Students applying to Ivy League schools find themselves having to wade through a particularly dense morass of conflicting advice. With Harvard and Princeton denying far more valedictorians than they accept, many students are coming to the the disquieting realization that overwhelming academic achievement and stratospheric scores may be not enough. Hence, the hope that a perfect essay might be where real distinction lies.
It’s been said that there are only two stories we tell each other: a familiar person leaves on a voyage, and a stranger comes to town. This is no less true of college essays, but it doesn’t make writing them any easier.
All of the Ivies use the Common Application with its single essay requirement. Students are given a choice of five prompts that ask them to tell a story that reflects their own identity, to recount a moment of failure, reflect on a time when they challenged a belief, describe a place of contentment, or discuss an event that marked their transition to adulthood. But the student who is applying to both Princeton and Pomona has to craft a personal statement that speaks to readers at both schools equally well. As Jon Reider, a well-known high school counselor in San Francisco, says, “It has never occurred to me that one Ivy (or anywhere else) would want a certain kind of essay. The whole point is that the main essay tell that kid’s own truth. Colleges take what they get.”
Admission officers at Ivy schools would agree that in telling their truth, students choose topics that more often reflect the reality of their own lives than they do the ethos of specific colleges:
- Brown admission officers Louis Trujillo and Natasha Go note, for example, that this year saw many more natural disaster essays: Sandy, Colorado flooding, Oklahoma tornadoes.
- Others point to a shift in the overused “helping others in exotic locales” topic, from the old staple in which a student discover peasants that are happy in spite of their poverty, to one in which witnessing the deprivations of poverty spur students to express gratitude for their American prosperity.
- Many students write essays in which they celebrate a rather anodyne version of diversity, marked less by political engagement, for example, than by servings of both sushi and stuffing, masala and mashed potatoes, turkey and tamales, at Thanksgiving dinner.
Students’ desire to write an Ivy-inspired essay is also complicated by the nature of the Ivy League itself. While the league shares a long tradition of academic excellence, exclusivity, and a set of admissions protocols that relate mostly to athletics (such as an Academic index that all Ivy athletes have to meet), the eight Ivies remain very distinctive institutions. It is hard to imagine how to write a Common Application essay that simultaneously speaks to Columbia’s focus on the intellectual value of a core curriculum, Brown’s notion that such value derives from the absence of a core, Cornell’s proud tradition as a land grant school, and Harvard’s exclusivity.
Of course, there is an element of self-selectivity that may set the essays of some Ivy applicants apart from others. Thoughtful applicants focus on how particular schools fit with their social and intellectual aspirations, and good essays mirror such self-awareness. Elisha Anderson, an Associate Director of Admission at Brown, notes that when he used to work in the admission office of a smaller, nonconformist liberal arts college in Massachusetts, he saw so many essays on protests, filmmaking and the Food not Bombs movement, that, “It wasn’t until I started working at Brown—where I almost never read essays on any of these topics—that I realized how different the self-selection of the two applicant pools must have been.”
Unlike the Common Application essay, however, the school-specific supplements do require that students write more targeted essays. It is here that the student needs to craft an essay that speaks to his or her fit with that particular institution, and some will ask the question very directly: “Tell us what you find most appealing about Columbia,” for example, or “Why Brown?” Dartmouth avoids additional long essays and Harvard’s is optional, but last year when the Common Application did away with its so-called activity paragraph (“choose one of your extra curricular activities and tell us about it”), these Ivies decided, as did Columbia, that it was useful enough for their purposes to include it in the supplement. The Ivies with engineering schools ask for additional essays from prospective engineers, but Cornell, not surprising given its seven colleges, asks every applicant for such an academic interest statement. Presumably Princeton and Yale are largely looking for exactly the same qualities in their top applicants—academic aptitude, intellectual depth, awareness of others, leadership qualities, and knowledge of the institution. To help them identify those elements, Princeton asks students to reflect on their own lives by writing, for example, in response to quotes on culture, service to the nation, and the practices of inequality. Yale, in contrast, asks simply that a student “Reflect on something you want us to know about you.” Associate Director Rebekah Westphal of Yale explains that the question is, “open enough that students write about whatever they feel like at the time, to present themselves to us without trying to fit into a certain topic or question.”
In a good essay the student embarks on a voyage to learn more about an idea, a place, or about herself, and she returns able to examine and understand what has been familiar with new eyes and a deeper perspective. In that narrative, Ivy admission officers are looking for qualities that are no different from those that readers at Stanford, Rice or Chicago are searching for, and for the greatest part, they are all likely to discern them in similar essays.
We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brown University 2017-18 Application Essay Question Explanations
The Requirements: 5 essays ranging from 100-200 words each
Supplemental Essay Type(s): Why, Community, Activity
Sure, Brown may like to think of itself as the black (brown?) sheep of the Ivy League, but its supplement is pretty by the book. Don’t let the five required essays intimidate you: four of them are exactly the kinds of prompts we have taught you to anticipate (if you’ve read any of our other guides). Before you get too comfortable, though, remember that a straightforward application sets a high bar for essay quality. When the questions are easy to answer, the writing had better be top notch. Luckily, we’re here to help.
Every essay is required.
Why are you drawn to the area(s) of study you indicated earlier in this application? If you are “undecided” or not sure which Brown concentrations match your interests, consider describing more generally the academic topics or modes of thought that engage you currently. (150 word limit)
This prompt sounds easy enough: describe what you want to study and why you like it. Not so fast. Before you dive into drafting your essay, a word of warning: Brown has split its why essay into two parts. Both are academically focused, so be careful about how you distribute certain factoids about your academic interests, needs, and philosophy. The next question is more directly focused on Brown, so take this one as your opportunity to talk about yourself. The only thing you need to know is the name of your department (or departments) of interest. Since Brown has an open curriculum (the topic of the next question), it’s helpful to show that you have some direction even if you’re undecided. While you might be tempted to get technical or poetic, this essay will be more personal and memorable if you can share an anecdote about your relationship with the topic. What excites you and why? When was the last time you got drawn down a Wikipedia rabbit hole – and what was the topic? While you don’t need to drill to the origin of your interest in a given topic, try to zero in on some formative experience: the best book you ever read, the first time you spoke French to an actual French person, that one time when you used math in the real world! Your story should showcase your unique connection to your chosen course of study.
Why Brown, and why the Brown Curriculum? (200 words)
Ah, the Brown Curriculum, the requirement-less Holy Grail coveted by many applicants. Cleverly, Brown has specifically mentioned the curriculum in the prompt itself to push applicants deeper. It’s not enough to say, “I want to go to Brown because of its uniquely flexible curriculum.” You need to explore exactly how this – among Brown’s many other assets – will benefit you specifically. Good research is the key to any good why essay because demonstrating deep knowledge of the school shows admissions how much you care. Also, obviously, the more specific details you harness, the more unique and personal your essay will be. That said, this question is a bit trickier than that because you also have to get introspective. Again, what makes the Brown Curriculum right for you? Is it because of the way you hope to study your topic of choice? (Oh, and aren’t you glad you didn’t talk about this above?) Or is it because greater flexibility will help you manage a learning difference? Maybe it’s just because you want to embrace the full range of intellectual possibilities at Brown. No matter what you say, be sure to also show what you’re talking about in the school-specific details you mention: the eclectic mix of classes you hope to take or the student groups that will foster and support your learning.
Tell us where you have lived – and for how long – since you were born; whether you’ve always lived in the same place, or perhaps in a variety of places. (100 word limit)
What are they really asking here? This prompt is deceptively straightforward. If Brown had simply wanted to know where you have lived, they could have asked you to submit a list of towns or schools you attended. Why devote 100 words to the answer? Although relatively brief, this essay still gives you a chance to examine how you deal with change and difference, the stable and unstable parts of your life. If you have moved a great deal, what grounds you? How do you adapt? If you have stayed in the same town your whole life, how do you see your place in that community? When have you pushed yourself to experience places and meet people who are different from you?
We all exist within communities or groups of various sizes, origins, and purposes; pick one and tell us why it is important to you, and how it has shaped you. (100 word limit)
Another supplement classic: the community essay! While “community” can feel like a vague term, the beauty of these prompts lies in the ambiguity. The meaning is totally up for interpretation, which means that you can choose to describe a standard community unit (your neighborhood, family, ethnicity, or religion) or really any other group you belong to. The possibilities are almost endless and there’s really only one key to getting this essay right: you need to tell admissions something they don’t already know. What aspect of your background have you yet to explore? If you already covered your geographic affinities in the previous prompt, you could talk about the online community of vloggers you belong to. Your sports team could be your community, too. Or maybe you feel connected to every person who has ever read Harry Potter. Think about the core parts of your identity and trace them to their origin; chances are, you’ll find your community.
Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 word limit)
Surprise! We bet you didn’t see this sneaky question when you were first browsing through the Brown writing questions on the Common App. That’s because it’s one of the hidden prompts that we warn you about in our Common App tutorial. This prompt will ambush you in the “Activity” section of your Brown application, but don’t worry, the prompt itself isn’t all that surprising. Activity essays like this one are pretty common and really are as straightforward as they seem. The trickiest part is usually selecting the activity you want to talk about. So, we return to our favorite mantra: tell admissions something they couldn’t learn elsewhere. If you wrote your Common App essay about your tenure as captain of the basketball team, for this prompt you should focus on a different (ideally non-athletic) activity that shows a different side of who you are. This can be a great opportunity to highlight your leadership skills and any accolades you may have received as a result of participating in a particular activity. Did you win a community service award? Now is a great time to elaborate on your work. No matter what you choose, it should probably be something you’ve been involved in for a while, so you can demonstrate your growth and the impact that you have had on others.