How to Write Amazing Ivy League Essays

Learn what Ivy League schools are looking for in admissions essays

great ivy league essays highlight qualities that make the applicant exceptional

great ivy league essays highlight qualities that make the applicant exceptional


Part I: Introduction

College admissions can often feel like a faceless process shrouded in mystery. The decision-making processes of hyper-selective Ivy League schools can seem especially opaque to applicants.

But as you may have heard, the Common App Essay and supplemental college application essays offer the opportunity for students to showcase some of the harder-to-summarize, qualitative aspects of their application. These essays are a chance for students to give admissions officers a sense of their personality, interests that fall outside the scope of their resume, or moments that have been personally important to them.

We’ve written full guides to the Personal Statement and many types of college-specific prompts, linked above. But when approaching the personal statement and supplemental essays for hyper-selective schools, parents and students often wonder what Ivy League schools might be looking for. Is it all about replicating that Costco essay? (The answer is no.) This article dives into the qualities of successful Ivy League essays, and offers step-by-step guidance to help your child to produce such work.

The first place to begin in answering this question is identifying what makes Ivy League applications and expectations qualitatively different from the rest. There’s a kind of trickle-down effect that we can see from Ivy League universities to liberal arts schools, so preparing your child for top schools’ applications can prepare them to apply to mid-tier schools as well.

But, broadly, we observe that the most selective colleges ask for students to demonstrate passion, leadership, initiative, intellectual vitality, and memorability.

Remember that admissions committees evaluate these essays as part of a holistic narrative of a candidate—a successful essay doesn’t guarantee admission. Admissions—especially at Ivy League schools—is a complex, multi-faceted, and ever-changing process, and what might make one essay successful in any given year might not apply to essays in future years.

With that in mind, we’ve gathered successful Ivy League essays from applicants who were accepted into one or more Ivy League or Ivy+ institutions (such as Stanford, MIT, UChicago). By taking a close look at these essays, we’ve compiled a list of strategies for writing an essay that will be competitive in a highly selective applicant pool.


Part 2: Ivy League Essay Prompts

Every year, supplemental prompts change a little bit. But we’ve compiled a list of the prompts from Ivy League schools from the 2018-2019 Common App. Between all of these questions and the Personal Statement, your child will likely be able to find many routes into showing off their best qualities.

With that in mind, we’ve first listed all of the prompts for the Ivy League schools.

After this, we’ll talk more generally about how to approach the essays’ subject matter and structure, but you can (and will have to!) use these prompts as starting points. You might even be inspired by UChicago’s playful prompts and find yourself using one of those essays to answer a more stiff-upper-lip Princeton question.

(Note: Cornell University is excluded from this list because their prompts vary by program.)

Princeton University essay prompt

In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application, please write an essay of about 500 words (no more than 650 words and no fewer than 250 words). Using one of the themes below 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.

1. Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.

2.“One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.” Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.

3. “Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.” Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy and chair, Department of Philosophy, Princeton University.

4. Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation, title and author at the beginning of your essay.

Harvard University essay prompt

You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics:

  • Unusual circumstances in your life

  • Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities

  • What you would want your future college roommate to know about you

  • An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you

  • How you hope to use your college education

  • A list of books you have read during the past twelve months

  • The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.

  • The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?

  • Each year a substantial number of students admitted to Harvard defer their admission for one year or take time off during college. If you decided in the future to choose either option, what would you like to do?

  • Harvard has long recognized the importance of student body diversity of all kinds. We welcome you to write about distinctive aspects of your background, personal development or the intellectual interests you might bring to your Harvard classmates.

Columbia University essay prompt

List a few words or phrases that describe your ideal college community.(150 words or less)

List the titles of the required readings from courses during the school year or summer that you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)

List the titles of the books you read for pleasure that you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)

List the titles of the print, electronic publications and websites you read regularly. (150 words or less)

List the titles of the films, concerts, shows, exhibits, lectures and other entertainments you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)

Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why. (300 words or less)

MIT essay prompt

We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it. (100 words or fewer)

Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why? (100 words or fewer)

At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200-250 words)

Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations? (200-250 words)

Tell us about the most significant challenge you’ve faced or something important that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (200-250 words)

University of Chicago essay prompt

Choose one of the six extended essay options and upload a one- or two- page response.

1. In 2015, the city of Melbourne, Australia created a ''tree-mail'' service, in which all of the trees in the city received an email address so that residents could report any tree-related issues. As an unexpected result, people began to email their favorite trees sweet and occasionally humorous letters. Imagine this has been expanded to any object (tree or otherwise) in the world, and share with us the letter you'd send to your favorite.

Inspired by Hannah Lu, Class of 2020

2. You're on a voyage in the thirteenth century, sailing across the tempestuous seas. What if, suddenly, you fell off the edge of the Earth?

Inspired by Chandani Latey, AB'93

3. The word floccinaucinihilipilification is the act or habit of describing or regarding something as unimportant or of having no value. It originated in the mid-18th century from the Latin words ''floccu,'' ''naucum,'' ''nihilum,'' and ''pilus'' - all words meaning ''of little use.'' Coin your own word using parts from any language you choose, tell us its meaning, and describe the plausible (if only to you) scenarios in which it would be most appropriately used.

Inspired by Ben Zhang, Class of 2022

4. Lost your keys? Alohomora. Noisy roommate? Quietus. Feel the need to shatter windows for some reason? Finestra. Create your own spell, charm, jinx, or other means for magical mayhem. How is it enacted? Is there an incantation? Does it involve a potion or other magical object? If so, what's in it or what is it? What does it do?

Inspired by Emma Sorkin, Class of 2021

5. Imagine you’ve struck a deal with the Dean of Admissions himself, Dean Nondorf. It goes as follows: you’re guaranteed admission to the University of Chicago regardless of any circumstances that arise. This bond is grounded on the condition that you’ll obtain a blank, 8.5 x 11 piece of paper, and draw, write, sketch, shade, stencil, paint etc., anything and everything you want on it; your only limitations will be the boundaries of both sides on the single page. Now the catch… your submission, for the rest of your life, will always be the first thing anyone you meet for the first time will see. Whether it’s at a job interview, a blind date, arrival at your first Humanities class, before you even say, “hey,” they’ll already have seen your page, and formulated that first impression. Show us your page. What’s on it, and why? If your piece is largely or exclusively visual, please make sure to share a creator's accompanying statement of at least 300 words, which we will happily allow to be on its own, separate page. PS: This is a creative thought experiment, so please note: selecting this essay prompt does not guarantee your admission to UChicago, or forgive poor grades, criminal mischief, or any other “circumstances” that “may” “arise.”

Inspired by Amandeep Singh Ahluwalia, Class of 2022

6. In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking. Draw on your best qualities 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 have fun. You can find our past prompts here.

How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

Yale University essay prompt

What is it about Yale that has led you to apply? (125 words or fewer)

Please respond in no more than 200 characters (approximately 35 words), to each of the following questions:

1. What inspires you?

2. Yale’s residential colleges regularly host conversations with guests representing a wide range of experiences and accomplishments. What person, past or present, would you invite to speak? What question would you ask?

3. You are teaching a Yale course. What is it called?

4. Most first-year Yale students live in suites of four to six people. What do you hope to add to your suitemates' experience? What do you hope they will add to yours?

Please choose two of the following topics and respond to each in 250 words or fewer.

1. Think about an idea or topic that has been intellectually exciting for you. Why are you drawn to it?

2. Reflect on your engagement with a community to which you belong. How do you feel you have contributed to this community?

3. Yale students, faculty, and alumni engage issues of local, national, and international importance. Discuss an issue that is significant to you and how your college experience might help you address it.

Stanford University essay prompt

  • What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 word limit)

  • How did you spend your last two summers? (50 word limit)

  • What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 word limit)

  • What five words best describe you?

  • When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50 word limit)

  • Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford. (50 word limit)

  • Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time? (50 word limit).

  • The Stanford community is deeply curious and driven to learn in and out of the classroom. Reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning. (100 to 250 words)

  • Virtually all of Stanford's undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate – and us – know you better. (100 to 250 words)

  • Tell us about something that is meaningful to you and why. (100 to 250 words)

University of Pennsylvania essay prompt

How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying. (400-650 words)

Dartmouth University essay prompt

While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: “It is, Sir…a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to the Class of 2023, what aspects of the College’s program, community or campus environment attract your interest?

Choose one of the following prompts and respond in 250-300 words:

  • “I have no special talent,” Albert Einstein once observed. “I am only passionately curious.” Celebrate your curiosity.

  • The Hawaiian word mo’olelo is often translated as “story” but it can also refer to history, legend, genealogy, and tradition. Use one of these translations to introduce yourself.

  • “You can’t use up creativity,” Maya Angelou mused. “The more you use, the more you have.” Share a creative moment or impulse—in any form—that inspired creativity in your life.

  • In the aftermath of World War II, Dartmouth President John Sloane Dickey, Class of 1929, proclaimed, “The world’s troubles are your troubles…and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” Which of the world’s “troubles” inspires you to act? How might your course of study at Dartmouth prepare you to address it?

  • In The Bingo Palace, author Louise Erdrich, Class of 1976, writes, “…no one gets wise enough to really understand the heart of another, though it is the task of our life to try.” Discuss.

  • Emmy and Grammy winner Donald Glover is a 21st century Renaissance man—an actor, comedian, writer, director, producer, singer, songwriter, rapper, and DJ. And yet the versatile storyteller and performer recently told an interviewer, “The thing I imagine myself being in the future doesn’t exist yet.” Can you relate?

Brown University essay prompt

Why are you drawn to the area(s) of study you indicated earlier in this application? (You may share with us a skill or concept that you found challenging and rewarding to learn, or any experiences beyond course work that may have broadened your interest.) (250 word limit)

What do you hope to experience at Brown through the Open Curriculum, and what do you hope to contribute to the Brown community? (250 word limit)

What do all of those prompts have in common?

Remember the qualities we mentioned above? Passion, leadership, initiative, intellectual vitality, and memorability! Each of these prompts is, in some way, designed to get your child reflecting on something in a creative and enthusiastic way.

We have a full guide to writing supplemental essays that tackles some of the most common types of prompts for Ivy+ and non-Ivy schools alike, including the Why Us essay, the diversity essay, the extracurricular essay, and the academic enthusiasm essay.

Here, though, upon close-reading the Ivy+ prompts, we can notice a few key things.

Whether it’s Yale asking about something your child is “intellectually excited” about, or Brown telling them to reflect on the particularities of the Open Curriculum, or Stanford eliciting a note to a roommate, these schools all want your child to detail their most particular obsessions, and to be able to speak about them in a way that demonstrates intelligence and a surprising but rigorous way of thinking, and they want to know that your child will share those passions with their roommates, classmates, fellow club members, etc.

Again, these are the things any school would love to see in your child’s Common App PS. But the Ivy+ colleges’ questions are particularly geared toward testing such qualities.

What follows is advice that can apply to both the PS and the supplementals, given the wide range of topics one can address across each type of essay.



Part 3: Choosing a Topic

Successful students write about what interests them. This doesn’t have to be something unusual, or something that reflects the applicant’s central academic and extracurricular activities. It should be something the applicant can write about with conviction, excitement, and specificity.

We’ve got four example students who pulled off successful admissions cycles to Ivy+ schools. Here’s how they chose their subject matter.

Our first example student is Camille. Camille is passionate about the environment, though she’s also involved in activities like the school newspaper and French club. When choosing a topic for supplemental essays, one might expect Camille to choose something that relates to these activities, or that in some way reflects on her academic prowess in the humanities.

Instead, for one of her supplemental essays, Camille wrote about a topic that may at first seem unrelated to her application. She chose to write about one of her favorite teachers, someone who’s made an impact on her.

Our second example student is Jenna. She’s interested in debate, politics, and history.  For her supplemental essays, though, she chose to write about her love for the hit musical Hamilton.

In each essay, the students’ genuine interest in the subject shines through. By way of their interests we learn, indirectly, more about each student herself.

In other words, it’s not so much the topic, but the voice and tone in which these students write about their chosen topic, that will give an admissions committee insight into their personalities and characters. In the next section of this post, we’ll break down how Camille and Jenna use tone, voice, and detail to communicate something about themselves while writing about Hamilton or a favorite teacher.

Our third student, Simon, might be thought of as well rounded. His grades and test scores are high in math, science, and the humanities. Extracurricularly, he’s been successful in mock trial but has also succeeded in science competitions. One of his supplemental essays for Princeton asked that he respond to a quotation of his choosing.

Like Camille and Jenna, Simon didn’t pick anything that was too on-the-nose: he spent some time considering what had genuinely piqued his curiosity in the things he’d read in the past few years. The resulting essay, in response to the quotation, is associative and spontaneous, rather than a rehash of Simon’s impressive resume.

Our last example student, Rhea, is the opposite of Simon. Rather than being “well-rounded,” Rhea is what the Harvard Admissions website might call “well-lopsided”. She loves to write, and has demonstrated interest through her involvement with her school’s slam poetry team and national writing competitions. On the other hand, she struggles in subjects like math. Rhea’s supplemental essay for Yale underlines the quality that makes her “well-lopsided”—she writes about it with unreserved intensity.

In short, your child should aim to choose a topic they’re excited to talk about. What could they talk about at the dinner table for an hour? How do they spend their free time? What do they find themselves wanting to do when they should be doing something else? Who’s someone in their everyday life that has influenced or changed them? Are there moments in the student’s life that have made them feel part of something larger?


Part 4: Deciding on a Structure

Once your child has chosen a topic that they’re genuinely invested in, the next step is deciding on the right structure for the essay. An Ivy+ quality essay isn’t just five paragraphs, like what you learned to write in early high school. An Ivy+ quality essay takes narrative and storytelling seriously. It reads like a truly creative endeavor.

If your child is truly passionate about their subject matter, an organic structure can emerge—one that indicates that they weren’t just following a static set of building blocks. While we can’t reverse engineer passion, we can give you some tips for prompting your talented and motivated child to access their storytelling brain, rather than their resume-summary brain.

Let’s start with Jenna’s Hamilton essay, and her supplemental essay about her favorite teacher. The first structural element that makes these essays successful is the opening.

Strategy 1: A “Hook”

Jenna begins her essay with a hook that 1) draws the reader in and 2) establishes her voice, and her enthusiasm, immediately. Here’s the opening to her Hamilton essay:

A coal scuttle. A woman on stage, crying, singing, and burning a series of old-looking papers the color of tea. All this: a way to tell the audience about someone history has forgotten. This is what happens at one of the emotional climaxes of my favorite musical: Eliza Hamilton, spurned by her husband, removes herself from the historical narrative by burning their letters. I saw Hamilton when my father won a lottery for tickets on a visit to New York City. A drama nerd, I was thrilled to get a chance to see the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning production. I didn’t know how much it would affect the way I thought about the past, and the present.

For comparison, here’s Camille’s opening to the essay about her favorite teacher:

“Uncertainty could be my guiding light.” – U2

“Do or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda

“Life’s what you make it, so let’s make it rock.” – Hannah Montana

An eclectic group of unrelated aphorisms? Not at all. I like to think of them as drops of inspirational “Zachary-isms” splashing the drab cinderblock walls with colorful insights. To call room 134 a “classroom” is an understatement. I prefer to think of it as a sanctuary where students are free to disagree, take risks, and derive their own sense of meaning.

Notice that these essays open with a focus on something beyond the student: they begin by grabbing the interest of the reader. They also start small. Rather than declaring what the essay is “about,” Camille and Jenna focus on a hyper-specific image to draw the reader in.

It can be daunting to sit down in front of the blank page, trying to communicate a big idea. The subject of Jenna’s essay is Hamilton. The big idea she communicates in the rest of the essay is that though she’s a drama nerd who previously saw acting—and other performative activities like debate—as a way to take the spotlight and inhabit your best self, this particular musical showed her how entertainment can be a vehicle for communicating big ideas about history and politics, while also encouraging contemporary audiences to remember that they’re living through history all the time. It’s an essay that subtly links back to her central interests while not harping on them too directly.

Notice, though, that she begins the essay not by immediately making her love for Hamilton into a metaphor. Instead she begins with a concrete detail—the climax of the show.

If your child is stuck—say she’s trying to write an essay about how her love of antique shopping taught her to listen to people different from herself—have her brainstorm specific sensory details about the thing they love and are enthusiastic about. What do they know, specifically, about this thing? Jenna knows the exact the type of prop used onstage, because she geeked out and asked around when she dreamt of putting on her own version of the show at her high school.

Your antique-loving child might know a litany of specific period terms, or the difference between a baroque armoire and a mid-century walnut credenza. Have them list what they know, and begin the essay with object rather than idea.

Starting small and going big is a good strategy. That being said, a successful essay opening can also start big. Simon’s essay, which is written in response to a Machiavelli quotation he chose, begins with the following.

The cosmos call to me. Whether in a city, where only the brightest stars break through the noise, or away from all distractions, where their number can overwhelm, I welcome the perspective the heavens bestow. Even though I try to tame the sky with books or a telescope, it never ceases to make me feel powerless.

Beginning with the cosmos is about as big as you can get. But a key similarity between Simon’s opening and Camille’s is that he still uses a specific image, rendered with curiosity and enthusiasm. It communicates to admissions committees: this kid knows what they’re talking about, and they’re talking about it from a place of intellectual vitality.

Strategy 2: Introduce Larger Significance

So, your child has started their essay. They’ve settled on a topic that excites them. They’ve written an attention-grabbing hook that uses specific knowledge, a sensory image, or that focuses the essay’s perspective. What next?

Yes, the essay is about the student’s chosen topic, but really it’s about the student. The next section of the essay, after the hook, should accomplish two things. First, it should establish the student’s voice. Second, it should reflect that the student has thought about why this thing might grab their interest.

Let’s start with that first goal, establishing voice.

Jenna’s voice comes through even in her hook, but her voice becomes even stronger as the essay progresses past the hook into the second paragraph.

What defines a unique student voice in an admissions essay? It’s stuff like word choice, word repetition, and when the student decides to write more formally vs. more colloquially. Sometimes students swing too far towards using formal SAT-word-strewn language in order to impress an admissions committee or to sound mature. On the contrary, well-placed use of informal language can humanize the candidate and give the essay a voice. Here’s an example, from Camille’s Hamilton essay:

Okay, okay. Musical theater can be hammy and campy. I should have learned to love history in school, right? But every year, my class began with the same old recitations about documents that seemed ancient. It wasn’t until I watched Eliza Hamilton rendered with such humanity onstage that I connected to what I later learned was called “historiography,” or how we write history.

Jenna’s voice effortlessly blends the colloquial—phrases like “Okay, okay” and “right?”—with specific formal language—words like “rendered” and “historiography.” She showcases a grasp of vocabulary without coming across as stiff or like a know-it-all.

To return to our hypothetical antique-aficionado: how should she establish voice in her essay? Maybe it would involve mixing formal terminology with informal language. And maybe it would involve poking a little fun at herself, as Jenna does in this essay by saying things like “hammy” and “campy.”

Repetition can also be a valuable strategy in structuring an essay and establishing voice. Let’s return to Rhea, our “well-lopsided” aspiring writer. One of her supplemental essays for Yale takes as its subject the realization that she uses the written word not only to understand herself but to learn about her family history. The essay begins on a broad, personal note, with an organizing topic sentence in the second paragraph:

When I reflect on my life, everything ties back into the power of the written word.     

As the essay progresses, it opens up—Rhea links the personal significance of writing to something larger. One way Rhea achieves this is through repetition:

Words make me who I am. The words of my grandparents told me how lucky I am to be growing up in America, instead of Nazi-occupied Poland or Stalinist Russia, like they did.

In both Jenna and Rhea’s essays, repetition and “opening up” to a larger topic are important in establishing voice and larger significance—both of which will help admissions committees gain a better sense of the students.

Strategy 3: Clarify and Summarize Larger Significance

Now your child has written a stellar opening hook, has used word choice, images, and repetition to establish a particular voice for the essay, and has shown that they’re self-aware about the importance of the chosen subject to their life. Now they need to leave the admissions committee with a clear, well-crystallized idea about the student and their personality.

Simon’s essay is about how, when he looks at the night sky, he’s reminded of the interplay between the power he has to shape his own destiny, and also forces that are out of his control. The essay follows the structure we’ve been observing: he begins with a particular image of the cosmos, showcases his voice through word choice, links the image of the cosmos to his larger thoughts on the balance between ambition and larger forces at work in the world. In the last paragraph of the essay, he narrows the scope again:

I make sure to embrace the night sky as a reminder that I am not in complete control. The stars will move regardless of how I live my life.

Similarly, Jenna’s Hamilton essay ends with something the admissions committee can hold on to, something that gives them a sense of her values and personality:

I don’t know if I’ll study history in college. But I do know that this theater-geek has a wider sense of what can be accomplished onstage, and of how big ideas can come to life through something as small as a coal scuttle.

Since admissions officers are reading so many essays so quickly, it’s important to leave them with a strong, specific, lasting impression—a takeaway, if you will.



Part 5: Writing the Essay

Now that we’ve done a deep dive into structure—hook, voice, larger significance, takeaway—we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of what makes successful Ivy League essays not only structurally compelling, but also engrossing and richly textured.

Tip 1: Include lots of detail

Essays that are successful in the Ivy League pool often use very specific details to make the essay true-to-life and fresh. Your student should avoid cliché and generalizations as they write.

Let’s look back at Camille’s essay about her favorite teacher. Here’s how she introduces him:

The rays beating onto his back seem to infuse him with an enthusiastic energy which he passes on to his drowsy students. The well-worn spine of The Brothers Karamazov is plopped in one open hand, complete with the ubiquitous highlighted passages and illegible margin notes. The other madly gesticulates.

Notice that Camille really sets the scene here. We can see the teacher she’s describing: the sun rays, the tired high school students. Instead of saying “a book” she provides a specific title. She zooms in to show not just details, but telling details.

We understand that this is an enthusiastic and dedicated teacher from the description of his gesticulation and the description of the marginalia. Not only do these details tell us something about the teacher: by telling us what Camille notices and admires about the teacher, we learn more about Camille. She’s the kind of student that admires enthusiasm and dedication to one’s work.

Tip 2: Take a humble tone

Application essays are not the place to brag. Your child is in the Ivy League pool, and the non-qualitative portions of the application—the Common App, the resume, etc.—will give the admissions committee insight into their measurable accomplishments.

In fact, the essay is sometimes a good place to acknowledge flaws, contradictions, and uncertainty.

Take Rhea. She writes:

Words are the thread that ties me to the people and events around me. Words help me understand a universe that is at once united and divided. Words remind me that I am at once miniscule, insignificant, and at the same time an important link in the chain of history.

In the last paragraph of the essay, Rhea ends by meditating on her own insignificance, which can be a counterpart to an application geared to show an admissions committee how she stands out from the crowd. This ending suggests humility and perspective, as well as a contradiction. Writing is important to her in part because she’s good at it, but also because it reminds her that the world is much wider than herself.

Tip 3: Switch up your word choice

Simon and Jenna’s essays rarely repeat key words—unless, as in Jenna’s, the repetition is purposeful in order to establish voice. Don’t reach for the fanciest or most formal word, but do try to use language that’s crisp and particular.

Remember that, as former Princeton Dean of Admissions Janet Lavin Rapelye writes, your essay not only communicates something about you, but also should showcase your writing skills: “Your ability to write well is critical to our decision because your writing reflects your thinking. No matter what question is asked on a college application, admission officers are looking to see how well you convey your ideas and express yourself in writing. It is our window to your world.”

Tip 4: Write with confidence and make your message clear

While it’s important to avoid bragging in these essays, your student should be confident in their subject matter and the message they’re getting across. We’ve touched on the “takeaways” as an effective structural element of the successful essay. It can also be useful to pepper these “takeaways” throughout the essay.

Here’s an example line from her Rhea’s essay: “Words have whispered to me my whole life. They have been my comfort, my refuge, my outlet, my joy.”

At first glance, this might seem like an overstatement or a generalization. But this clarity and confidence communicates key information to an admissions committee: this person is serious about their interests.

Tip 5: Consider adding a title

As you’ll notice in the full-length essays included below, some successful essays have a title. This suggests that your child has put extra effort into highlighting the central idea of the essay and considers it a full, polished piece of writing.

Tip 6: Have your child read (not just other people’s college essays)

The students we’re featuring in this post are great writers in part because they’ve been truly engaged with narrative for many years. If your child is a reader already, they probably have voices they’re passionate about, who infuse the way they think. If your child isn’t yet in love with words, consider sharing with them a few essays by truly great writers. Not writers of college essays. The real deal.

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’, Nora Ephron’s ‘A Few Words About Breasts,’  Annie Dillard’s ‘Total Eclipse,’ or any number of essays by David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, John McPhee, David Sedaris, Meghan Daum, Maggie Nelson, or Anne Fadiman.


Part 6: Full-length Ivy League essay example

Here’s Jenna’s essay on her favorite teacher:

Mr. Zachary’s Opus

“Uncertainty could be my guiding light.” – U2

“Do or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda

“Life’s what you make it, so let’s make it rock.” – Hannah Montana

An eclectic group of unrelated aphorisms? Not at all. I like to think of them as drops of inspirational “Zachary-isms” splashing the drab cinderblock walls with colorful insights. To call room 134 a “classroom” is an understatement. I prefer to think of it as a sanctuary where students are free to disagree, take risks, and derive their own sense of meaning.

Room 134? Hardly. It’s an extension of Mr. Zachary himself.

Each English class with “Zac Attack” is a unique experience. He sits on the windowsill digging his elbows into his knees, a panorama of hazy trees stretched behind him in the early morning sunlight. The rays beating onto his back seem to infuse him with an enthusiastic energy which he passes on to his drowsy students. The well-worn spine of Great Expectations is plopped in one open hand, complete with the ubiquitous highlighted passages and illegible margin notes. The other madly gesticulates through the air as he conveys the literary beauty of the passage he’s reading aloud to his awakening audience. He reads faster and faster, gradually increasing the intensity in his voice until suddenly he stops—catching us all by surprise with his silence. A smile spreads across his face as he watches the words he’s just spoken permeate our thawing brains. That is Mr. Zachary in his pure, unadulterated genius.

He finds subtle ways to sneak in references to his proud Irish-Catholic roots. One day, he recited all of Yeats’ “Second Coming” from memory. I could almost see the “widening gyre” behind his dancing eyes. Remarkably, he never intimidates with his boundless knowledge. To be honest, most of the time I forget he’s my teacher. I’m genuinely convinced Mr. Zachary is a kid stuck in an adult’s body. He’s the only teacher I know who will walk you to the cafeteria if a conversation spills over into the lunch period. He’s the only teacher I know who conducts class from a beach chair on Fridays. He the only teacher I know who has snappier wisecracks than the class clown. Mr. Zachary is half-Yeats, half-Bono—the perfect Irish combination of intellect with that classic “cool dude” persona.

His passion is contagious. Never before have I felt so liberated sitting in front of a blank computer screen. One of Mr. Zachary’s “inviolate rules” is to write for yourself, not for a grade. He’s taught me to catch the thoughts in my head and crystallize them on paper. He’s taught me to harness the therapeutic power of words flying across the page. He’s taught me to be unafraid of words—to love words. He’s helped me find the writer in myself. He’s a sage, a muse, a bard, a mentor, and a savant. More importantly, he’s my friend.


Part 7: Final Thoughts

No one can spell out exactly what the Ivy League or Ivy+ behemoth wants.

But here’s a summary of the strategies we’ve learned based on over a decade of working with successful Ivy League applicants. We’ve also broken down the ways your child can begin their outlining and prewriting for an Ivy League essay that wows the admissions committee.

Start with a quality hook

Have your child sit with a blank piece of paper and brainstorm people, places, or moments that have made an impression on them over the course of a few years. Or maybe there’s a new, strong interest they’ve been pursuing recently.

Next, have them brainstorm striking images or details about the subject they’ve chosen.

Develop larger significance

Next, have your student think about the question, “what does my interest in this subject say about me?” It might be helpful for them to do some self-reflection here unrelated to the topic at hand. What are some personality traits that they might want the admissions committee to know? What positive things do people repeatedly say about them? For example, if people consistently rely on your student to organize group projects, they might be a good leader. Or maybe they’re a good listener, or a loyal friend. Or maybe, like Simon admits in his essay about the night sky, they’re a little impatient and power-hungry. Work backwards from character/personality towards the subject of the essay.

Deliver “takeaway”

Have your child outline the essay. If they wanted a reader to take one thing away from reading the essay, what would it be?