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How to Create Your College List

January 28, 2022 by Veritas Essays Team | How To, Applications, College List

With over 3,982 degree-granting colleges and universities in the U.S. alone, it can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to crafting your college list.

Some of the most common questions we get from students are:

  1. How many schools should I apply to?
  2. How do I know if a school counts as a safety, target, or reach for me?
  3. How can I use my college list to increase my chances of getting into the right school for myself?

In this blog post, we cover all of these questions and give you the inside scoop on constructing the optimal college list that allows you to aim for your dream schools while still providing plenty of solid options as a Plan B.

Many people refer to admissions to top universities as a “crapshoot.”

This term refers to people wagering money on an unpredictable dice roll.

While it’s true that there is never any guarantee of admission to top universities, it’s a little more nuanced than random chance. You can certainly stack the deck in your favor by writing better essays, getting good recommendation letters, and getting good grades.

But even the best student is not guaranteed admission to her top school, and thus you need to use your college list to “hedge” against the risk of rejection at top schools.

A well-crafted college list should provide you with a strong balance of safety, target, and reach schools. This ensures you will have at least a few options for college that you’ll be happy with regardless of how the admissions process goes.

Before we explain how to craft a college list out of these three types of schools, we’ll first define each of them below.

1. What is a Safety School?

In a broad sense, safety schools are schools where you are highly likely to be admitted given your academic and extracurricular qualifications.

Your GPA should be well above that of the average admitted student, and your ACT/SAT score should be above the average for the school as well.

While the overall admissions rate for a safety school can vary widely, a school with an admissions rate below 20% should never be considered a safety school regardless of the academic standing of the student, as many highly-qualified students will be applying every year.

2. What is a Target School?

Target schools are colleges where you are directly on par with the average admitted student’s grades, GPA, test scores, etc. It’s not guaranteed that you will be admitted, but the odds look good (although slightly less promising than your safety schools).

These schools should be at least as good as a coin flip in terms of whether you expect to get in or not.

3. What is a Reach School?

This category is where Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and other high-ranking colleges would fall in your college list. Reach schools are schools with highly selective admissions rates.

What will be considered selective for you will vary depending on your academic credentials – a 25% acceptance rate could be a reach for some students and a 10% acceptance rate could be a reach for others.

How to Craft Your College List

When bucketing schools into these three categories, pay most attention to the school’s acceptance rate, average admitted students’ GPA, and average admitted student’s test scores (e.g., SAT/ACT). These statistics will give you the clearest, most quantitative sense of how competitive the applicant pool will be, and how you might stack up against the other candidates.

Your college list should be a balance of schools within each of these three categories; the exact number of each depends on how many schools you are applying to, and how happy you’d be getting into your safety v. target v. reach options.

So how many schools should you apply to?

The answer depends on the student but it is generally advisable to apply to between 12-15 schools in total.

When crafting your college list, it is important to keep in mind that you may have to write numerous supplemental essays for each school to which you choose to apply, so make sure to choose wisely!

It is far better to send in 12 high quality applications than to send in 15 weaker ones.

As an example, let’s say you choose to apply to 12 schools with a 3.8 GPA, a 1450 SAT, and a decent amount of extracurricular involvement. Then your college list might look something like the following:


  • Arizona State University (ASU)
  • University of Alabama
  • Louisiana State University (LSU)
  • Washington State University


  • Middlebury College
  • Lehigh University
  • Lewis & Clark College
  • New York University (NYU)


  • UCLA
  • Princeton
  • University of Washington
  • Cornell

Keep in mind that this is just an example and should not be considered a suggestion as to where you should apply yourself!

Regardless of which particular schools you decide to bucket into the safety/target/reach categories for yourself, you should put significant time into researching each school’s program offerings and the unique opportunities available at each.

While statistics such as acceptance rate, average GPA, and average test scores can give you vital information on your chances of acceptance to a particular school, the most important consideration is that you will actually want to attend the school if you get in. If you’ve done your college list right, then you’ll be happy wherever you end up!

Ivy League Study Tips, from a Current Harvard Student

December 24, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Ivy League, How To, Study Strategies,

Studying is not fun, even for Ivy League students.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, I have a lot of friends who talk about studying the same way kids at my high school did -- namely, not affectionately.

I have noticed one key difference, though, between my high school and Ivy League friends:

A default mindset of showing up.

This is a picture of a Harvard library in the middle of the day on a Friday.

Even on weekend mornings or afternoons, libraries will be full of students studying, hoping to finish their work so that they can go out in the evening.

Harvard and Ivy League students in general seem to be aware that simply showing up to an environment that encourages hard work will eventually influence them to be productive.

The important lesson here is to set your environment right, it may just make or break you.

Another theme one may notice in Harvard libraries are just how many groups there are. While there inevitably is some goofing off, there is also something to be said for utilizing group sessions to improve your study habits.

More minds around you means more chances that someone can explain topics that you cannot understand.

And the habit of doing the same for someone else is proven to increase your own understanding and retention.

I used group sessions for almost every single one of my problems sets in my freshman year at Harvard. They were invaluable to my success in those math classes.

Lastly, Ivy League students talk to their professors.

It can be scary at first, but building a relationship with your professors/teachers and probing them on any gaps in knowledge you have is crucial to the studying process. Almost always, they will be glad to spend the time to reteach the parts you struggle with.

Together, all of these steps enable Ivy League students to set themselves up for success on test day, even if they dread it just as much as any other student.

How to Get Into Harvard: Advice from Admitted Students

December 23, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Harvard, How To, Applications

It’s not a popular answer, but the truth is there is no secret formula to be admitted to Harvard University -- Harvard itself writes this as the first thing on their admissions page:

"There is no such thing as a typical Harvard student."

That being said, though Harvard students come from all different walks of life there are clear trends within this group.

Harvard students are not just well-rounded students who were near the top of their high school class.

More importantly, they are typically highly passionate and accomplished in one specific area.

For many Harvard applicants, a stellar academic record is a given, so Harvard must look further to differentiate between candidates.

As a result, Harvard often selects students who have state or even national-level recognition in their craft. This can mean Science Olympiads or musicians who have won international competitions.

This can also mean service projects that have deeply affected your local community.

A sense of deep passion, grit, and work ethic will have the best chances of wooing the admission committee.

The Harvard admission process requires discussion of each candidate after an initial first check.

In order to stand out in this setting, candidates do not want to be just a student with good test scores and grades, or a jack of all trades. Rather, candidates are most memorable when they have a clear arc to their application: the notable scientist, the future political and community leader, the bridgebuilder in times of division.

The best strategy, then, seems to be ensuring a few things:

  1. A Steller Academic Record
  2. An Established Pattern of Passion
  3. Recognition on a Large Scale for that Passion

How to Overcome Writer's Block and Ace Your College Essays

October 06, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Essays, Guide, How To, Brainstorming, Personal Statement

What is the scariest part of writing an essay from scratch?

Take it from the King of Horror himself, Stephen King:

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.

After that, things can only get better.”


The first draft of your college essay will be unspectacular - and unspectacular is perfect!

If, at first, no particular topic jumps out as the perfect essay topic, don’t worry. Most people don’t get so lucky!

Plus, some of your best potential subjects might be the ones that won’t readily come to mind. In my experience, the best way to unearth some old memories or kickstart your creativity is through a guided brainstorm.

If you're looking for a place to begin, The New York Times has a great list of questions to help you get started on the right path!

Put Words on the Page

After you get a few ideas down, here's the good news: you’ve already done the hardest part of your essay!

When it comes to college application essays, the idea is paramount.

If you enter the writing process with a strong idea, your exact words and phrasing can be sculpted and revised until they accurately reflect the quality of the idea.

Now you just need to get the words down - they don’t need to be pristine, in fact, they don’t even need to necessarily be good.

The idea is that as you get words on paper, as you edit, rework, and rearrange, you will naturally hone in on the “right words.”

Odds are, your first draft will come out better than you anticipate. However, there’s no way of knowing that until you take that leap of faith and start writing. For guidance on how to start specific essays and specific prompts, one-on-one guidance from an experienced mentor can be an incredibly effective form of assistance.

As for a general approach to starting your essays, you need to be able to trust yourself and the writing process .

You’ve formulated the idea, so you know that you have the right words somewhere. Now, you need to commit yourself to trial and error in order to tease the proper verbiage out.

Be Brave

Remember that traditional isn’t better when it comes to your college essays.

Chances are, when you apply to college you'll have little to no previous experience writing college admissions essays. Most of your formal essay writing experience will have come from English class.

This time, though, you’re not trying to decode Fitzgerald’s prose or explore the themes of 1984. The goal of a Personal Statement or supplemental essay is to give admissions officers a sense of what makes you you .

You want your personality to shine through! And it doesn’t hurt if it’s an entertaining read - these officers are reading hundreds of essays every week.

Don’t be afraid to add some humor , experiment with less formal language, or open with a unique introduction .

Don’t be afraid to pick a topic that’s out-of-the-box , or to pick a topic that’s seemingly “boring” and explore it through an engaging or unexpected lens.

If you need proof that ~almost~ anything goes as an essay topic, check out this excellent essay on Costco that got its author into 5 Ivy League schools and Stanford.

Remain Focused

One final note: With every ounce of strength in your body, force yourself to avoid procrastination.

Writing an essay is hard enough on its own. The last thing you need is another excuse not to write.

As novelist Peter De Vries once wrote,

"I only write when I’m inspired, so I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at nine o’clock."

The writing process is long and tedious, and spontaneous bouts of motivation can be few and far between. Sometimes you just need to tell yourself to open up the computer and type!

It’s natural to put pressure on yourself to produce a perfect first draft.

As a result, though, you’ll get caught in the minutiae, constantly self-editing and deleting.

Don’t fall into this trap! It’s okay for your first draft to be too long, too short, too ridiculous. What’s more important is to get your ideas down and give yourself material to work with. It won’t all be usable, but chances are, some of it will stick.

A great (and somewhat scary!) way to write a first draft quickly and without being able to self-edit is this writing tool . It will prompt you to write for a given amount of time and erase your work if you stop writing.


To summarize a few of the key takeaways from this post:

  1. Don’t be afraid of a bad first draft

  2. Trust the writing process

  3. Take advantage of an experienced mentor

  4. Make the time to sit down and write

Good luck!

How to Set Yourself Apart from the Crowd

July 20, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | How To, Admissions, Chances, Early Decision, ECs

1. Be a bridge-builder between fields. The way to set yourself apart is to do something no one else is doing. But how do you do that in a field like “History” or “Computer Science?”

The answer is simple: Don’t .

The easiest way to distinguish yourself as a senior in high school is to showcase an interdisciplinary interest that bridges multiple, disparate subjects.

“Oh, you’re interested in Computer Science and built an iOS game, just like 30,000 other applicants? Yawn.”


“Oh, you’re interested in Computer Science AND want to combine it with your love of Shakespeare to do Natural Language Processing analyses on historic texts? That’s different. That’s memorable.”

MIT researchers used a neural network in 2019 to estimate which parts of Shakespeare’s plays were written by another famous playwright, John Fletcher.

2. Apply Early . Ivy League colleges and other top universities have an almost 2–3x higher early acceptance rate than regular acceptance rate, a gap that continues to widen every year.

According to a survey of US colleges by the National Associate for College Admissions Counseling ,

Among all colleges with early decision, their regular admit rate was 50.7 percent, but the rate for early decision was 62.3 percent.

3. Learn how to brag about your Extracurriculars . What matters in college admissions is NOT JUST what you choose to pursue, but also HOW you frame your accomplishments to the admissions office.

The sum of your Extracurriculars is greater than the parts. All of your activities should tell a unified story about yourself, no matter how disparate they are.

A “well-rounded” applicant dabbling in several unconnected things is not nearly as compelling as someone driven by one central passion.

I’ve provided 7 examples here of how the same extracurricular can be framed or pursued in increasingly impressive lights.

5 Tricks to Get Accepted with a Low GPA

Is it possible to get into a top college with a low GPA?

July 10, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | How To, GPA, Admissions, Chances, B Student, Ivy League, AP Exams, SAT, Essays

Can low GPA (i.e. "B" students) get accepted into a top school?

The answer is a bit more nuanced than a hard "yes" or "no."

Are you a "B" student, or have you gotten B's?

Though these questions sound the same, their answers have very different consequences for the purposes of college admissions.

I went through every top university that reported the distribution of unweighted GPAs for its admitted students, and plotted them below.


The small black sliver at the top represents students with a “ B ” average or worse (3.0 GPA).

These are students with extremely extra-ordinary circumstances, so unless you have a building named after you or can throw a 95mph fastball, a “B” average is likely disqualifying. Thus, averaging a straight “B” is likely a death knell for top colleges.

All is not lost, however, if you generally do well in school but have a handful of B’s (e.g. a GPA between 3.6–3.8).

Having a lower GPA will require you to play your cards more thoughtfully, but you are still very much in contention for a spot at a top university.

Here are 5 tricks for making your application stand out despite a lower GPA.

1. Take more APs

Since they are graded on a 5-point scale, you can raise your weighted GPA to appear more in-line with a college’s admissions standards. The average weighted GPAs of Ivy League admits, shown in the USA Today chart below, is quite attainable:


2. Ace your standardized tests.

A high SAT or ACT score can help offset a lower GPA by demonstrating that you have the intellectual ability to perform at a high level.

3. Shine elsewhere in your application.

Your essays, for example, are a fantastic place to explain or indirectly shed light on personal circumstances that may have caused your lower GPA.

They also allow you to directly frame your application and convey why you — and only you — can add something uniquely meaningful to the incoming class.

As Logan Powell, Dean of Admissions at Brown University, writes:

“The essay is one of only two places where the student can tell us exactly who they are, in their own words (the other place is the interview).”

And Mitch Warren , Director of Admissions at Purdue University, adds:

"We receive about 54,000 applications from high school students each year, and despite that really large number, [the essay] truly is an individual and holistic review...[it] helps us to better understand the life of the applicant, especially things with grit, humor, motivation. I think also it helps tell stories that we may not have picked up on elsewhere in the application."

This is something that our Ivy League mentors specialize in.

4. Show an upward trajectory

If you got straight B’s freshman year but gradually worked your way up to consecutive semesters of straight A’s as a senior, then colleges will look much more favorably upon your transcript, as it demonstrates growth as a student.

As Dartmouth Assistant Director of Admissions Ariel writes,

[W]hen we review an applicant's transcript, we look at grade trends that will help us understand a student's academic trajectory in his or her secondary school.

We see transcripts that show steady grades throughout a student's high school career or a positive/upward trend from 9th-12th grade. We see transcripts where a student has bounced back from a transition or dip in grades. We also see downward trends in grades.

We use the rest of the application to try to fill in WHY the trend looks the way it does. If you have a particular reason for, say, a dip in grades in your junior year, please let us know about it in the "Additional Information" section of the Common Application.

Keep in mind that we will be looking to see how you have done in your most recent coursework since this will be a good indicator of how ready you are to move into a rigorous academic environment at Dartmouth.

5. Take the hardest classes offered

The negative impact of lower grades can be partially softened if they occurred while taking the hardest classes your school offers.

In the eyes of admissions officers, taking a rigorous course-load and challenging yourself, even if you do get a B or B+, can be equally as important as acing your classes.

An aside: These high GPA cut-offs are largely due to (1) increasingly high numbers of applicants and (2) rising grade inflation at the high school level.


The 7 Extracurriculars that Will Impress Your Admissions Officer

What matters is not the What, but the How and Why

July 03, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Admissions, ECs, Examples, Guide, How To

What high school activities and clubs look good on college applications?

Is a question I'm often asked.

Unfortunately, the very premise of this question -- and thus any answer to it -- misses one key insight:

There is no such thing as an “impressive” extracurricular.

There is also no such thing as an “unimpressive” extracurricular.

There are just extracurriculars.

The same activity can be impressive for one student, but meaningless for another.

What matters is NOT what you pursue, but how you pursue it, what you achieve , and most importantly, how you frame those accomplishments to the admissions office.

I’ve listed 7 common activities, and for each given 3 examples, to show how common high school clubs and activities can be pursued, or spun, in increasingly impressive lights.

(And by "spun," I mean how you describe your activities in your personal statement, supplementary essays, and Coalition/Universal/Common App Activities section.)

Student Council

1. Student Council

You were elected to your school’s student body. Congrats.

1. Unimpressive: You were elected as a class representative, or served for a year in an executive role (e.g. Treasurer).

2. Notable: You were elected School President.

3. Impressive: You were elected School President. You took the initiative to start several new programs at your school which were widely successful, from a book drive for local middle schools to a fundraiser that earned over $20,000 to spearheading the creation of a recycling program on campus. You fought for the main issue students cared about, issue X, even though the administration pushed back, and after months of back-and-forth you eventually succeeded at convincing your school to implement X. While none of these achievements are necessarily earth-shattering on their own, they collectively show that you’re a go-getter who takes initiative.


2. Research

You spent a summer or two doing research in a local college's lab.

1. Unimpressive: You contributed to a small, discrete portion of a larger project. You don’t really understand the science behind the larger project, or why it matters. You don’t make an effort to connect with your lab-mates, and your only souvenir from the summer is a short PowerPoint detailing your work. You don’t keep in touch with your mentor afterwards.

2. Notable: You contributed a small, discrete portion of a larger project. You understand the basic principles and goals of the project, and make an effort to finish your portion early to help others. You connect well enough with your mentor to have them write a recommendation letter for you for college. You get your name on the authorship list of a published paper.

3. Impressive: You independently design and execute your own experiments under the supervision of a well-respected investigator in your field. You connect well with your mentor and have them write a recommendation letter for you for college. You are the first or second author on a published paper in a prestigious journal. Given the scope of your ambition, you develop this project over multiple summers or continue during the school year.


3. Sports

You play a varsity sport for your high school.

1. Unimpressive: You play varsity level all four years and perform well. You win a few tournament MVP awards and your team wins the regional championships. You don’t reach out to college coaches or train on your own time.

2. Notable: You win a league MVP award for your performance. You attend recruiting camps over the summer and winter break, and reach out to college coaches. You train by yourself, and spend the summers practicing and competing.

3. Impressive: You commit to having sports be your ticket to college. You attend recruiting camps, train by yourself, spend the summers practicing and competing, play on multiple teams, and are unarguably qualified to play at the D1/D3 level. You are in frequent communication with college coaches and get a verbal or written commitment that you will be recruited/scholarship offer/likely letter.


4. Play an Instrument

You play the piano, trumpet, or some other instrument

1. Unimpressive: You’ve taken lessons for 12 years.

2. Notable: You’ve composed your own music, recorded it, and posted it online to YouTube and SoundCloud. You’ve won performance competitions. You’ve performed for large crowds in your church/community center/school.

3. Impressive: You’ve composed your own music, recorded it, and distributed it to 10,000’s of people. You’ve performed for large, paying crowds in concert halls. Alternatively, you started an educational outreach program to teach younger students how to play your instrument, and have had hundreds of middle schoolers advance through your program by your senior year.


5. Debate

You competed in Policy Debate all four years of high school.

1. Unimpressive: You’re the team captain, you’ve won a couple local tournaments, and you’ve placed at a few national tournaments.

2. Notable: You’re the team captain, you’ve won a couple national tournaments.

3. Impressive: You’ve only competed in local tournaments and won them all; however, before you there was no debate program at your school. After starting the team, you grew it from 2 to 50 kids by the end of your junior year. You led fundraising to pay for travel to tournaments, hired coaches, and ran team meetings. You independently competed in a few national tournaments with your partner and placed well. Alternatively, you won the national or world championships in your event, or consistently ranked among the top finalist for multiple years.

Science Olympiad

6. Science Olympiad/Academic Quizbowl

You competed in an academic event.

1. Unimpressive: You competed every year, served as your team captain, and placed first in state.

2. Notable: You were qualified for the national championships and placed well in the competition.

3. Impressive: You won the national championship or represented your country in the international championships. Alternatively, you began your school's participation in this event or competition, and led your fledgling squad to a strong placing at your state/national tournament. You fought the uphill battle of convincing the administration to let you compete, and enjoyed the rewarding experience of inspiring younger students whom would otherwise be discouraged to pursue their passions in the field.


7. Volunteer Work

You volunteered at a local soup kitchen or Habitat for Humanity.

1. Unimpressive: You volunteered every week for a few hours.

2. Notable: You led or started the initiative to have students at your high school volunteer. You worked multiple days a week, or spent a summer volunteering full time.

3. Impressive: You led or started an initiative that drew from multiple high schools in your area, you began your own independent charitable organization for an under-covered issue, and/or raised significant funds for said efforts. You demonstrate a clear interest in continuing to pursue this cause in college, and have made a clear, tangible impact on individual peoples' lives that you are able to eloquently article in your application.

To summarize, colleges aren’t necessarily looking for a particular extracurricular pursuit (with the exception of sports, for which coaches will actively recruit).

Instead, colleges want you to demonstrate valuable personal qualities through your extracurricular pursuits. Qualities like:

  1. Leadership
  2. Initiative
  3. Integrity
  4. Determination
  5. Passion
  6. Dedication

If you can show that your extracurricular activity or involvement in a high school club demonstrates these qualities at a significant level, then your extracurricular will be impressive.

The key is to frame your involvement in these activities in such a way that these positive personal qualities shine through application.

Obviously, not all of your activities will be as impressive as the examples listed above.

But every one of your activities can be spun in a more impressive light, and thus the descriptions provided in your application can be just as important as your involvement in those activities themselves.

By way of illustration, note that all of the "impressive" examples listed above had much longer descriptions than the "unimpressive/notable" examples. That was on purpose: The very act of telling a story about an activity will make it sound more impressive.

(1) The most common place to do this is in your essays.

That is something we specialize in, and would be happy to offer you a free 20-minute consultation to ensure that your accomplishments come across as strongly as possible in your application.

(2) The second most common place is in the form of strong recommendation letters from teachers, advisors, coaches, bosses, and/or mentors who have personally witnessed your involvement in these activities.

If you can get your lab mentor, boss at work, or teacher/advisor to write you a stronger rec letter by investing yourself more fully in an extracurricular pursuit, then the “impressiveness” of that pursuit is instantly multiplied by the testimonial offered by such a trusted source.

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.

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.

If you found this post helpful and want direct feedback on your essays from top 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 Good College Admissions Essay

December 02, 2019 by Veritas Essays Team | Essays, How To

Here are 5 tips that helped me when I was struggling to write the essays that ended up getting me into Harvard:

1. Read your previous school essays/assignments.

No one understands you better than your past self. Though you’ve probably matured as a writer since sophomore or junior year, you may be surprised by how well you were able to write on school assignments.

This was how I personally ended up coming up with my college admissions essay to Harvard. I had written a short essay in my English class about a fairly personal event that had recently happened in my life, and my teacher said she really loved it.

I wasn’t feeling that tied to any of the Common App essay drafts that I had written and was revising at that point. So, I decided to limit myself to an hour and try to re-tailor my English essay for the Common App.

Even though I had spent less than 1/10th the amount of time on that essay as the other Common App essay drafts I’d been laboring over for the past month, there was something about this essay that just clicked.

I brought the reworked essay into my college counselor the next day, and thankfully he absolutely loved it.

The key lesson I learned from this experience is that there’s absolutely no downside to leveraging work you’ve already done for your college essays — rather, it can actually help shortcut the ideation and essay writing process.

A lot of people come into the college essay writing process thinking they need to create something entirely new from scratch, something that will be so unique and expertly crafted that it was destined for greatness from the moment the pen hit the paper.

That’s an unrealistic expectation, however, and sets you up for failure by forcing you to start your college essay from the most intimidating part of the writing process — staring at a completely blank page without anything to build off of.

Build off your past success and take advantage of your previous hard work. Take inspiration from the 3 years of hard work you’ve already done during high school.

And, last but not least, basing your college essay off of a school assignment also comes with the additional benefit of having already submitted and received feedback on that writing, which gives you a head-start in refining and revising your message.

2. Look over your resume, or any previous academic/job applications you’ve written.

It’s easy to forget how much you’ve done and accomplished over the years. Thankfully, a condensed, one-page summary of all that information has already been created — it’s your resume.

Your resume tells the story of your professional and academic life. Leverage it to find inspiration for your college essays — oftentimes we forget some of the most interesting things we’ve done, or fail to draw connections between our life experiences until they are literally sitting on a page directly under our nose.

If you do not have a resume yet, don’t fret — going through the process of creating a resume can also be an invaluable exercise in reviewing and reflecting on your accomplishments throughout high school. Crafting your resume could be a valuable first step in deciding on the personal story that you want to convey in your admissions essay.

50 Successful Harvard Admissions Essays

3. Find inspiration in others’ essays.

I would definitely recommend 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays . It is a book published by Harvard’s student newspaper, The Crimson, and contains 50 essays that actual students used to get into Harvard.

Around the web, this excellent post by PrepScholar contains 120 essays for 14 schools, along with expert analysis, while this article by College Essay Guy contains another 21 free examples of essays that worked.

As easy as it is to read someone else's successful essay, however, it's 100x more important to get someone else to read your essay. It's like the difference between watching sports on TV and playing professionally.

It is essential to get as much feedback from as many experienced people as possible while you're crafting your essays, and is something I am very glad I prioritized when going through the process myself.

Which brings us to...

4. Ask family/friends/teachers/counselors for suggestions.

Your close friends, family, and teachers know you best, maybe even better than you know yourself. They have also seen you at your most impressive and can probably tell when you’re putting your best foot forward.

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice if you’re feeling stuck on your essays. And when you’ve completed a draft it can be extremely helpful to get a second set of eyes on your writing. Getting an outsider’s perspective can be extremely helpful in refocusing your essay for a broader audience.

Especially if your essay covers a more personal or intimate topic, you’ll definitely want to get someone else to read it before submitting since you may be too close to the topic to give it a fair read/interpretation, and won’t be able to tell how your story impacts another person.

And if you don't feel like you're getting the quality feedback you need, don't miss your chance to get a team of Harvard student editors to read your essays and provide direct, personalized feedback.

Take a break

5. Take a break.

Taking a break can be a great way to reset your mental state and give yourself a more clear-eyed view of the messages you’re trying to convey in your essays. Continuing to spin your wheels aimlessly can be counter-productive and just add to your frustration, further clouding your judgement.

If you find yourself unable to concentrate or put words on the page after staring at your prompt for more than 10 minutes, go outside and take a walk or stretch or move on to your other school work for the day.


  • Read your previous school essays/assignments for inspiration. You’ve already done the heavy lifting of coming up with the idea and writing out these essays, you’ve already revised and reviewed them, and you’ve already gotten feedback on them. Why let all this good work go to waste?
  • Look over your resume or any previous job applications you’ve filed, for these have already succinctly captured your professional/academic experience and can serve as a valuable reminder of what you’ve accomplished.
  • Find inspiration in previously successful students’ essays. There are dozens of books and websites online that offer free essay examples of admitted students.
  • Ask close friends/family/teachers/counselors for guidance. They know you better than you know yourself in many ways, and by providing an outside perspective may help you view your life in a novel way.
  • If all else fails, take a break. When you’re in a hole it does no good to keep digging. Trust your abilities enough that you can take a break without irrevocably interrupting any momentum you had while writing your essays.

Tips for Writing your College Essays

November 29, 2019 by Veritas Essays Team | Essays, How To

Your essay is what rounds you at as an applicant.

It is the only chance you have to speak directly to the admissions officer tasked with deciding whether to admit you to your dream college or not.

Make sure to follow these tips to ensure that your essay showcases the depth of your talents, accomplishments, and personality.

Spring semester

1. Start early but not too early: Junior Spring is ideal

Though people have different personal preferences, and you should write when you feel your able to produce your best work, Junior Spring tends to be the best time for most students to start their college essay writing process.

There are several reasons for this:

  1. You have the luxury of being able to try out many different ideas and essay formats, completely scrap a draft and start fresh, and get many people to review and comment on your essays.
  2. If you procrastinate, at least you have a few months to get back on track. If you procrastinate in December, well, you'll have the next 4 years to regret.
  3. Unless something incredible happens your Junior Summer, you’ve likely already experienced the story that you’ll write about for your college essays.
  4. And, unless you magically become possessed by the spirit of John Steinbeck during your Senior Fall English class, you probably are already in peak writing form.

Try everything

2. Throw everything at the wall and see what sticks

No idea is too dumb or too risky to try out. 650 words is not a lot — it takes about an hour to get that much onto a page, so what do you have to lose?

Experimenting with style and what story you want to tell will help you refine your thoughts and perfect your narrative.

Imagine you are a writer on the staff of a popular comedy TV show, and imagine what some of those brainstorming sessions must be like. You’ve probably seen some really funny, really wacky stuff on TV, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg — what about all the even wackier ideas that got filtered out during those brainstorming sessions? If people didn’t feel comfortable throwing out bad ideas for feedback and refinement, then you’d never get the quality of TV that gets delivered to you, the end consumer.

Extending this analogy, the end consumer for your college application is an admissions officer, and they’re going to spend a maximum of 5 minutes watching your TV pilot. It's much better to get all your ideas out during the brainstorming sessions and see where they naturally go than risk delivering a half-baked essay built around one of those bad ideas.

Narrative arc

3. Your essay is a story with a beginning, conflict, and resolution

Your essay should tell the reader something unique about yourself that is not captured elsewhere in your application.

If your essay simply restates the extracurriculars listed on your Common App, then the reader gains nothing from reading your essay. Instead, you’ve just wasted 650 precious words that could have added an entirely new dimension to your application.

Admissions officers read 100's of essays every year. Multiplied over a 10-year career, and they’ve seen pretty much every cliche. To get a sense of truly how bored real admissions officers get, see this Quora thread .

Their eyes will glaze over and skim paragraphs the second your essay loses steam. You need to keep things compelling and interesting enough to ensure that your essay gets fully read, as well as memorable enough to not be instantly forgotten.

Get inspired from the success of others

4. Read other successful admissions essays for inspiration

Good artists copy, great artists steal.

For college essays, this only applies to high-level concepts and stylistic suggestions -- Obviously, don’t plagiarize. However, there are many resources online and in bookstores that contain past examples of successful essays.

For example, The Crimson (Harvard's student newspaper) published several books containing successful Harvard essays .

Other books have also been published for other Ivy League schools and for Stanford University

If you want direct feedback on your essays from Harvard students, or want to work 1-on-1 with an experienced mentor to craft your application, visit us here.