As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, 5 Hundred Words takes a fairly informal, irreverent approach to the process of writing college admission essays. I architected the website and the voice of 5 Hundred Words this way for the same reason that I founded the company — to reach students — and encourage them that writing college admission essays may not be fun, but they don’t have to be hell on earth, either. They know that they need to do the best work of their lives under the most stressful of circumstances, via a vehicle they probably have never used – an autobiographical essay. For many students it’s the most important life event they’ve ever been through. For parents, it’s the end game of years of investment in time, money and emotion. Whether students aren’t taking it seriously enough, or are overwhelmed with stress, most parents are feeling the enormous pressure of this period and trying to help navigate their child to the right resources to be successful.
Notwithstanding the style of 5 Hundred Words, my own approach to college applications was rigid and nearly maniacal, poring daily over 400 page books with profiles of every school in the country. My friends and I stayed up late in the night applying our five star system — from schools we would die to go to, to schools we would die if we had to attend. At some point, my parents actually threatened to take away the book, given I was practically sleeping with it.
There are a Lot of Worthy Applicants
My concern was not the grades, the examples of leadership, or my social contributions. My panic was rooted in the reality that there were many other students who offered all of that as well. So how would I distinguish myself? This remains the key question among high-achieving students applying to top universities today. It’s simply a matter of math, when you think about it.
In 2013, Harvard received over 34,000 applications. We must assume that a large number of students self-select out, so most of those 34,000 likely had reasonably strong applications. But let’s say that even so, only 2 in 10 had the qualifications that Harvard is looking for. That’s still 6800 students (and this is conservative — that would mean more than 25,000 students applied who had no real chance of getting in). So, in a very best case scenario, almost 6800 fairly equally eligible students were vying for 2000 spots.
Why the Essay is the Game Changer
So how then do the less than 30% actually chosen get in? Schools want a diverse community. This means conservatives, environmentalists, philosophers, future bankers and emerging poets. People who are funny, quiet, talented, generous, sociable and…yes, smart. The late night college conversations pontificating about nothing come from that mix of divergent voices. So where in the application do you prove yours should be among them? Nowhere else in the college application can a student communicate better how they will contribute to that kind of diversity than they can in the essay. Technically, the Common Application limits you to five topics. But each of those topics, are really asking the same thing — what makes you so damn special. More special than 70% of the other people that are as qualified as you.
My Essays Were Noteworthy
As for my own college application story, thankfully it was a happy one. From 13 applications I received 13 thick envelopes, including schools such as Princeton, Duke and Rice, the last of which sent me an incredibly flattering note about how much they enjoyed my essay. Four years later, during my senior year at Harvard, I received a similar note from Georgetown Law (that note is available here, unfortunately the Rice letter has disappeared, though my mother is determined to find it, so watch this space). I’m hardly the best writer out there, and I may not even be the very best college admission essay writer in the country (cue the world’s most boring contest ever). But I’m good enough to get noticed in a sea of thousands, and exceptional enough for two admission officers to tell me so. And I believe that I can help others tell their story in a distinctive and memorable way as well.
Deep Breath Now…
I recall clearly the stress and the panic of senior year, and this website is meant to help students get through it with a little more humor than they might otherwise. Once our work together begins, it’s as tough and intense as it has to be. There’s no way to get the results you need without committing to the task. But, they also need to keep emotions in check, to calm down and take a deep breath – it’s really all going to be ok.
I wish I had known that.