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The 5 Types of Students that Get into Harvard

Who gets into Harvard, and why?

June 29, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Harvard, Ivy League, Admissions

There are four main categories of students that get admitted to Harvard per Harvard's admissions policy.

Collectively, they comprise roughly 60% of every Harvard class.

Who makes up the other 40% of admits? The students who excel across the other 3 dimensions (Academics, ECs, and PQs) used to rank prospective students.

In this article, I'll walk you through each of the four main categories of Harvard students, then walk you through how the fifth category distinguishes themselves for Harvard's admissions requirements.


1) Recruited Athletes (20% of admitted students)

Harvard has the most D1 sports teams of any college in the nation — 42 — which means there are a lot of spots to fill.

Recruited athletes have a 90% acceptance rate and comprise 10% of the incoming class. (Source: The Atlantic) .

For perspective, the overall Harvard acceptance rate is below 5%.

Walk-ons comprise another 10% of the incoming class, and also get in at a much higher rate since coaches will “soft recruit” them. Harvard’s athletic recruitment process is detailed below.

Athletic Recruitment

2) Director’s List (10%)

The “Directors List” contains the names of top donors and influential families.

Students lucky enough to be on the Directors List have a 42% acceptance rate, and comprise roughly 10% of every class. (Source: The Crimson)

For example, Jared Kushner famously got in after his father donated $2.5 million.


3) Deferred (“Z-list”) Admits (3%)

Some students who would otherwise qualify for the Director’s List are not yet ready to begin college. Harvard will force these incoming students to take a gap year before coming to Harvard.

This is roughly 60 students every year, and is colloquially known as the “Z-list.”

On campus, the reputation is that Z-list admits tend to be less than qualified for admission.

As The Crimson reports:

Computer technicians in the admissions office coined the term “Z-list” because the group is the last to get admitted each cycle, after regular and waitlisted admits Students who are Z-listed must take a gap year before enrolling as freshmen the following year.

Faculty Club

4) Faculty Children (1%)

The children of Harvard faculty have a 47% acceptance rate, and roughly 20 students of faculty apply per year. (Source: The Crimson)

It’s a pretty funny sight to see the student of your professor copying off your homework for his dad’s class.


5) Legacies (15%)

A legacy is defined as an applicant with at least one parent who went to Harvard or Radcliffe College (Radcliffe was the women’s college that merged with Harvard).

Legacies are admitted at a 33% acceptance rate, and make up 15% of each class. (Source: The Crimson)

Harvard Yard

Assuming these groups don’t overlap much, that brings us to ~60% of Harvard’s admitted class.

Who makes up the other 40% of admitted students?

Those who excelled at the traditional 4 metrics used to rank every Harvard application.

They are, in no particular order:

  1. Academics
  2. Extracurriculars (“ECs”)
  3. Personal Qualities (“PQs”)
  4. Athletics*

*Athletics has already been covered in the 30% of recruited athletes and walk-ons, so we’ll ignore that.

This leaves us with 3 dimensions to rate applicants: Academics, ECs, and PQs.

Each applicant is rated on a scale of 1 (best) to 6 (worst) across each dimension, with +/-’s for more nuanced ratings. The scale is interpreted as follows. (Source: Harvard Admissions Procedures Internal Handbook)

Harvard Admissions Handbook

This image is taken directly from the Handbook given to Harvard’s Admissions Officers.

So, how do you get a 1 in each category?

The answers, quoted directly from Harvard’s Admissions Handbook, are as follows.


  1. Summa potential. Genuine scholar; near-perfect scores and grades (in most cases) combined with unusual creativity and possible evidence of original scholarship.

  2. Magna potential: Excellent student with superb grades and mid-to high-700 scores (33+ ACT).

  3. Cum laude potential: Very good student with excellent grades and mid-600 to low-700 scores (29 to 32 ACT).

  4. Adequate preparation. Respectable grades and low-to mid-600 scores (26 to 29) ACT).

  5. Marginal potential. Modest grades and 500 scores (25 and below ACT).

  6. Achievement or motivation marginal or worse.


  1. Unusual strength in one or more areas. Possible national-level achievement or professional experience. A potential major contributor at Harvard. Truly unusual achievement.

  2. Strong secondary school contribution in one or more areas such as class president, newspaper editor, etc. Local or regional recognition; major accomplishment(s).

  3. Solid participation but without special distinction. (Upgrade 3+ to 2- in some cases if the e/c is particularly extensive and substantive.)

  4. Little or no participation.

  5. Substantial activity outside of conventional EC participation such as family commitments or term-time work (could be included with other e/c to boost the rating or left as a "5" if it is more representative of the student's commitment).

  6. Special circumstances limit or prevent participation (e.g. a physical condition).

Personal Qualities (Essays, Teacher Recs, School Rec, Interview)

  1. Outstanding

  2. Very strong

  3. Generally positive

  4. Bland or somewhat negative or immature

  5. Questionable personal qualities.

  6. Worrisome personal qualities


  1. Unusually strong prospect for varsity sports at Harvard, desired by Harvard coaches.

  2. Strong secondary school contribution in one or more areas; possible leadership role(s).

  3. Active participation.

  4. Little or no interest.

  5. Substantial activity outside of conventional EC participation such as family commitments or term-time work (could be included with other e/c to boost the rating or left as a "5" if it is more representative of the student's commitment).

  6. Physical condition prevents significant activity.

For further reading, I recommend checking out this great article from the New York Times which interviewed several Harvard freshmen about why they got in.

And for another blog post analyzing one of our team member's own Harvard admissions file, after getting to view it as part of a FERPA request, check out this post .

If you're applying to a selective college (even if it's not Harvard!) we want to help! We provide 1-on-1 mentorship with experienced editors who can help you craft your application. Sign up here for a free 20-minute consultation .

Top 60 College Interview Questions + Tips for Acing Your Interview

Example college interview questions, tips for preparing, and good questions to ask your interviewer

June 25, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Interview, How To, Preparation

This article provides a list of the 60 top most common college interview questions, as well as a list of the top 20 questions to ask in your college interview.

Without knowing how to put these tools to use, however, you'll flounder. Thus, the following section of this article details 4 actionable recommendations to help you better practice and prepare for your college interview.

Finally, I'll summarize what we've learned and underscore why interviewing is so important for college admissions.

1. Top 60 Common College Interview Questions

Below, I've compiled a list of the some of the most common college interview questions asked by admissions officers and alumni interviewers.

I've grouped them into several broader categories for ease of studying:

A. School Specific

  1. Why do you want to go to School X ?
  2. How will School X help you achieve your academic/career goals?
  3. Have you ever been to School X's campus?
  4. What stands out the most to you about School X ?
  5. What distinguishes School X from the other school's you are applying to?
  6. Do you know anyone who has gone to School X ?
  7. What is the most important thing for you in deciding on a school?
  8. What are you hoping to get out of your experience in college?

B. Academics

  1. What do you want to major in?
  2. What is your favorite class?
  3. What is your least favorite class?
  4. How do you compare against other students in your school academically?
  5. What academic skill do you think you need to improve the most?
  6. What is the most challenging class you've taken?
  7. What subject is the hardest for you?
  8. What type of student are you in the classroom?
  9. Is there a reason for the lower grade you received in Class Y this semester?

C. Extracurriculars

  1. You seem very busy. How do you like to spend your free time?
  2. What interests you about item Y that you’ve noted on your resume? Tell me about it.
  3. What activities do you do that you want to continue in college?
  4. What is your favorite extracurricular?
  5. What is your least favorite extracurricular?
  6. What new experiences do you want to have in college?
  7. How have you spent your summers?
  8. If you got a day off from school, how would you spend it?
  9. Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of?
  10. What extracurricular have you devoted the most time to, and why?

D. General

  1. Tell me about yourself.
  2. Walk me through your resume.
  3. Tell me 3 things not on your college application.
  4. What's a talent of yours that people would be surprised to learn about?
  5. What is your favorite piece of literature?
  6. What is the most recent book you've read?
  7. What is your proudest moment?
  8. What type of roommate will you be?
  9. How would your friends describe you?
  10. Where do you feel most at home?
  11. Who is someone you admire?
  12. What are the characteristics of a great leader?
  13. If you could have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would you choose?
  14. What does "success" mean to you?
  15. What careers interest you?
  16. Where do you see yourself in 5/10 years (after graduating)?
  17. If you won the lottery, how would you spend the money?
  18. If you caught a fellow student cheating, what would you do?

E. Stories

  1. Tell me about a time you led a team.
  2. Tell me about a time you worked as part of a team and overcame internal conflict.
  3. Tell me about a time you faced a moral dilemma, and how you resolved it.
  4. Tell me about a time you changed someone's mind.
  5. Tell me about a time you overcame adversity.
  6. Tell me about a time you messed up.
  7. Tell me about the most difficult challenge you've overcome.
  8. Tell me about a decision you regret.

F. Tricky Questions

  1. Why should we admit you?
  2. Why should you be admitted over other students? What distinguishes your application?
  3. If you could change one thing about your high school, what would it be?
  4. What is your greatest weakness?
  5. What other schools are you applying to?
  6. What do you think about current event Z ?
  7. What is the biggest hardship you've either managed to overcome or that still affects you?

2. Top 20 Questions to Ask Your College Interviewer

Your interviewer will usually leave time at the end for you to ask him/her questions about the school and their experience as a student there.

Make sure to have at least 5-6 questions ready!

There is nothing worse than staring blankly at your interviewer and not having a single question to ask. That demonstrates a complete lack of preparation and interest in the school.

As a general tip, if no questions come immediately to mind you can almost always simply flip the questions asked to you back on your interviewer.

For example, "What do you want to major in?" can be flipped on your interviewer as "What did you major in during college, and why?"

To ensure that you never commit the devastating mistake of not having questions at the ready to ask your interviewer, I've put together a list of 20 good questions that you can ask any college interviewer:

  1. Why did you choose School X ?
  2. Why did you major in Y ?
  3. What was your favorite class in college, and why?
  4. What was your favorite extracurricular in college, and why?
  5. What surprised you most about School X ?
  6. What advice would you have for incoming freshmen?
  7. What is your favorite part about School X's campus?
  8. What do you wish you had known when going to School X ?
  9. If you could change one thing about School X , what would it be?
  10. I'm interested in Program W; can you tell me more about it?
  11. I'm interested in joining Student Club W, can you tell me more about it/what its reputation is on campus?
  12. I read online about School Tradition X, what is it like in person?
  13. Is there any club or organization that you didn't join during college but wish you had?
  14. How would you describe campus community/atmosphere?
  15. Are there any extracurricular opportunities you'd recommend for someone like myself that come to mind?
  16. What is the "hidden gem" of School X ?
  17. What is a typical weekday/weekend like on campus?
  18. I read about Issue Y facing the college on the online student newspaper. Do you know anything about it?
  19. What are the sporting events like, and did you regularly go to them?
  20. How would you describe your fellow students?

3. How to Prepare for Your Interview

The most nerve-wracking aspect of most college applications is the alumni interview.

In roughly an hour, you need to convince a total stranger that you're not just a great person but also extremely well-qualified for the institution from which they graduated.

Unlike every other aspect of your application, there are no do-overs, no rough drafts, no family or friends or teachers there to sit by your side and support you through the process.

Thus, it's essential that you go into the interview feeling well-prepared and confident. Think of it like a one-man-show where you're the producer, director, stagehand, conductor, and lead actor all at once. It is the most raw, unfiltered, and honest aspect of your application because it is just you.

While this might sound terrifying, this is also what makes the interview so exciting.

Because it is so difficult, if you are able to distinguish yourself during your interview then you have likely earned a fast-track ticket to the college of your choice.

As the only face-to-face interaction you'll have with each college, the interview is your best chance to add that "human dimension" to your application, in addition to your essays.

Acing it goes a long way in differentiating yourself from the general pool of applicants.

Without further ado, here are some actionable recommendations to help you prepare for and ace your interview:


1. Practice walking through your resume by telling one coherent, unified story.

Each experience should naturally lead to the next, e.g.

“I spent a summer doing software engineering at Startup X.

Though I learned a lot about programming and how to take initiative in an unstructured environment, I knew that I wanted to try something a bit more established and expand my horizons to something less STEM-focused my next summer.

Thus, I decided to accept an internship at Company Y in their business division the following summer, where I was able to further develop my interpersonal skills and navigate a more bureaucratic environment.”

If an interviewer ever asks you the classic "Tell me about yourself" interview question, you'll now be able to turn what can be an awkwardly broad question into a golden opportunity to hit on all of your strengths.

Definitely check out this more detailed 13-minute video by an ex-BCG, ex-Google product manager on how to properly walk through your resume by telling a story.

Practice telling stories

2. Prepare 5–6 general stories about yourself that hit on universal themes

These stories should cover a time you worked in a team, a challenge you faced/overcame, and a valuable lesson learned.

They should each be 60-90 seconds.

This will allow you to answer any sort of generic interview question like:

“What is your greatest weakness?”

“Talk about a time you lead a team and faced a challenge”

“What’s your favorite subject in school, and why?”

The key takeaway is that all of these stories should hit on universal themes, e.g.

  • Encountering a challenging problem and solving it.
  • Working in a team.
  • Resolving a moral dilemma.
  • Making a difficult choice.

While you don’t need to memorize these stories word-for-word, you should have rehearsed a general outline of them.

Ideally, you need to be able to quickly rattle off a story with a beginning, middle, and end while remaining flexible enough to adapt your stories to the specific question you’re asked.

Make sure the story you choose answers the actual question being asked, e.g. if you're asked about a time you led a team, make sure your story involves you leading a team even if that wasn't the question you had anticipated answering with that story.

If this sounds just like a job interview, well, that's because it is -- the college essentially wants to hire you to take classes for 4 years and represent itself in the real-world after graduating.

There's a ton of job interview advice available for free online, but most college applicants don't make the connection that this advice is applicable to them as well.

Make sure to take advantage of these resources as well and prepare for your college interview like it's a job -- for example, here is a great YouTube video on 6 types of stories that you should be able to tell during an interview, along with examples.

Look up your interviewer on LinkedIn

3. Research you interviewer beforehand.

Type their name into Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn. See if you have any mutual friends or went to the same high school.

Read news articles relevant to their job so that you can cite/relate to current events that your interviewer might mention.

Look up what your interviewer did while in college, e.g. extracurriculars, major, minor, classes taken, any articles in the student newspaper mentioning them, etc.

Brainstorm 2–3 ways to link their interests to yours, and think of how you might tie them together naturally during conversation.

Reach out to alumni

4. Research the school beforehand.

Ask alumni/friends what on-campus resources might appeal to you, and read the college's student newspaper.

This gives you something specific to say when you’re inevitably asked, “Why College X?” and can help make your future educational/career goals more concrete in the mind of your interviewer.

Even if a question is not specific to the school for which you're interviewing, your answer should be specific to that school.

Non-specific questions can be a bit of a trap in that sense, by lulling you into a false sense of general-ness.

If you're interviewing for Stanford, don't look at a question like “What’s your favorite extracurricular?” as a chance to regurgitate the 2-minute spiel about political advocacy that you told your Princeton interviewer.

Instead, use it as an opportunity to emphasize why Stanford, and only Stanford, is truly the best place for you to pursue your passions.

4. Do Interviews Even Matter?

When I was in high school applying to college, a major rumor floating around was “College interviews don’t really matter.”

This is a lie.

The interview process is extremely important to your application and potential acceptance!

There is a misconception that, because all applicants are getting an interview, then receiving an interview isn’t significant – or it’s merely an opportunity to ask questions.

The truth behind that statement is that receiving an interview does NOT mean that the school has already looked at your application. You are not necessarily offered an interview because the school already feels you are a strong applicant – anybody could get an interview.

But, conducting a great interview (notice I said great, not just good) can be a significant factor for the acceptance committee. Your interviewer will write a “recommendation” after your interview and, if it is outstanding, it can serve as a tipping point for your application.

I – along with many of my friends – have personally seen my own application to Harvard after the admissions committee reviewed it, and every admissions file includes multiple pages of comments left by our interviewers. And, in some cases, the admissions file specifically notes that the interview helped students who had a borderline application.

Acceptance Rates of the 22 Best Colleges in the World

June 02, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Acceptance Rates, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Ivy League, NYU, MIT, Duke, Notre Dame, NYU, Oxford, Cambridge, USC, UVA, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, UCs, UC Berkeley, UCLA, University of Chicago

The 2019-2020 admissions cycle for the Class of 2024 was one of the most competitive ever , with more and more students from around the world applying to top universities and elite colleges with a limited number of spots.

The 2020-21 cycle is shaping up to be an even more competitive year for admissions to Ivy League schools and other top universities, especially with the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. Read on to learn more about the admission rate of top colleges in the US and UK.

Ivy League Schools

Gates of Princeton

Harvard Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 Harvard acceptance rate was 4.9% . This was slightly higher than the previous year, which was 4.5% . A total of 40,248 students applied for 1,980 spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)

Yale Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 Yale acceptance rate was 6.5% . This was slightly higher than the previous year, which was 5.9% . A total of 35,220 students applied for 2,304 spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)

Princeton Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 Princeton acceptance rate was 5.6% . This was slightly lower than the previous year, which was 5.8% . A total of 32,836 students applied for 1,823 spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)

Columbia Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 Columbia acceptance rate was 6.1% . This was higher than the previous year, which was 5.1% . A total of 40,084 students applied for 2,465 spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)

Penn Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 University of Pennsylvania acceptance rate was 8.1% . This was slightly higher than the previous year, which was 7.4% . (Source)

Brown Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 Brown acceptance rate was 6.9% . This was slightly higher than the previous year, which was 6.6% . A total of 36,794 students applied for 2,533 spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)

Dartmouth Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 Dartmouth acceptance rate was 8.8% . This was higher than the previous year, which was 7.9%% . A total of 21,394 students applied for 1,881 spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)

Cornell Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 Cornell acceptance rate has not been published, as part of a move by administrators to not release regular decision results until the following admissions cycle. However, Cornell did release its Early Decision results, which showed an ED acceptance rate of 23.8% . This was higher than the previous year, which was 22.6% . A total of 6,615 students applied for 1,576 Early Decision spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)

Top US Colleges (Non-Ivy, Private)

Entrance to Stanford

Stanford Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 Stanford acceptance rate has not been published, as part of a move by administrators to not release acceptance rate statistics. However, Stanford did release its results for the previous year, which showed that 47,498 total students applied for 1,900 spots in the Class of 2023, for an acceptance rate of 4% . (Source)

MIT Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 MIT acceptance rate was 7.2% . This was slightly higher than the previous year, which was 6.6% . A total of 20,075 students applied for 1,457 spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)

USC Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 USC acceptance rate was 16% . This was significantly higher than the previous year, which was 11% . A total of 60,000 students applied for 9,500 spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)

Duke Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 Duke acceptance rate was 7.7 %. This was the same as the previous year, which was 7.7% . A total of 39,783 students applied for 3,057 spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)

Notre Dame Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 Notre Dame acceptance rate was 16.5% . This was higher than the previous year, which was 15.4% . A total of 21,270 students applied for 3,507 spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)

NYU Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 NYU acceptance rate was 15% . This was lower than the previous year, which was 16% . A total of 85,000 students applied for 13,000 spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)

Georgetown Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 Georgetown acceptance rate was 15% . This was higher than the previous year, which was 14.1% . A total of 23,318 students applied for 3,309 spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)

Johns Hopkins Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 Johns Hopkins University acceptance rate was 8.8% . This was slightly lower than the previous year, which was 9.2% . A total of 27,256 students applied for 2,604 spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)

University of Chicago Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 University of Chicago acceptance rate was 6.2% . This was slightly higher than the previous year, which was 5.9% . A total of 34,400 students applied for 2,130 spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)

Top US Colleges (Public)


UCLA Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 UCLA acceptance rate has not yet been published. The previous year, the acceptance rate was 12.4% . A total of 108,837 students applied for the Class of 2024, which was slightly lower than the previous year at 111,306. (Source 1) (Source 2)

UC Berkeley Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 UC acceptance rate has not yet been published. The previous year, the acceptance rate was 16.4% . A total of 88,026 students applied for the Class of 2024, which was slightly higher than the previous year at 87,393. (Source 1) (Source 2)

UVA Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 UVA acceptance rate was 20.5% . This was significantly lower than the previous year, which was 24.3% . A total of 40,971 students applied for 8,420 spots in the Class of 2024. (Source)



Oxford Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 Oxford acceptance rate has not been published. For the previous year, there were 23,020 total applications for 3,889 spots in the Class of 2023, for an acceptance rate of 16.9% . (Source)

Cambridge Acceptance Rate

The 2019-2020 Cambridge acceptance rate has not been published. For the previous year, there were 19,359 total applications for 4,694 spots in the Class of 2023, for an acceptance rate of 18.2% . (Source)

If you want direct feedback on your essays from current Ivy League students, or want to work 1-on-1 with an experienced mentor to craft your application, learn more about us here or click here to schedule a free 20-minute consultation

How to Write a Common App Personal Statement

Personal Statement Examples, Tips, Tricks, and Advice

June 01, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Essays, Common App, How To, Essays

This article discusses the seven Common App essay prompts, analyzes how to write a Personal Statement, and offers suggestions on how to go about conquering this critical essay.

The Common App Personal Statement is the centerpiece of your college application.

It will be sent to every school to which you apply.*

It is extremely broad, allowing you to write on literally any topic you want.

It is also the longest unfiltered, uninterrupted stream of information in your application (650 words).

This makes the Common App Personal Statement the perfect place to fill in any holes in your application, round yourself out as an applicant, and showcase a side of your personality that doesn't come through elsewhere.

With so much that can be accomplished and such broad license to write whatever you want, however, your Personal Statement for college can seem overwhelming at first glance.

The Personal Statement is an essay of no more than 650 words, and no less than 250 words, that should tell a story about yourself that is not included elsewhere in your application.

As the Common App's instructions for the Personal Statement state:

"The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don't feel obligated to do so. (The application won't accept a response shorter than 250 words.)"

Right away, the first piece of advice to prospective applicants is to ignore the Common App's obligatory note and use the full range of space .

Of course, there is no need to hit exactly 650 words.

But if you are hitting anything less than 620 words, then you are putting yourself at a substantial disadvantage to students who do fill their entire allotted space.

By not getting as close to 650 as possible, you are potentially leaving out several sentences or descriptive phrases that could add significant weight and polish to your essay.

Thus, you should always write your Common App drafts over the word limit , then cut to get your essay to 650 words.

If you find yourself stuck at, for example, 600 words and can't come up with 50 more words to say about whatever story you are telling, then that is probably a bad sign for how interesting that story is going to be for your admissions reader.

The seven 2020 Common App essay prompts have been reproduced below and grouped together for ease of analysis.

Personal Traits

Personal Background

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.

Prompt #1 is the broadest prompt offered by the Common App, and thus can offer the best launching point for a variety of powerful personal stories.


This Prompt offers a great opportunity to round out your application by discussing something not mentioned elsewhere in your application.

You can talk about your family, your heritage, a hobby, an interpersonal relationship that's impacted you, or any interests that were deemed too "non-academic" to make it into your Extracurriculars List.

Alternatively, you could choose to write about something already covered in your application (e.g. your experience doing research at a hospital, or working a part-time job), but in a way that sheds light on your personal motivations/connection to the subject rather than the scope of your achievement.


A common pitfall with this Prompt is to simply rehash an "interest or talent" that has already been covered in your application.

If you do decide to spend these 650 words on an activity mentioned elsewhere in your application, you need to constantly ask yourself: What new information does the reader gain that couldn't already be inferred from my transcript/rec letters/extracurriculars list?

For example, let's imagine you do debate. A Personal Statement about how you overcame the competition and won the National Championship would be interesting, but likely doesn't break any new ground in the mind of the admissions officer.

They already know you are great at debate, so unless this essay were tweaked to focus more on your personal growth or relationship with others, it likely won't help your admissions chances.

Overcoming Challenges

Overcoming Adversity

2) The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3) Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

5) Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Prompts #2, 3, and 5 all ask for you to describe an episode in your past that spurred some sort of personal growth.


These Prompts may require a bit more brainstorming effort on your part.

However, don't feel stumped if nothing immediately strikes you.

If you've lived on earth for more than 16 years, then I guarantee you have faced and overcome at least one obstacle or challenge that is worth reading a 650-word essay on.

Don't be afraid to ask family members, friends, or teachers/mentors for their thoughts; you'd be surprised how effective the recollections of others are at jogging your memory.

The best part about writing an essay around one of these Prompts is that it naturally avoids the major pitfall of Prompt #1 (re-listing accomplishments detailed elsewhere on your application). It forces you to focus on an instance of adversity you've faced in life, and to build your narrative arc around your own personal growth.

The three universal components of any story are (1) a beginning, (2) a climax, and (3) a resolution.

By using one of these Prompts as a start, you've already guaranteed that your essay will hit at least two of these three core elements of story-telling; namely, the "obstacle[]" or "time" or "accomplishment, event, or realization" that you discuss will be your Personal Statement's climax, and " learn[ed] from the experience" will be its resolution.


Starting with one of these prompts is more restrictive than starting with Prompt #1.

You may find it limiting at first to brainstorm ideas that fit these Prompts, so it may be helpful to first start brainstorming ideas for Prompt #1 and then seeing if any of them fit under these Prompts.

These types of essays can be among the most compelling when executed properly.

However, there are a couple common mistakes that students commit when writing stories about overcoming personal adversity, pitfalls that you should work hard to avoid when crafting your own essay.

First, at the brainstorming stage:

There are millions of high school students across the US applying to college every year. Relatively speaking, the vast majority of these students will have shared similar experiences and overcome similar challenges.

Did you place first in an athletic competition? Did you win a debate tournament? Did you conquer your fear of public speaking? Odds are, so have millions of other students your age.

That's not to say that your situation wasn't unique, or that the lessons you learned weren't meaningful.

But when an admissions officer is reading 100's of essays a week, the nuances get blurred and only the highest-level themes stay fresh in the mind.

If your essay can be summed up as, "I practiced hard, overcame adversity, and won X competition," then you likely will not stand out from the pack.

So when choosing the "accomplishment, event, or realization" that you discuss, make sure it is unique enough that an admissions officer will not be able to readily group it into an abstract category of essays that other high school-age students have written.

Courage Poster

Second, at the execution stage:

The experience of overcoming adversity and subsequently undergoing a period of reflection and personal growth is a very abstract, nuanced phenomenon that can be difficult to properly articulate.

It is also an experience that has been written about by almost every writer on earth. But not every writer has the ability to distill these experiences into words.

Thus, there have been hundreds -- if not thousands -- of cliches, trite imagery, and hackneyed phrases that have been developed in the English language and recycled ad nauseum .

"It was at that moment that I truly understood the saying that you can't judge a book by its cover..."

"But I knew that my actions would speak louder than my words, so I..."

"Losing the Spelling Bee may have knocked me down momentarily, but I understood that failure was only the first step towards success..."

If a phrase in your essay could be trademarked and hung on a motivational poster, you should probably remove it. Make sure to avoid cliches when writing about your experiences, otherwise the full weight of how you are such a unique and special person will not come through in your writing.

Describe a problem you've solved

Describe an Intellectual Issue

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.

6) Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Both of these Prompts ask you to describe an intellectual "problem" or "concept" that you are interested in, as well as your personal connection to that concept.


If you've done academic research, been involved in political advocacy, did debate, founded a business or charity, or developed a product, these could be the perfect Prompts for you.

Prompts #4 and #6 allow you to show the admissions officers what truly makes you tick by showcasing aspects of your personality that might not come through elsewhere in your application.

Is your GPA lower, or do you think you're fighting an uphill battle to show the admissions committee that you're a serious scholar? Use these 650 words to dispel their doubts by showing how knowledgeable about a topic you can be when you've set your mind to it.

Human intelligence takes forms, and the problems you're interested in solving may not be reflected on your transcript. These Prompts allow you to really highlight the "spike" of your application and show why you are THE person for topic X or issue Y.


These essays tend to verge on the impersonal, as students get caught up in describing the minutiae of the intellectual challenges they are tackling.

Given free rein to "describe a engaging that it makes you lose all track of time," many students also lose track of the word count, and end up with an essay that is 500-words of Wikipedia-summary-level content on an academic topic, and 150 words about the author herself and her passion for the subject.

The admissions reader is not looking to admit a class of textbook authors.

Given the very nature of the Common App Personal Statement (literally a "Personal" Statement), the most important part of Prompts #4 and #6 are actually their second halves; namely, how you relate to and have addressed the topic that you write about.

For example, if you are writing about a controversial topic like immigration or criminal justice reform, remember that you're not writing an Op-Ed for a newspaper advocating for your side.

The Personal Statement is not an exercise in persuasive writing. Rather, you should discuss your own involvement in these issues, the people you've met through your experience, and how they have collectively shaped your worldview.

Anything is possible

Anything Goes

7) Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

If you can't think of an essay that falls under any of the other Prompts (which would be quite an accomplishment), then Prompt #7 serves as a catch-all that lets you write about literally anything you want.


You can write about anything.


You can write about anything.

Unless you already have a very well-written essay that doesn't fit under any of the other Prompts, I would not recommend that you choose this Prompt.

First, it will make it harder for you to focus your essay.

The 6 Prompts offered by the Common App are very good, very broad prompts.

They offer tremendous flexibility while also putting the necessary bumper rails on your essay that ensure it is at least passable.

Writing a Personal Statement that doesn't address anything covered by the 6 aforementioned Prompts means that your essay does not include an instance of personal growth, an interest/passion, an achievement, or an obstacle you've overcome.

If your essay does not have any of these elements, 99.99% of the time it will either be (a) uncompelling to the reader or (b) fail to add positive information to your application.

Another issue with choosing this Prompt is that the admissions officer reading your file will also not know what prompt your essay is trying to address.

Choosing one of Prompts #1-6 will immediately flag for the admissions reader what your essay is about, and what she should be looking for.

Neglecting to specify a Prompt puts an additional burden on the reader to sift through your writing and assess what its key themes are, taking attention away from your actual writing.

* Even for schools that do not require it, you are still given the option to submit your Common App Personal Statement with your application.

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