What makes me stand out? I know, that sounds really obvious. Write a few sentences, jot down some random ideas, note a couple anecdotes that might be interesting… just get something on paper that you can look back to. The beginning of the creative process involves coming up with ideas, judging them comes later. Trust me, I took a class on this really: Many students feel like they have to write about some huge, life-changing, important event in their lives.
However, you can also write an awesome essay about something other than The Most Important Thing Ever. It can be the littlest things, if you explain their significance well, that actually stand out. In my case, somewhere in my essay I mentioned that I got up at 5: When they finish reading, what do you want the admissions officers to know about you?
Does this essay demonstrate something about who you are and what you care about? A week or two later, as I was reading over my essay again, I had an idea for a totally different topic - so I opened another document and completely started over. The second attempt was so much better, and I felt happy with how it turned out. One of the most useful things I did while working on my college essay was asking a couple people to read it over.
When I asked my parents and teacher what they thought, they unanimously picked one option over the other. This is an important step! Both you, and perhaps someone who knows you well, should read over your essay and make sure it is in tip-top shape before you turn it in.
Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions to maximize your chance of getting in. 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 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. 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 allencheng15 gmail. 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. 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. Finally, in the demographic section there is a big red A, possibly for Asian American.
This section was straightforward for me. The most notable point of this section: 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.
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, students fit in the top 1 percentile of students nationwide. 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 75 th percentile is a , and the 25 th percentile is a They know that there is some amount of chance every time you take a test, so a is more or less equivalent to a However, their standards are still very high.
You really do want to be in that top 1 percentile to pass the filter. A on the SAT IS going to put you at a disadvantage because there are so many students scoring higher than you.
We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:. Even though math and science were easy for me, I had to put in serious effort to get an on the Reading section of the SAT.
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. 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. This section asks for your parent information and family situation.
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. 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. Schools really do care about your background and how you performed relative to expectations. But this can be shorthand to help orient an applicant's family background. 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.
As instructed, my extracurriculars were listed in the order of their interest to me. The most important point I have to make about my extracurriculars: If I were to guess, I assign the following weights to how much each activity contributed to the strength of my activities section:. 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. Because the program was so prestigious and selective, getting in served as a big confirmation signal of my academic quality. 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. 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. 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. Each week I spent eight hours on practice and a lesson and four hours of orchestra rehearsals.
This amounted to over 1, hours from freshman to junior year. 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 1 st 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.
But this problem can be a lot worse for well-rounded students who are stretched too thin. 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.
Second, it is important to do things you enjoy. Finally, note that most of my activities were pursued over multiple years. But this guide is already super long, so I want to focus our attention on the main points. 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.
This is only the beginning of my cringe-y writing - wait until you get to my Personal Essays. 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: 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 pages of drivel.
Here you have an extra words to add more color around your life and accomplishments — DO IT. 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 an exponential relationship, because of how quickly the field is narrowed at each stage of competition. This can also mean an international ranking is worth x that of a regional ranking — again, why a big Spike is so impressive. Academic honors and awards are a great, quantifiable way to show that. 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, students who took the first round test.
At the highest international level of competition, countries send their top 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.
But this was still a national level honor, in a well-known competition. This is why I say a big Spike makes you stand out clearly among a bin of well-rounded applicants. 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. 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. The truth is everyone who achieves something of note puts in an incredible amount of hard work.
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. 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 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.
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. But they do want students who are:. I do think my Spike was nearly sufficient to get me admitted to every school in the country.
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. 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. The idea I used was to talk about my battle against the snooze alarm.
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:. I want to as well. The theme of the essay — battling an alarm clock — shows this well, in comparison to the gravitas of the typical student essay.
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. 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. 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. With just 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. A key principle of effective writing is to show, not say.
The mention of Nietzsche is over-the-top. I mean, come on. Where in the world did fried rice come from?
I could have deleted the sentence and wrapped up the essay more cleanly. 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.
Without a strong application to back it up, your mileage may vary. We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit. We want to get you admitted to your dream schools. This is a really fun section. Teacher recommendations are incredibly important to 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.
The minimum requirement for a good letter is someone who taught a class in which you did well. 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.
If you honestly like learning and are an enthusiastic, responsible, engaging student, a great recommendation letter will follow naturally. The horse should lead the cart. Read my How to Get a 4. She was my favorite teacher throughout high school for these reasons:.
By the time of the letter writing, I had known her for two full years and engaged with her continuously, even when I wasn't taking a class with her in junior year. All of this flowed down to the recommendation you see here. Remember, the horse leads the cart. The Common Application now has 16 qualities to rate, rather than the 10 here. You can tell that the updated Common App places a great emphasis on personality. The most important point here: The more experienced and trustworthy the teacher, the more meaningful this is.
You'll see below how you can accomplish this. As you read this, think — what are the interactions that would prompt the teacher to write a recommendation like this? This was a relationship built up in a period of over 2 years, with every small interaction adding to an overall larger impression.
You can see how seriously they take the letter because of all the underlining. The letter here is very strong for a multitude of reasons. First, the length is notable — most letters are just a page long, but this is nearly two full pages , single spaced.
The structure is effective: This is a perfect blend of what effective letters contain. On the micro-level, her diction and phrasing are precise and effective. She makes my standing clear with specific statements: This letter was important to complement the overall academic performance and achievements shown on the rest of my application.
My second teacher Mrs. Swift was another favorite. Emotionally she was a reliable source of support for students. You can see right away that her remarks are terser. You might chalk this up to my not being as standout of a student in her mind, or her getting inundated with recommendation letter requests after over a decade of teaching. Regardless, I did appreciate the 3 marks she gave me.
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