How to Begin Writing College Application Essays for 2016-2017: The Harvard Supplemental Essay and The University of California Personal Insight Statements

Who should read this post: Anybody applying to Harvard; Anybody applying to Harvard and the University of California system; Anybody applying to a Common Application School; Anybody writing more than one application essay.

 So step one this year is not to just sit down and write an essay.  And why not?

Because most of you will write essays for multi-college portals like the University of California system and a slate of colleges through the Common Application or Coalition application. If you are just getting into the app process and thought you could write your Common App essay and be done, sorry: most Common App and Coalition schools also want their own supplemental essays—and when a super elite like Harvard offers even the chance to write an additional essay, you need to do it lest you appear to be a slacker. All things being equal, you are likely to lose out to another applicant who looks like you in terms of data and other material if they wrote the extra essay and you did not.

What this means is clear: too many essays, too little time.

So assuming you have ten to sixteen essays to write, too much schoolwork and not enough time: what should you do? The answer is also pretty simple, but does take a bit more time up front: find a double or triple use for essays when you can. Sure, you thought of that, but have you done it yet? If not, read on. Actually, read on either way, as I will do some prompt analysis for Harvard and the University of California, along with a shout-out to Stanford, with a bonus of some helpful links.

How to Start Your College Application Essay

Back to step one, which is now to print out the prompts for your top target schools and set them side-by-side, along with a few safety schools, and engage in a comparison/contrast exercise. The more times you can reuse an essay as is, or do a bit of editing and reuse it, the better. Of course, you do have to avoid stretching too much when you try to make one essay work for another prompt, and you should definitely do a close read to make sure you did not leave in the name of  college x in your essay to college y  (Seriously: people really do miss details and end up sending an essay addressed to one school to another. For an amusing example of this and some other major boo-boos, listen to the introduction to this episode of This American Life: How I Got Into College.  It only takes a couple of minutes and is good for a laugh, at least.

Getting back to getting started,  if you are entirely new to this game, please dive in and start selecting your schools of interest in the Common App or Coalition portal (or Naviance, if you are using it). You will find that most Common App schools also want some kind of supplemental essay, or essays, or at least some quick responses about yourself. To learn more, get registered, select schools and  then click on the supplementals and essays.  Copy all prompts of interest into a document.  Then come back here  for a lesson on doubling up on essays and so not going crazy (completely) or burning out (utterly) by Thanksgiving.


The Harvard Optional Essay and the University of California Personal Insight Prompts:  A comparison

Many students will apply to some University of California campuses as an alternate or backup for one or more Ivy League applications, so let’s look at a comparison of the U.C. essay prompts and Harvard.

Here’s the University of California Prompts, bare-bones version (on the U.C. site, they append quite a bit of commentary to the basic prompts):

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.  
    2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
    3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?  
    4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
    5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
    6.  Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
    7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  
    8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

 You choose four of these eight prompts and write them (Caveat to junior college and other transfers—you have a required essay and choose three of these four prompts; here’s a link to the required transfer essay: U.C. Transfer essay).

And now we turn to the Harvard prompts, comparing each to the University of California personal insight prompts, with Stanford’s roommate letter thrown in for fun:

Harvard College Application Essay Prompts for 2016-2017

Essay optional (Hint, hint:  Optional only for those with a scholarship in hand.)

You may wish to include an additional essay (You should)  if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics:

  • Unusual circumstances in your life—Analysis and comparison: Notice that this could pair with the University of California’s prompt 8 (UC 8: What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates if that thing is some unusual circumstance in your life.
  • Travel or living experiences in other countries— Analysis and comparison: This prompt overlaps with the UC prompt 8 as well, if your unusual circumstance is living abroad. Of course just attending an international school does not make you all that unusual—thousands of American students in international schools, as well as thousands of foreign students apply to Harvard and the U.C.’s. But if you start by visualizing how your life is abroad is different from a suburban American teen (your major competition overall) and then think about how you have some unique view of experience within your living abroad experience, then that is your angle.
    • Oh, and a caveat: In all cases, whether writing for U.C. or for Harvard, please avoid the clichéd essay on a trip. Have a look at this link for some advice on how to write (or not write) the trip essay for either U.C. or Harvard (or anywhere else): Evading the Cliché Step 2.
  • What you would want your future college roommate to know about you. Analysis and comparison: Well this does not actually line up perfectly with any U.C. prompts—but it does overlap nicely with the Stanford letter to a roommate and hey—if you are applying to Harvard (with its 5.39% admit rate), why not apply to Stanford (with its 4.96% admit rate) as well—so let’s digress here to Stanford, which is still using its “letter to your roommate” prompt. You wouldn’t want your Harvard essay to look too much like a Stanford letter, but the usually more cheeky or informal tone of a letter might work for Harvard as well. Here’s a link to the Stanford prompts: Stanford Short Essays.

Okay, Back to the U.C. . . . . and Harvard:

  • An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you. Analysis and comparison: This lines up best with the U.C. prompt 6 ( . . . favorite academic subject and its influence on you) as long as you frame it with a specific focus on a book, project, research topic, etc. It might also work for the U.C. prompt 4 (Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity).
  • How you hope to use your college education. Analysis and comparison: This does not line up well with any U.C. prompts. A number of Ivies have this kind of question (Cornell, et al) but the problem with doubling up this prompt is your need to show some knowledge of the school. So you could write about your ambitions and show why you have them, then do some reading and clicking on specific programs, professors and research, etc., at Harvard, and then write this one. Then cut off the specifics about Harvard as you use it for other schools, swapping in research on their programs, etc.
  • A list of books you have read during the past twelve months. Analysis and comparison: This is, again, a question with no overlap for the University of California prompts; it is also not really an essay prompt. On the other hand, I would not just list books here. No, I would present an annotated list, with a brief reaction to each book—a few sentences at most.
  • The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty. Analysis and comparison: Notice that this could be a leadership issue if you took some kind of initiative in relationship to integrity or honesty—which is, of course, prompt 1 for the University of California. But handle this one with caution. If you waded into the morass of plagiarism or cheating, you have to figure out if you can get into that without hurting yourself by talking about it. You don’t want to present as a cheater, nor do you want to present as a snitch. If it was a big deal, possibly you have to, however, since if it was a big problem, it likely has a presence on social media. The last time I looked at a study, over 40% of application officers look at social media, and any serious stuff about you online will require some damage control.
  • The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission? Analysis and comparison: If you wrote an essay for the University of California’s prompt 7 (What have you done to make your school or your community a better place), that could work as the basis for this essay. Notice that they want to know what you will do at Harvard, which means what you will do in the future, but what you will do in the future won’t be very convincing if you have not done something in the past. So as I said, you might be able to use your UC 7 essay and add to it here to show how you will continue your commitment to world peace or whatever. But do some research on what is already in place at Harvard (and your fav U.C. campuses).  Why?  Because saying you want to start a World Peace Club at Harvard won’t be very convincing if they already have one. It would just show that you did not do much research, which suggests a lack of interest. Oops.

Some tips on Editing

Keeping in mind that to cut a 650 word essay down to 500 words, or a 500 word essay down to 350 words is actually to create a different essay, try to match up prompts, and when possible, match up prompts in a similar wordcount range.

To see what I mean, use my link below, and then read down into the post and you will see a very simple but very useful editing exercise I do on a brilliant essay by Titi Nguyen that will show you how you can cut a much longer essay and have a very good (if very different and much shorter) essay: How To Get Into College: Or, How To Write The Essay That Will Get You There, Including Essay Examples. After clicking the link, save time by searching the post for this:  My Wonder Years.

If you can use a technique like this to cut a Common App essay down to a U.C. 350-word essay, you can save some time. In addition to the editing trick, which would require only some work with transitions to make a great, new essay out of Nguyen’s long essay, notice the topic: television shows, and from what I would call a lost decade in terms of culture.  Nguyen’s use of what should be not just a mundane but a mindless topic allows her to get at the meaning of her life and to show her unique experience.

Hey, how has media shaped your life? Or how does it offer a lens into your life? Follow her lead and something good may happen (just don’t copy her. Inspiration is okay, plagiarism not so much.  You should go with things that are important to you.  Maybe it’s food, or shoes or something else nobody else would think of as a serious topic).

So that’s it; that’s how I would go about doing a comparison of U.C. to Harvard prompts and thus look to save time and verbiage (Yep, that’s both a thesis and a summary).

My next post will do a similar comparison for the University of Oregon, a good, large state university that has become a fallback school for many California applicants—with an app data profile similar to U.C. Riverside. Call it a safety comparison if you will, or just call it a look at a solid university to double up with the U.C. (or some other fine institution).   See you soon. (Oh, and yes, I will be doing more Ivy League analysis, as well as having a look at U Chicago and other elites, later in the month of September on into early October, as time allows.  Editing on client essays has to come first, but Stay tuned for more).











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