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Act Essay Prompts College Confidential

For many top achieving high school students around the world, gaining admittance into Harvard University represents the realization of a dream. However, with applications soaring and acceptance rates down to just 5.3% for the class of 2019, achieving that dream has become harder and harder.

A key component in your application to any college is the essay, giving admissions committees a window into your life beyond your resume. A well written essay can revive the chances of a student with a weak extracurricular profile and poor SAT scores, while a poorly written essay full of cliché can derail even the valedictorian with a 2400 SAT and perfect extracurricular activities. Harvard in particular heavily emphasizes the essay portion of a student’s application due to the exceptional quality of the applicant pool each year.

For most schools, the essay on the Common Application provides one opportunity for students to introduce themselves. But most elite schools also have a supplement to the Common App, in which they ask for additional required essays to gain more insight into you as an applicant.

Harvard’s supplement doesn’t work in exactly the same manner.

On the Harvard Supplement, the Additional Essays section reads as follows:

“Occasionally, students feel that college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about themselves or their accomplishments. If you wish to include an additional essay, you may do so.

Possible Topics:

Unusual circumstances in your life

Travel or living experiences in other countries

A letter to your future college roommate

An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper or research

topic) 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 optional and open-ended nature of the supplement has resulted in frustration for hundreds of thousands of students over the years. Opinions vary regarding whether you should or shouldn’t send in the Harvard Optional Essay. Debate is always heated when this question is asked on the popular College Confidential forums, with about half of the posts saying “go for it!” and the others saying that you don’t need it. A quick scan of the Internet literature shows mixed opinions as well. When you keep in mind that most of the opinions expressed on the web are by students looking to reassure themselves of their own uncertainty, the issue quickly becomes a wild goose chase.

Luckily, we have an answer that ends the debate and will help you rest easy. We polled a random sample of over 200 students in Harvard’s Class of 2017 and found that of those accepted students, over 85% wrote the optional essay. So you probably should as well.

This finding shouldn’t surprise you. For a few students it truly doesn’t matter – kids have been accepted into Harvard before without sending in the optional essay. On the flip side, if you know that your test scores, GPA, or ECs are average or worse (in the context of Harvard, that describes 99% of applicants) – then the optional essay provides an invaluable opportunity to enhance your application and increase your chance of catching the eye of that admissions counselor.

And when you do write that optional essay, be sure to go big; write an essay on a totally unique passion, a compelling narrative of a key moment in your life, or an insightful academic essay that highlights your intellectual talents. Statistically, your chances of getting into Harvard are so slim that it can’t hurt.

For help on how to write the Harvard Supplement, feel free to check out this year’s post on How to Write the Harvard Optional Supplement Essay or reach out to work 1-on-1 with one of Admissions Hero’s trained Harvard essay specialists.

Related CollegeVine Blog Posts

The new 2015-2016 Common Application essay prompts have been released. Here’s the scoop, which includes some data points about feedback from their essay prompt survey, straight from the Common App site:

We are pleased to share the 2015-2016 Essay Prompts with you. New language appears in italics:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

The changes you see reflect the feedback and consensus of nearly 6000 individuals who responded to our recent survey. Among the survey highlights:

  • 197 individual Member responses representing 110 Member institutions
  • 5667 constituent responses (64% school counselors; 14% students; 11% independent educational consultants; 4% parents; 2% community based organizations; remainder = other)
  • 82% of Members and 90% of constituents agree or strongly agree that the current prompts generate effective essays on the whole
  • 62% of Members and 48% of constituents believe the “story/background” prompt is the most effective
  • 76% of Members and 44% of constituents would like to see the “place where you’re content” prompt replaced
  • 35% of Members and 30% of constituents feel that analytical ability and intellectual curiosity (as a combined percentage) are most the difficult attributes to convey through the current prompts
  • 85% of Members and 82% of constituents feel the prompts should be left open to broad interpretation
  • 3% of Member respondents suggested Topic of Your Choice as a new prompt
  • 6% of constituent respondents suggested Topic of Your Choice as a new prompt, with the breakdown as follows: independent educational consultants (47%), community-based organizations (7%), school counselors (5%), parents (2%), other (2%), students (<1%)

Essays, perhaps next to the SAT, may be the most feared and stressed-over component of college applications. We’ve discussed the finer points of essay writing many times here. Before you start working on your Common Application essay and the associated Common Application supplements that colleges just love to throw your way, you need to start seeing yourself in the proper perspective in regards to being an applicant to your candidate colleges. This stratagem applies even if you’re not aiming for the top, as with the Ivies and other elites. Knowing who you are and how you think, plus being able to express that in an articulate statement, will go a long way in advancing your admission chances, regardless of where you are applying.

I’d like to offer you some advice on approaching not only your Common Application essays but also those in your Common App supplements and even some scholarship statements. The approach is generally the same and even if you’re doubtful about your ability to be “creative,” this should help put you at ease enough to do a good job.

I’d like you to consider your application campaign in two categories: (1) “general” college applications (the Ivies, elites, and other selective schools) and, perhaps in your case, (2) “specific” applications (specialized programs such as BS/MD, Penn’s Huntsman, Wharton, etc.). The Common Application essay, its related writing requirements, and those non-specialized-program-related college supplements fall into the general category. Obviously, the combo-med and other special supplements are in the specific category.

“So what should I write about, Dave?” you ask. Well, here’s your challenge for coming up with an idea for your Common App essay, in order to maximize your profile marketing and to get Harvard, Stanford, and all the others, to take you to the cash register: Identify some thing, event, or thought process that sticks out in your mind that would reveal to your colleges who you are and how you think. One of my clients from years past wrote about her theories as to why certain classmates sat in the seats they did in certain classes. It was a fascinating glimpse into how this young woman observed the world around her. She went to Harvard.

Here’s another exercise that can help you set yourself apart in your essay(s):

Look around your room and see if anything in there inspires you to write about an aspect of your life that colleges won’t be able to discern from the rest of your application. Do you have any weird hobbies or habits (Making chess pieces out of Corn Flakes? Painting corporate logos on old car doors? Taking pictures chipmunks running from cats? Autographing yellow lines on the roads near your home? Get the idea here? [Of course, I’m exaggerating for effect here.]) that seem really crazy and that you may be too embarrassed to mention? These are the kinds of activities that make wonderful “anything else” essays!

My son, who went to Princeton, answered his Princeton “anything else” prompt by discussing his sense of humor and citing some of the crazy things he did with his friends. His essay started out something like this: “You have already seen that I place a high value on academics and meaningful extracurriculars. However, I want you to know that I’m not all work and no play. I love to laugh and sometimes do things with my friends that others may think are weird, but they appeal to my sense of humor . . .”

So, keeping all this in mind, construct a list of “little known habits, hobbies, and other weird stuff ” about yourself.  Then, work to shape an aspect (or aspects) of that list into a winning  statement.

Try these approaches and see how they might bear fruit in light of the new Common App essay prompts cited above. You’re probably a better writer than you realize!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.

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