Essay for T20 colleges - highly intellectual topic or something about me in detail?

Essay topic and the way of writing for T20 colleges -

Should the topic as well as the style of writing be to show the student’s level of mastery on a topic? To me, this sounds like a research paper on a topic.
Is it okay to pick the student’s area of interest, explain her experience during high school with examples? To me, this will include a lot of “I” and small things but those who made a big impact to the student’s view on the topic.

This site offers examples of successful application essays (in this case for a top-10 LAC):

If you scroll to the bottom, you will see the opportunity to register for a webinar for further ideas and tips.


There was a student who got into Yale who wrote about ordering pizza from papa John’s.

It’s not about boring them with research. It’s about showing your genuine self.

In the US system, essays are not about dazzling with your erudition, but filling in the spaces between the things already in your application folder to create a better sense of who you are- connecting the dots between your academic achievements (ie, GPA/scores), your ECs, and the ways the adults in your world see you (LoRs). So it can be an essay about an event, or about how a long term interest came to be- anything really. BUT: it has to show some maturity of thought.

Note that essays along the lines of ‘this terrible health thing happened to somebody I care about which is why I want to be a doctor’ or ‘this terrible thing happened to me and messed up grade x but now I’m better’ are ten a penny. The stories may be true (and genuinely heartbreaking), but a top tier school will want to see what choices you have made subsequently, how you / your thinking has evolved and matured. The essay can be on an academic or intellectual topic, but beware coming across as showing off, or being a one-trick pony, who is only academics- that’s not what most US tippy tops want.

tl;dr: Whatever the topic, the key is that the AO comes away thinking ‘this person will be a great add to this class’ ‘this person is a great fit for our school’ etc.

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I know two kids who got into Ivy League schools writing about blueberry muffins and Legos. Essays can be almost conversational, telling a story, and should be likable, in my opinion. There can be a sort of twist at the end (for instance, comparing working with Legos to coding). The last thing you want to do is brag or show off. The best are sometimes whimsical.


When we toured JHU some years ago, the ad com said his favorite essay of all time was about the student’s favorite type of hummus.

One of the “essays that worked” for Johns Hopkins was about a student breaking into cars. I still remember it to this day and it’s been a few years. It’s worth a read.

In other words, the best essays are those that show you for what you are. The place for highlighting your academic achievements is in the EC and Awards sections, plus possibly the Additional Information section.


Go for authenticity. This was the advice I gave my daughter, and it worked with T20s. Wishing you the best!


IMO the essay should tell someone positive and meaningful about you that can’t be found elsewhere on the application.


OP: In my opinion, the best and most concise guidance offered in this thread thus far is that the applicant should be authentic.

@whidbeyite2002 's straightforward advice regarding authenticity should not be taken lightly as authenticity should be evident in every aspect of one’s writing.

Writing displays one’s thought process revealing how an applicant analyzes matters and how the writer views the world. This,in turn, indicates level of intelligence, intellectual curiosity,and maturity of the writer.

OP: I agree with your implicit assumption that writing for top 20 schools requires a different approach than does writing an application essay for a less selective school. In one instance, the applicant is writing in order to enhance one’s odds of acceptance, while in the latter instance one is writing defensively so as to not cause a rejection.

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@samkumar great question. check out these two new CC articles on just this topic…the short answer is I’d go with a topic about you over something highly intellectual.

Writing a Successful Essay - The SPARC Method
Writing a Successful Essay Part 2 -

CC is also hosting an AMA on essay writing right now - that’s a great place to get more advice on this tips.

Trying to restrain my comments regarding the above post regarding the SPARC Method.

The cited articles were painful to read. Both articles are in need of editing & refinement, in my opinion. The articles over complicate the issue and some parts are incorrect. For example: Dismissing as unimportant what & how one writes is very unusual and inaccurate advice in my view. Such advice would have disastrous results for applicants to the nation’s most selective law schools as well as for a practicing attorney. I cannot imagine a business school (MBA) applicant following such advice.

P.S. It appears that the above post deleted the link to Part 1 so my comments in this post may be a bit more difficult to assess.

@SamKumar Who are you asking for? Yourself, or your kid?

Regardless…essays should be something that is in the voice of the student, and expresses something about them.

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Always about you. Tell your story. Capture the reader’s attention. Show them who you are and not what you have accomplished (they already know that). Show them the person behind all those numbers/awards/medals. I see the essay as the ‘human’ part of the application; the link that connects academics and personality. My opinion, of course. And, well, have fun!

This is a reasonable approach except if applying to a most competitive college or university, in my opinion. Better to show readers how you think than who you are. Your thought process should reveal much about what type of person you are, your maturity level, and your reasoning ability.

Of course, schools want nice people, but they admit nice, intelligent, intellectually curious individuals.


Not mutually exclusive, imo. Can be done simultaneously, no? :slightly_smiling_face: Of course the thought process is as important; didn’t mean otherwise. Simply focused on the ‘other’ element of the application process: the human element. How one develops their story is completely up to them -and their writing/creative skills. That, imo, is what will differentiate one essay from another (and where one might end up). All things equal, naturally. However, I am no AO, and have no inside info…lol…What I do have is a lot of sympathy for AO’s. I would like to think, however, that a well-argued essay, composed in a personal manner would be a bit more refreshing (and persuasive) than a totally cartesian one. You didn’t say that, I did. But I confess my fallible lethargy with the ‘middle’…lol…reason why I cannot imagine being in their shoes!

At the end of the day, what works for one may not work for someone else. The only advice I gave my son for the common app essay was: “tell your story”, just like I did above. For the second essay…well…I have yet to decipher his code (although I’m glad his AO did)… :upside_down_face:

P.S. When I say ‘tell your story’, I mean it is your story to tell. Not necessarily a story, per se. I should have clarified that. Although I personally love a good story.

Funny…I was cleaning out documents on my computer and came across DDs essay. It was about a new initiative she thought of and made happen at her school. Really, it sounded like her talking and telling a great story. She only applied to five total schools, and four of her admission letters had hand written comments about her essay. It was her voice speaking about something she did.

And I didn’t delete it from my documents!


When DS20 was analyzing essay prompts, it became evident that they largely fell into two categories best expressed by the following Babylon 5 references:

Who Are You?


What Do You Want?

Even if you have not seen Babylon 5 and do not know the characters, I feel strongly that watching these two short clips will be of help :slight_smile:, as will thinking through these two important questions.


My kids looked over old photo albums (yes we still had those) to get ideas.

I disagree that essays for top schools have to be different than essays for other schools.

I also think there is far too much angst about essays. Some outstanding ones make a difference, and some terrible ones make a difference, but the vast majority should be happy to achieve a neutral effect.

Authenticity is tough to achieve when there is coaching, so any adults involved in helping kids might want to consider leaving certain imperfections alone and letting the kids’ voice come through.


I agree with that. I went through this process with my older son and he was so frustrated, poor kid. He’s not the ‘writing’ type. My second child finished his in half hour. Different strokes…

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