How to write your way into the Ivy League

Tips for crafting a winning college essay, featuring an example that worked


OK, I didn’t just write my way into the Ivy League.

I was a well-rounded kid (a nerd on the swim team/an artist on the debate team/a musician taking AP chemistry and calculus classes for kicks) whose college application consisted of good grades, good test scores (my year was the last to take the SATs based on the 1600 system, and I scored 1550 — since I scored 800 on my SAT II Writing test, it’d be 2350 today), leadership roles (I founded a free English tutoring program for inner city immigrant youth), good recommendations (I think — thanks to sealed envelopes, to this day I have no idea what my teachers wrote about me), and all-around geekery.

But yeah I also had a good personal statement.

I got into Columbia (which I chose and is pictured above), Brown, University of Chicago, Northwestern, Wash U-St. Louis, U of Michigan, and U of Illinois.

Here’s my college application essay, unedited since I was 17:


The revolving doors whirled open as I stepped into the lobby. Everything was supersized, from the enormous sorcerer’s hat looming over the entryway to the marbled room I entered. I scanned the interior of the Disney Animation Studios; across from me stood the receptionist desk, the same polished white as the floor. What looked like crosses between pinball machines and telescopes lined the walls. I was eight, and, succumbing to my curiosity, I peered into one of the strange contraptions when my parents called me. I gulped. He was waiting for us at the door.
I confronted a short, stocky, bearded, and bespectacled man. The skin on his naked scalp gleamed as brightly as the smile on his face. I exhaled after realizing I had been holding my breath, and then the animator cordially introduced himself.
I had sent Mr. Goldberg copies of my drawings and stories, and he was so impressed that he took time out of his vacation to give my parents and me a private tour of the studio. These “masterpieces” resulted from a craft honed after years of experience; ever since I was able to clutch a pen in my hand, I have been drawing. Like many toddlers, I discovered that I could hold a stick-like tool and produce thin markings wherever I desired. I began exploring this breakthrough by capturing people in snapshots of their everyday lives onto the yellowed paper on my desk riddled with an infant’s graffiti. Paper after paper, I constructed looming towers that eventually threatened to scatter cartoons all across the kitchen floor.
The illustrations migrated to the living room rug or couch, and for years I continued to use these “flat” surfaces as drawing boards, the skin on my elbows becoming coarse after scraping against the carpet all the time. Following in the footsteps of one Walter Elias Disney, ubiquitous characters evolved from the pen strokes scratching on computer paper. His name was Jack. Her name was Kitty, a stereotypical cartoon female, resembling her male counterpart save for longer eyelashes and frillier clothes. They were cats, which are known to prey on mice, that unfortunate species belonging to a certain Mickey. My choice from the animal kingdom subconsciously paralleled my dream of founding a thriving cartoon powerhouse to paradoxically rival my innovative idol.
So naturally, when Mr. Goldberg asked me on that warm Californian winter’s day to draw him a picture, I enthusiastically sketched Jack and Kitty, signed it with a flourish, and exchanged it for a personalized and autographed cartoon from him. Smiling, he complimented me and even offered me a job ten years from then. Obviously, I couldn’t take him up on the job offer; otherwise, I would have to leave school a year from now. However, his words chiseled into stone my life-long goal of becoming an artist. That scribbled-on desk still stands in its corner in the kitchen, now holding heaps of recent paintings and sketches. I know that if one has a dream and truly wants it to become reality, nothing will hinder one’s way, no matter what changes, what new possibilities may arise. I might not topple the House of Mouse, but I will never cease drawing.

Scanned by my mom. (Thanks, Mom.)

My essay didn’t have anything to do with Columbia or the Ivy League. It didn’t deal with my love of New York City or analyzing passages from The Iliad. It didn’t detail my academic achievements (besides, I listed those in my résumé).

Just like you, there are many other intelligent and ambitious students applying to top-tier schools. What can you do to set yourself apart from the rest?

Write about your passion.

Write about something that’s meaningful to you, something you’re enthusiastic about. Your dream college will want you to carry that enthusiasm with you when you attend their school.

Additional tips:

  • Narrow your essay down to one topic. Even if you, like I was, are That Kid Who Does Everything. I had many passions, but drawing was my biggest one.
  • When choosing your topic, think about how you can be memorable. (Not many college applicants write about creating anthropomorphic animal cartoon characters.)
  • Use concrete language. Instead of vague statements and abstract ideas, use vivid imagery. Be descriptive and specific in your storytelling. Engage the senses.
  • Find your own voice, and use it. (Literally. It helps to read your essay out loud.)
  • Write what you know, and write from the heart. (You’ll be talking about your passion, after all.) Be earnest. Be human. Write the essay only you can write.
  • Don’t copy mine. I will find you and I will end you.

You don’t want to mess with this. (December 1995. Same trip as the animation studios adventure.)

Good luck!