High School Legacy Essay Samples

A study conducted by AdmitSee, an undergraduate and graduate application-sharing platform created by University of Pennsylvania students, found students who used certain words, wrote about certain topics or even just wrote with a certain tone in their application essays were more likely to get accepted to one Ivy League school over another.

Upon analyzing its application archives, AdmitSee found students who referred to their parents as “mom and dad” in their application essays were more likely to get accepted to Stanford, while students who called them “mother and father” were more likely to receive a Harvard admission offer.

These findings, which were published by Fast Company, are based on essays — 539 of which were from students who were accepted to Stanford and 393 of which were from students who were accepted to Harvard — uploaded to the site at the time the study was conducted.

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So how does AdmitSee gain access to these application essays? The site invites college students, who are identified and verified by their official school IDs, to upload their application materials. Once uploaded, their application materials can then be accessed by high school students who are preparing for the college application process. Every time a high school student views a college student’s application materials, that college student is paid a stipend by AdmitSee.

AdmitSee found students whose application essays had a sad tone were more likely to be accepted to Harvard than Stanford. Specifically, essays written by students who were later admitted to Harvard focused on overcoming challenging moments in life. These essays frequently included words such as “cancer,” “difficult,” “hard” and “tough.”

This finding proved to be almost the exact opposite of what admissions officers from Stanford were looking for. Essays featuring a creative personal story or an issue the student was passionate about were among those accepted to the California-based school as opposed to Harvard, according to AdmitSee. These acceptance-winning essays often featured words like “happy,” “passion,” “better,” and “improve.”

AdmitSee also found surprising differences in the way Harvard and Stanford handle legacy applicants.

AdmitSee cofounder Lydia Fayal said that these differences play out primarily in the SAT scores and grade point averages of legacy versus non-legacy candidates.

“Harvard gives more preferential treatment to legacy candidates than Stanford,” Fayal said in an email interview. “Based on our preliminary data, the average SAT score at Harvard is 2150 for legacy students and 2240 for non-legacy; meanwhile at Stanford it’s 2260 for both legacy and non-legacy.”

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Fayal also said based on AdmitSee’s data, she found that the average GPA is three-tenths of a point lower for Harvard’s legacy students than it is for non-legacies. At Stanford, the average GPA of legacy students versus non-legacy students is just one-tenth of a point lower.

“If you take out diversity candidates and student athletes, the difference between legacy and non-legacy students gets really scary,” Fayal said.

Fayal was unable to provide exact numbers on this data – she said AdmitSee needs to wait to receive more applications containing this type of information.

Upon further quantitative analysis, AdmitSee found the most common words used in Harvard and Stanford essays have similar themes but are nonetheless different. For the Massachusetts-based Ivy, these words were “experience,” “society,” “world,” success” and opportunity.” For Stanford, they were “research,” “community,” “knowledge,” “future” and “skill.”

College admissions counselor Katherine Cohen didn’t find the differences between the application essays written by students admitted to Harvard and those admitted to Stanford surprising.

“Stanford and Harvard, while both extremely prestigious universities, actually don’t have that much in common when it comes to the feel on campus, their under-lying values, etc,” Cohen, who is also the founder and CEO of college admissions counseling company IvyWise, said in an email interview. “So it makes sense that they would be looking for different types of students, and therefore different kinds of essays.”

While the data collected from students admitted to Harvard and Stanford is the most specific, AdmitSee also collected interesting information on other Ivy League schools.

“There are 745 colleges with at least 1 application file on AdmitSee.com, and 286 colleges with 10+ application files on the site,” Fayal said.

For example, AdmitSee’s data indicates the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell favor essays about a student’s career goals. Like Harvard, Princeton tends to admit students who write about overcoming adversity. Essays that discuss a student’s experience with race, ethnicity or sexual orientation are well-received by Stanford, Yale and Brown.

Further, when looking specifically between Yale and Brown, AdmitSee found that Brown admitted more students who wrote about their volunteer experience, whereas there was no conclusive data that confirmed Yale favored essays of this type.

While AdmitSee’s findings focused specifically on applications submitted by students who were accepted to Ivy League institutions, the site has application materials for a wide variety of schools on its site.

AdmitSee co-founder Stephanie Shyu said, according to Fast Company, students who are gearing up to apply to college can learn two major lessons from the company’s data. One of these lessons: it is a good idea to craft unique essays for each school.

Fayal said that she wasn’t surprised that AdmitSee’s data reflected this tactic. It was a lesson she also learned during her time as a college consultant.

“I’ve worked with enough students to know that students should customize their application essay by university,” Fayal said. “I hope that, by releasing AdmitSee data, we’re leveling the playing field for students who can’t afford private college consultants.”

And Cohen agreed.

“Each school has slightly different values and focuses on different attributes, so the words, attitudes and themes expressed in a student’s application and college essays do matter when it comes to their chances of admission at one college vs. another,” Cohen said. “That’s why it is usually rare for a student to get accepted to every single Ivy League even if they have straight A’s, perfect SAT/ACT scores and 5’s across all their AP exams.”

The second lesson: students should aim to make their essays reflect the culture of the school they are applying to.

“The essays of admitted students are also a reflection of the community at these institutions,” Shyu told Fast Company. “It can provide insight into whether or not the school is a good fit for that student.”

Lea Giotto is a student at the University of Michigan and a summer 2015 USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent.

act, admissions essay, Brown, college application, college applications, Columbia University, Cornell, Dartmouth, essays, GPA, Harvard, SAT, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, COLLEGE CHOICE, VOICES FROM CAMPUS 


This post is by Samantha Funk, a senior at Harborside Academy in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The College March is a new tradition in which high school seniors march together in early December to mail college applications as part of a school celebration. The tradition began in 2011 at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in NYC, with the support of NYC-Outward Bound Schools and Capital One Bank.  This year seniors from 21 schools in 11 cities participated in the College March, promoting the ideal of college access for all and reminding every student who marches --and every younger student who watches--that when their with perseverance, resilience and hard work is met with academic preparation, school support and solid college matches, each of them can earn a degree.  This piece is written by a senior at Harborside Academy in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a cultural diverse urban EL Education secondary school. See a powerful brief video of the Harborside College March here.

Cheery faces. The holidays are right around the corner, and everyone's excited. But along with my senior class at Harborside Academy, I am starting to recognize that this will be my last celebration of the winter holidays while living in this place, with this family, and with these friends. It's just one of the many "lasts" that I will embark on this year, as high school graduation day looms less than six short months away.

All of this is bittersweet. I am mourning my childhood and feeling exhilarated about the boundless possibilities that lie ahead in my future. This past week, on Friday, December 11th, my classmates and I marched to the post office with our college applications in hand. The experience captured both my nostalgia and my hopes.  The march commemorates the last three, almost four years, growing up and leaping ahead. But, this march is so much more than that.  It is also a way to influence other students, express our gratitude to those who've helped us make it this far, and celebrate our passion and determination.

I was always told to establish a "backup plan" in case what I planned to do did not work out. Nevertheless, I applied to Beloit College, the number one school in the Midwest for the Theatre Arts program. This march is the beginning of my journey to becoming a playwright, director, and performer. Before coming to Harborside Academy, I never imagined I could chase my dream. I arrived as an anxious freshman from a middle school where I felt unsafe and invisible. But from the first days, teachers at Harborside told me I was capable and worthy enough to get into college if I practiced our habits of success: tenacity, leadership, cooperation, humor, respect, and integrity. It wasn't just talk, either. We have a crew class everyday where we look at how the habits are demonstrated in our school work and in how we treat others. We created portfolios and prepared for passage presentations to show we are ready for college. In crew, we also researched colleges and wrote our admissions essays. In my college essay, I tried to combine my life knowledge, along with the events and ideas that have made a serious impact on me, so that the reviewers of my application could see me not only as a student, but also as a person who curiously and courageously tackles new experiences. 

Participating in the college march also calls us to show admiration for our predecessors through an obligation to honor the work that those people put in to make us exceptional. It is our chance to give to younger children the same endowment that was given to us. When we get to the post office, we send letters out to the various people in our lives. We send them out to teachers here at Harborside Academy, or family members and dear friends that have changed us, made us better people, and touched our growing hearts.

The one very important person that I decided to thank was Mr. Haithcock, the founding principal of Harborside Academy. The culture Mr. Haithcock has created here at Harborside means that I am no longer just a number, or a face in a crowd of confused teenagers. I am a person, who feels safe and supported. I have learned again how to love learning and how to enjoy the people around me. If it weren't for Mr. Haithcock's work to create Harborside, I would not be the same person that I am today. In my letter, I thanked him for always being there for me, always making me smile when I was down, and for giving me so many opportunities--including writing this blog!

Marching beside my classmates today, I saw the friends, teachers, and school administrators cheering for my accomplishments.  When we made it to the post office, my mother was cheering for me on the sidelines, even though she just had surgery just a few days before. I was surprised to find out that our parents wrote us letters too. My mom's kind, loving, and heartbreaking words about letting me go when I leave for college made me cry.  I felt sad, but also excited about this first step toward my adult life. As we seniors say our goodbyes to high school, and stand on our own two feet, the College March is the start of our legacy. 

With this post, Learning Deeply will go on a holiday break. We will return in January with more explorations of deep learning. Happy holidays!

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