Why You Shouldn't Read "Essays That Worked" - A Case Study

successful yale essays reddit

"First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. They sit beside the ocean, combing their long golden hair and singing to passing sailors. But anyone who hears their song is bewitched by its sweetness, and they are drawn to that island like iron to a magnet. And their ship smashes upon rocks as sharp as spears. And those sailors join the many victims of the Sirens in a meadow filled with skeletons. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men's ears with wax that none of them may hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on a cross-piece half way up the mast, and they must lash the rope's ends to the mast itself, that you may have the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, then they must bind you faster." - Homer

There's something intoxicating about essays that worked. If I just read enough of these, I'll figure out how to find the magic 650 words that gets me in! Part of this allure comes from the way education works - students are trained to learn by looking at examples. Part of it stems from the mystique that surrounds admissions - since students know so little about how applications are reviewed and evaluated, they default to gobbling up whatever crumbs they can find, even if it's just a post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc generalization.

But therein lies the danger. Admission is holistic, and many applicants will get in in spite of their essay rather than because of it. Many essays that worked just aren't very good , and this has been corroborated on A2C by a former AO at a T5, a former reviewer at UT Austin, and a Stanford interviewer. /u/AdmissionsMom says to "avoid accepted essays like hot lava," and her own daughter was admitted in spite of a poor essay:

"She was accepted to every school she applied to with the exception of Princeton, and she attended Harvard. I think we all just assumed her personal essay helped her with admissions because she wasn't the strongest student in her school when it came to doing homework or daily assignments. But when she used the FERPA rule to review her application later during her sophomore year, she discovered that she'd been admitted despite the fact that they hated her essay. They called it "over-blown" "full of itself" and "way too self-important."

Allow me to tie you to the mast that you may hear the Sirens' call. Below is an essay that worked which I found openly published on the internet. This student was admitted to Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown. It's probably amazing and a perfect example to mimic right? Buckle in.

The first time that I attended a water ballet performance, I experienced a synesthesia of sorts as I watched the swan-like movements of the swimmers unfold with the cadence and magic of lyrical poetry, the precisely executed sequences melding with the musical accompaniment to create an ethereal beauty that I had never imagined possible. “You belong out there, creating that elegance with them,” I heard the quiet but powerful voice of my intuition tell me. For the next six years, I heeded its advice, training rigorously to master the athletic and artistic underpinnings of synchronized swimming.
I flailed and plunged with all the grace of an elephant seal during my first few weeks of training. I was quickly and thoroughly disabused of the notion that the poise and control that I so coveted would be easy to obtain. During the first phase of my training, I spent as much time out of the water as in it, occupying myself with Pilates, weight training, and gymnastics in order to build my strength and flexibility. I learned things about the sport that outsiders seldom realize: that performers aren’t allowed to touch the bottom of the pool, relying on an “eggbeater” technique also used by water polo players to stay afloat; that collisions and concussions are all too common; that sometimes the routine demands staying underwater for so long that the lungs burn and the vision becomes hazy. My initial intervals in the water were marked by a floundering feeling that seemed diametrically opposed to the grace that I sought. I began to question whether I was really cut out for the sport.
I persisted through all of this and slowly but certainly I saw myself progress. My back tucks became tight and fluid, my oyster maneuvers controlled and rhythmical, my water wheels feeling so natural that I could have executed them in my sleep. Moreover, I became comfortable enough with my own role in the water that I was able to expand my awareness to the other members of my team, moving not just synchronistically, but also synergistically. During one of my first major performances, our routine culminated as I launched myself out of the water in a powerful boost, surging upward on the swelling currents of the symphonic accompaniment. I owned the elegant arc that I cut through air and water, my teammates and I executing the leap with the majestic effortlessness of a pod of dolphins frolicking in the sea. I reveled in the thunderous applause at the conclusion of our routine, for it meant that I had helped to create the kind of exquisite beauty that I had so admired years before.
Though I never would have guessed this at the outset of my training, synchronized swimming has provided one of the central metaphors of my life. The first and most fundamental lesson that I learned was persistence, which I absorbed humbly and viscerally by way of aching muscles and chlorine-stung eyes. More subtly and powerfully, the sport also lent me an instinctive appreciation of the way that many parts interact to form an emergent whole, an understanding which I have applied to every area of my studies, from mechanical systems to biological networks to artistic design. I have become cognizant of the fact that, as when I am in the water, my own perception of myself is narrow and incomplete, that to really understand my role in life I need to see myself in terms of my interactions with those around me. Six years after my training began, I still pursue the sense of harmony and unity that synchronized swimming has instilled in me, riding the soft swells of destiny forward as I move on to the next phase of my life.

This essay is simply not very good. I would charitably give it like a 3 out of 10 for the schools she's applying to. It does a ton of things wrong and I would guess there was something really special about this applicant in the other sections of her application because she was admitted in spite of this essay, not because of it. Without getting into too much detail, here's a review of the shortcomings:

1) Content, topic, and theme - How good is the actual content? Is it unique? Does it say a lot about you? Does the essay show depth of thought, intellectual vitality, initiative, originality, etc? Does it fit the prompt well enough, or does it feel like it was written for something else and shoehorned in?

The content here is merely ok. Essays about synchronized swimming aren't especially common, but essays about sports certainly are, and this one doesn't do enough to distinguish itself. Sports can be fine if you're a recruited athlete, which she may well have been. Otherwise, it should be approached with caution because it's SO hard to stand out from the stack with yet another sports essay. If she wanted to go with this, I would have encouraged her to make it a persistence essay or self-actualization essay that happens to also mention synchronized swimming. To make matters worse, she uses a common topic to make common and predictable points about herself. Oh really, her hard work at something new and uncomfortable taught her the value of pErSiStEnCe? genewilder.jpg

If you MUST use a common topic, then at least say something unpredictable, interesting, imaginative, or important about yourself with it. The story arc is also lame and predictable. She was intrigued by something and tried it, she was bad at it, she worked hard, she got gud, she learned to be persistent. Anyone would see that coming a mile away.

There's only a little curiosity, love of learning, or penchant for exploration shown here and it's done in a rather direct and predictable way. The only initiative shown is picking a sport and sticking with it - a trait shared with perhaps half of all students nationally. The prompt doesn't much matter in this case since this essay could fit into several Common App prompt options.

2) Style and Structure - Is the essay easy to read, authentic, creative, compelling, and engaging? Is the style consistent throughout the essay and is it consistent with the rest of the application? Is the essay organized well? Does it communicate clearly? Does it flow smoothly?

Meh. This essay reads like it was written to "sound good" rather than to actually communicate something important and personally insightful. It flows just fine, but I feel like it's a lazy river loop that doesn't go anywhere important rather than a waterfall culminating in a compelling personal revelation. She makes the actual insights an afterthought in the essay. Seriously just one of her four paragraphs shares meaningful information about who she is and what matters to her and those are trite and predictable.

The descriptive and flowery details are meaningless and add almost nothing to the story. The reviewer is not reading to be entertained; they're reading to understand the applicant. The adjective vomit in that third paragraph says almost nothing about her as a person, only that she achieved her goal of becoming a competent synchronized swimmer (a point which should already be clear in her activities section and is therefore redundant). Use details and descriptions, but make them say something about you. Don't try to be sensory and immersive for its own sake. One example of this that works is the aching muscles and chlorine-stung eyes - they show her dedication, commitment, and persistence. More of that and less "swelling currents of the symphonic accompaniment" please.

3) Impression - What does the essay say about you? What will a reviewer likely think of you after reading it? Is it compelling and gripping?

There are precious few important messages shared in the first three paragraphs, and there isn't much to convince the reviewer that this will be worth reading or will meaningfully impact how they see this student. The conclusion is full of meaningless cliches, sweeping generalizations, and worthless imagery. Say something important, don't wax eloquent about the "soft swells of destiny." This isn't a Hallmark greeting card; it's the very essence of who you are. Share your core values, personal strengths, foundational beliefs, motivations, aspirations, and character traits, not that you, like every other 17 year old in existence, are looking forward to the next phase of your life. I don't see much in here that shows what she will bring to a campus community or how she will benefit from the experience.

4) Diction, grammar, and syntax - Are there errors or omissions, poor or clunky word choices, issues with word count, etc.

She uses way too many big words and tries way too hard to sound smart. In most cases, that's not a good look. Sincerity is more valuable because your SAT and GPA will already show how smart you are. Usually this is off-putting and detrimental. Also, the essay clocks in at 624 words, which leaves 26 on the table that could have been used to say something meaningful. The grammar and syntax are great, so there aren't any other issues in this category.

1. Stop reading essays that worked. What worked for them will almost certainly not work for you. If you try to imitate them, you will present yourself as a cheap knockoff of something that might not have even been very good to begin with.

2. Start with introspection, not emulation. You need to dig deep and figure out two things before you start writing your essay. First, what are you going to say about yourself? What key insights, core values, foundational beliefs, personal strengths, motivations, aspirations, etc will you showcase? And second, what stories, examples, anecdotes, quotes, or other support will you use to make those points indirectly in your essay? How will you make these messages compelling? If that sounds difficult, it's because it is. This post about the introspection and brainstorming process might help.

3. Be Yourself. You aren't going to get in by being anyone other than who you are. That might feel depressing because you know your own shortcomings better than anyone, but if you present the very best you have to offer, you can still stand out. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below.

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I better get away from the JHU essays website 🏃‍♀️

I literally hate those.

I've read some of my friends' essays and a few from people on here, and they've literally copied the ideas. Like, the recipe one, the Oreo one (but with being asian), the hummus wrap one... it's so stale

Maybe an unpopular opinion, some of the essays there are not really that great. I couldn't read them without feeling bored and thought "Did AOs actually enjoy reading this?"

I did really enjoy reading the Fried Rice essay, though.

Right. Wearing a turtleneck or refusing to wear deodorant or whatever isn't going to make your tech company successful. Copying Apple isn't going to do it either. What will do it is consistent and powerful innovation and execution.

Taking that metaphor back to admissions, you aren't going to get in by copying someone else's topic, style, personal insights, messages, or whatever else anymore than Microsoft was going to take down the iPhone with the Windows Phone or the iPod with the Zune. Don't be the next Steve Jobs, be the first /u/TheSnakeFang .

Similar to tech-leader wannabees wearing grey turtlenecks after Jobs rose to fame.

*cough* Elizabeth Holmes *cough*

a Sisyphean task.

did you just call me a sissy???? 😡😡🤬

Hurray!!! 🙌🙌🙌✨✨✨✨💖💖💖😊🤠🤠🤠🤠🤩🤩🤩🔥🔥🔥💃💃💃

And all the other emogis that express excitement!!

Thanks. And thanks for all the great posts you've shared - that essay post of yours is outstanding.

I recognize the irony of telling students not to read accepted essays and then critiquing one. But I think it helps show the man behind the curtain a bit.

I didn't mean to throw your daughter under the bus (which is why I used your own critical words, not my own) and also casually included that she went to Harvard. No offense intended.

omg admissions mom ily your energy is my favorite thing ever 💓💓💓

I have a question for you - what's a good, non-cheesy way to show good things about myself in my essay? I'm trying to write about me growing from a shift in mindset related to a combo of something I was born with + an extracurricular. But I don't want to be like "now I've learned things and omg I'm so persistent and and passionate!1!1!1" but I don't want the essay to NOT showcase these traits. Ugh.

Any advice?

Plot twist: the people who publish these essays that work things are actually AO trying to make their lives easier when trying to figure out who to admit. They hope that some students will read those essays and copy/model them. When the AOs read it and realize that this student just copied off someone, they can easily reject them so when it comes to actually deciding who to admit, it'll be a lot easier.

Just like how r/ChanceMe is just lazy AOs wanting to get redditors to make their decisions for them.

“Essays that worked” tend to actually be “Essays they want you to think worked”. I hate them for the same reason I hate when AOs wax poetic about how much they loved an essays about a student buying In N Out and what it meant to them. What they’re actually doing is patting themselves on the back for “seeing the genius” in a shitty essay topic.

I agree with the criticisms of this essay. It has way too many adjectives, the writer is hitting us over the head with the analogies, and to me the stuff about destiny is cringe-worthy.

But I disagree about pre-reading successful essays. You can learn a lot from them.

I read many successful essays before writing my own and it helped me a lot. I felt like there's a kind of story arc in a lot of essays about struggling, persisting and succeeding. If you find that boring, then you're not going to be interested in a lot of people's lives because learning to struggle and persist is a pretty big part of success, and also a pretty big part of finding out what you want to do and what you don't.

Anyway, I wrote my essays for college in one day, because I had read enough essays that I had absorbed the general structure (and also because I have to write so many essays for school that I practically write for a living).

The themes the ScholarGrade seems to malign here, the theme of struggling, persisting and overcoming, were ones I used in my Common App essay. My examples were one of starting a new school abroad, another of starting a new sport (similar to the synchronized swimming above, without all the waxing poetic).

My better essay (the supplemental) was also helped by reading successful essays.

For both essays, I started with the in media res thing which I learned from reading successful essays. Maybe it's cliche but it's better than "I always wanted to be a doctor" or whatever. Then I launched into the experience, the struggle, what I learned from it, and how I hope to use it going forward.

I got into Harvard, maybe in spite of my essays, maybe helped by my essays.

The premise that you cannot learn to be successful by looking at successful essays is flawed. Sure, one essay may have problems. That you can see for yourself. But when you read a body of essays, you get a feel for the structure and components that are common to them, and that is what you can use. There is probably no field in life where research and preparation, including the study of success, leads to failure more often than winging it on your own.

Finally, pressure does not necessarily help writing. It is hard to write when you're pressured to be crazy amazing and unique rather than who you are. The suggestion that you have to be original, that synchronized swimming or any sport essay is overdone, just creates pressure that you have to be the only one of your kind to have existed. So I would say read successful essays extensively for the structure and story arcs, then tell your own story in as authentic a way as possible with your own voice, and that will be your uniqueness.

You can learn from successful essays, you just have to be careful with it. Most students aren't.

All struggling, persisting, and overcoming is not created equal, especially when it comes to sports. In some applications that can be great.

In media res is often a great idea and something I recommend in my essay guide.

I also have a post that basically says the same points as your last paragraph too.

I don't feel like we actually disagree on much here. I just think many students start and end with essays that worked and don't do nearly enough introspection or telling of their own story in their own voice. So I'm trying to help them see that.

100% agree. Read many successful essays and delved a lot into what makes an essay good by analyzing others. Felt like it really helped my application, and in the end I got into Princeton. ScholarGrade gives some good general advice, but I believe you gave a strong counter that provides nuance to the discussion.

I agree, but also ngl I now kinda wanna be a synchronized swimmer

I have a cure. Go lay in a plank position with your body straight and only your toes and elbows on the ground. If three minutes of that feels fun, then synchronized swimming might be for you.

Thanks for your time you are a true mahician

You might even say I'm the last one. James Fenimore Cooper would be so proud.

I agree a hundred per cent. I wrote my favourite essay when I finally stopped reading essays that worked. All the essays I wrote from reading them are horrible.

I personally believe it's the best to read a couple of essays that worked to get a general idea of how the essays are different from academic essays and then just start writing.

Just came back to this thread. Excuse me while I lurk and take notes…also not the adjective vomit! 🤧😭

I’m not sure who did her dirty more. You or herself.

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