks to the success story of public service and says plenty about the dedicated and compassionate leader I am.
Through the dreams of my parents, I managed to find my own. Because of them, I have learned to approach the world selflessly. Largely due in part to their never-ending support, my early interest in service blossomed into a passion, that has now transformed into a calling - a calling to protect the American Dream, the one that makes individual dreams possible, for everyone. Surely this is the dream that Woodrow Wilson spoke of in Princeton's famed 150th anniversary address.
If my life could speak for itself, it would attest to the durability, longevity and reliability of hard work, the importance of service and how they all add up as a sum of my character. I share Princeton's sentiments, as I too have lived out my life story in this great nation's service, and in the service of all nations. My life has truly been an American Dream, built from the ground up, fortified through aspiration, diligence and toil. Woodrow Wilson believed that the pathway to a better world could only be found through service and I could not agree more; I can only hope that I am already well on my way down that path.
Getting into an elite college has never been more cutthroat. Last year, Harvard’s admissions rate dipped to a record low, with only 5.3% of applicants getting an acceptance letter. Stanford’s rate was even lower, at 5.05%.
These days, it takes more than impressive grades, a full roster of extracurriculars, and a deep commitment to community service to get into a well-ranked school. Experts say that a stellar essay is the linchpin that will win the admissions department over. But what is less well known is that different colleges favor particular topics and even specific words used in essays.
This is a key finding from AdmitSee, a startup that invites verified college students to share their application materials with potential applicants. High school students can pay to access AdmitSee’s repository of successful college essays, while college students who share their materials receive a small payment every time someone accesses their data. “The biggest differentiator for our site is that college students who share their information are compensated for their time,” Stephanie Shyu, cofounder of AdmitSee, tells Fast Company. “This allows them to monetize materials that they have sitting around. They can upload their file and when they check back in a few months later, they might have made several hundred dollars.”
Shyu says that this model has allowed AdmitSee to collect a lot of data very rapidly. The company is only a year old and just landed $1.5 million in seed funding from investors such asFounder.org and The Social + Capital Partnership. But in this short time, AdmitSee has already gathered 15,000 college essays in their system. Many are from people who got into well-ranked colleges, since they targeted these students first. The vast majority of these essays come from current college students who were admitted within the last two or three years.
AdmitSee has a team that analyzes all of these materials, gathering both qualitative and quantitative findings. And they’ve found some juicy insights about what different elite colleges are looking for in essays. One of the most striking differences was between successful Harvard and Stanford essays. (AdmitSee had 539 essays from Stanford and 393 from Harvard at the time of this interview, but more trickle in every day.) High-achieving high schoolers frequently apply to both schools—often with the very same essay—but there are stark differences between what their respective admissions departments seem to want.
What Do You Call Your Parents?
The terms “father” and “mother” appeared more frequently in successful Harvard essays, while the term “mom” and “dad” appeared more frequently in successful Stanford essays.
Harvard Likes Downer Essays
AdmitSee found that negative words tended to show up more on essays accepted to Harvard than essays accepted to Stanford. For example, Shyu says that “cancer,” “difficult,” “hard,” and “tough” appeared more frequently on Harvard essays, while “happy,” “passion,” “better,” and “improve” appeared more frequently in Stanford essays.
This also had to do with the content of the essays. At Harvard, admitted students tended to write about challenges they had overcome in their life or academic career, while Stanford tended to prefer creative personal stories, or essays about family background or issues that the student cares about. “Extrapolating from this qualitative data, it seems like Stanford is more interested in the student’s personality, while Harvard appears to be more interested in the student’s track record of accomplishment,” Shyu says.
With further linguistic analysis, AdmitSee found that the most common words on Harvard essays were “experience,” “society,” “world,” “success,” “opportunity.” At Stanford, they were “research,” “community,” “knowledge,” “future” and “skill.”
What the Other Ivies Care About
It turns out, Brown favors essays about volunteer and public interest work, while these topics rank low among successful Yale essays. In addition to Harvard, successful Princeton essays often tackle experiences with failure. Meanwhile, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania tend to accept students who write about their career aspirations. Essays about diversity—race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—tend to be more popular at Stanford, Yale, and Brown.
Based on the AdmitSee’s data, Dartmouth and Columbia don’t appear to have strong biases toward particular essay topics. This means that essays on many subjects were seen favorably by the admissions departments at those schools. However, Shyu says that writing about a moment that changed the student’s life showed up frequently in essays of successful applicants to those schools.
Risk-Taking Pays Off
One general insight is that students who take risks with the content and the structure of their college essays tend to be more successful across the board. One student who was admitted to several top colleges wrote about his father’s addiction to pornography and another wrote about a grandparent who was incarcerated, forcing her mother to get food stamps illegally. Weird formats also tend to do well. One successful student wrote an essay tracking how his credit card was stolen, making each point of the credit card’s journey a separate section on the essay and analyzing what each transaction meant. Another’s essay was a list of her favorite books and focused on where each book was purchased.
“One of the big questions our users have is whether they should take a risk with their essay, writing about something that reveals very intimate details about themselves or that takes an unconventional format,” Shyu says. “What we’re finding is that successful essays are not ones that talk about an accomplishment or regurgitate that student’s résumé . The most compelling essays are those that touch on surprising personal topics.”
Of course, one caveat here is that taking a risk only makes sense if the essay is well-executed. Shyu says that the content and structure of the story must make a larger point about the applicant, otherwise it does not serve a purpose. And it goes without saying that the essay must be well-written, with careful attention paid to flow and style.
Shyu says that there are two major takeaways that can be taken from the company’s data. The first is that it is very valuable for applicants to tailor their essays for different schools, rather than perfecting one essay and using it to apply to every single school. The second is that these essays can offer insight into the culture of the school. “The essays of admitted students are also a reflection of the community at these institutions,” Shyu says. “It can provide insight into whether or not the school is a good fit for that student.”
A final tip? If you want to go to Harvard and write about your parents, make sure to address them as “mother” and “father.”