Harvard university application essay sample

Harvard university application essay sample

Hiking to Understanding

Surrounded by thousands of stars, complete silence, and spectacular mountains, I stood atop New Hampshire’s Presidential Range awestruck by nature’s beauty. Immediately, I realized that I must dedicate my life to understanding the causes of the universe’s beauty. In addition, the hike taught me several valuable lessons that will allow me to increase my understanding through scientific research.

Although the first few miles of the hike up Mt. Madison did not offer fantastic views, the vistas became spectacular once I climbed above tree line. Immediately, I sensed that understanding the natural world parallels climbing a mountain. To reach my goal of total comprehension of natural phenomena, I realized that I must begin with knowledge that may be uninteresting by itself. However, this knowledge will form the foundation of an accurate view of the universe. Much like every step while hiking leads the hiker nearer the mountain peak, all knowledge leads the scientist nearer total understanding.

Above tree line, the barrenness and silence of the hike taught me that individuals must have their own direction. All hikers know that they must carry complete maps to reach their destinations; they do not allow others to hold their maps for them. Similarly, surrounded only by mountaintops, sky, and silence, I recognized the need to remain individually focused on my life’s goal of understanding the physical universe.

At the summit, the view of the surrounding mountain range is spectacular. The panorama offers a view of hills and smaller mountains. Some people during their lives climb many small hills. However, to have the most accurate view of the world, I must be dedicated to climbing the biggest mountains I can find. Too often people simply hike across a flat valley without ascending because they content themselves with the scenery. The mountain showed me that I cannot content myself with the scenery. When night fell upon the summit, I stared at the slowly appearing stars until they completely filled the night sky. Despite the windy conditions and below freezing temperatures, I could not tear myself away from the awe-inspiring beauty of the cosmos. Similarly, despite the frustration and difficulties inherent in scientific study, I cannot retreat from my goal of universal understanding.

When observing Saturn’s rising, the Milky Way Cloud, and the Perseid meteor shower, I simultaneously felt a great sense of insignificance and purpose. Obviously, earthly concerns are insignificant to the rest of the universe. However, I experienced the overriding need to understand the origins and causes of these phenomena. The hike also strengthened my resolve to climb the mountain of knowledge while still taking time to gaze at the wondrous scenery. Only then can the beauty of the universe and the study of science be purposefully united. Attaining this union is my lifelong goal.

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Sample Application and Admissions Essays:
Admissions Essay Writing 101

Used by admissions officers to decide between two (or even two hundred) candidates with almost identical profiles, the application essay is often the only guide admissions officers have of your ambition, personality, and interests. As a result, your essay must be unique, captivating, and informative. Try the free online entrance essay course offered by Essay Edge and Cyber Edit. Named «the world’s premier application essay editing service» by The New York Times, EssayEdge has helped more applicants write successful application essays than any other company in the world.

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Harvard university application essay sample

Influence? Why is it that the people who influence us most influence us in ways that are not easily quantified? Through her work with abused children, my mother has shown me the heroism of selfless dedication to a worthy cause. By being an upstanding individual, my playwriting teacher in middle school acted as an inspiring male role model at a time when I needed one most. By being approachable and interesting, my World History teacher in my freshman year of high school opened my eyes to the connections between a society’s culture and its history and broadened my view of cultures and the world. While these influences mean much to me and have contributed greatly to my development, they came too easily to mind.

The fact that I could sit down and write a list of how these people influenced me suggests that the influence did not alter me in any profound way. These people are all my elders, and perhaps I feel distanced from them. The person whose influence shook me to the deepest level is a person whose influence is nearly impossible to describe. Mike, the best friend I’ve ever had, changed me, and I changed him at one of the most crucial times in our lives: the seventh grade. We developed our personalities, our senses of humor, and our love for girls at the same time and in the same manner. It would cheapen his influence to quantify it; I am what I am because of him; I cannot say that about anybody else.

Mike came to my school in the seventh grade, and we immediately clicked. Before he came, I didn’t feel like an outcast by any means, as I had my friends that I had known since first grade. However, until Mike, I never had anyone my age to identify with completely. Mike made me feel confident in who I was; he reaffirmed my drives and my thoughts and my inspirations. At this awkward stage in our lives, we found uncritical appreciation in each other. We both were obsessed by movies and had a similar sense of humor. We had the same problems and the same thoughts. That was all it took.

Halfway through that same year, Mike and I became inseparable. In fact, our yearbook had a section that lists the names of students and what they were never seen without. Under Mike, it read: “Ted, ” and under Ted: “Mike. ” I became a staple at his house and he at mine. We no longer had to ask our parents if it was ok to have a sleepover on weekends, they assumed we would. On weekdays, we usually walked over to his house, which was near school, and hung out there till I had to go home. Our favorite past time on those long afternoons after school was to walk to the nearby food mart and get a bag of chips and two 24 oz. Coca-Colas. Watching a movie, we would sit on his couch with our chips and Coke and talk about our dreams of working together in the movies. Mike wanted to be a director and actor, and I wanted to be an actor and a playwright/screenwriter. It was the perfect combination. We even tried writing a few scripts together.

Of course, as two seventh grade boys, it wasn’t all skips through the park either. We were extremely competitive and would get into brutal fights for seemingly no reason at all. One time, I pulled out a chunk of his hair, but I don’t remember what started the fight. I think that our connection was so intense that we could not have normal emotions toward each other. As friends, we were best friends, but in an argument, we wanted to fight each other to the death. Still, the Wrestlemania days were rare; ordinarily, the intensity of that connection was a good thing. I was pretty shy about girls, and when I did talk about them with guys, I would usually just say a girl was «hot.» With Mike, I could really talk about girls and who they were; with Mike, I didn’t have to put on my public “cool” faГ§ade but could really say what I felt about a girl.

Then we went to separate high schools. We tried to maintain the friendship, and you might think we would have been able to since we had been so close, but we drifted apart. Our friendship was based on being near each constantly, of growing up in the same town, under the same conditions, with the same hopes, fears, and dreams. Now we still go to movies occasionally and hang out, but it’s not the same, and we both know it. I thought Mike and I would be friends forever, and maybe we will be. I mean, we have to make those movies together, right? But the way things look right now, I doubt we will ever reconnect. Our friendship in the seventh grade was magical, and lightning doesn’t strike twice.

My playwriting teacher from middle school left, but I handled it. I learned a great deal from him, and I appreciate him for the subject he taught and the way that he taught it. I will probably miss my parents when I leave for college, but I doubt the separation will pain me deeply since the connection between parents and children will always be there. With Mike, I lost the best friend I ever had, and I lost that forever. Losing that kind of bond cuts deep, and I know it’s the type of wound that doesn’t heal. It’s the type of wound you just live with.

But just because we’re not friends anymore, it doesn’t slight the times we had when we were friends. Those times are what influenced me so deeply. No, Mike did not work some lesson into my heart, he worked himself into my heart, and even if I never see the guy again he changed me forever. I think that finding someone who you truly connect with and feel that you were destined to meet, someone who you feel truly understands you and makes you feel special, I think meeting someone like that is one of the most profound experiences you can have.

For access to 100 free sample successful admissions essays, visit EssayEdge .

Sample Application and Admissions Essays:
Admissions Essay Writing 101

Used by admissions officers to decide between two (or even two hundred) candidates with almost identical profiles, the application essay is often the only guide admissions officers have of your ambition, personality, and interests. As a result, your essay must be unique, captivating, and informative. Try the free online entrance essay course offered by Essay Edge and Cyber Edit. Named «the world’s premier application essay editing service» by The New York Times, EssayEdge has helped more applicants write successful application essays than any other company in the world.

This course offers extensive advice on how to write outstanding admissions essays.

SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

My Successful Harvard Application (Complete Common App + Supplement)

In 2005, I applied to college and got into every school I applied to, including Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT. I decided to attend Harvard.

In this guide, I’ll show you the entire college application that got me into Harvard — page by page, word for word.

In my complete analysis, I’ll take you through my Common Application, Harvard supplemental application, personal statements and essays, extracurricular activities, teachers’ letters of recommendation, counselor recommendation, complete high school transcript, and more. I’ll also give you in-depth commentary on every part of my application.

To my knowledge, a college application analysis like this has never been done before. This is the application guide I wished I had when I was in high school.

If you’re applying to top schools like the Ivy Leagues, you’ll see firsthand what a successful application to Harvard and Princeton looks like. You’ll learn the strategies I used to build a compelling application. You’ll see what items were critical in getting me admitted, and what didn’t end up helping much at all.

Reading this guide from beginning to end will be well worth your time — you might completely change your college application strategy as a result.

First Things First

Here’s the letter offering me admission into Harvard College under Early Action.

I was so thrilled when I got this letter. It validated many years of hard work, and I was excited to take my next step into college (. and work even harder).

I received similar successful letters from every college I applied to: Princeton, Stanford, and MIT. (After getting into Harvard early, I decided not to apply to Yale, Columbia, UChicago, UPenn, and other Ivy League-level schools, since I already knew I would rather go to Harvard.)

The application that got me admitted everywhere is the subject of this guide. You’re going to see everything that the admissions officers saw.

If you’re hoping to see an acceptance letter like this in your academic future, I highly recommend you read this entire article. I’ll start first with an introduction to this guide and important disclaimers. Then I’ll share the #1 question you need to be thinking about as you construct your application. Finally, we’ll spend a lot of time going through every page of my college application, both the Common App and the Harvard Supplemental App.

Important Note: the foundational principles of my application are explored in detail in my How to Get Into Harvard guide. In this popular guide, I explain:

  • what top schools like the Ivy League are looking for
  • how to be truly distinctive among thousands of applicants
  • why being well-rounded is the kiss of death

If you have the time and are committed to maximizing your college application success, I recommend you read through my Harvard guide first, then come back to this one.

You might also be interested in my other two major guides:

What’s in This Harvard Application Guide?

From my student records, I was able to retrieve the COMPLETE original application I submitted to Harvard. Page by page, word for word, you’ll see everything exactly as I presented it: extracurricular activities, awards and honors, personal statements and essays, and more.

In addition to all this detail, there are two special parts of this college application breakdown that I haven’t seen anywhere else:

  • You’ll see my FULL recommendation letters and evaluation forms. This includes recommendations from two teachers, one principal, and supplementary writers. Normally you don’t get to see these letters because you waive access to them when applying. You’ll see how effective strong teacher advocates will be to your college application, and why it’s so important to build strong relationships with your letter writers.
  • You’ll see the exact pen marks made by my Harvard admissions reader on my application. Members of admissions committees consider thousands of applications every year, which means they highlight the pieces of each application they find noteworthy. You’ll see what the admissions officer considered important — and what she didn’t.

For every piece of my application, I’ll provide commentary on what made it so effective and my strategies behind creating it. You’ll learn what it takes to build a compelling overall application.

Importantly, even though my application was strong, it wasn’t perfect. I’ll point out mistakes I made that I could have corrected to build an even stronger application.

Here’s a complete table of contents for what we’ll be covering. Each link goes directly to that section, although I’d recommend you read this from beginning to end on your first go.

I mean it — you’ll see literally everything in my application.

In revealing my teenage self, some parts of my application will be pretty embarrassing (you’ll see why below). But my mission through my company PrepScholar is to give the world the most helpful resources possible, so I’m publishing it.

One last thing before we dive in – I’m going to anticipate some common concerns beforehand and talk through important disclaimers so that you’ll get the most out of this guide.

Important Disclaimers

My biggest caveat for you when reading this guide: thousands of students get into Harvard and Ivy League schools every year. This guide tells a story about one person and presents one archetype of a strong applicant. As you’ll see, I had a huge academic focus, especially in science (this was my Spike). I’m also irreverent and have a strong, direct personality.

What you see in this guide is NOT what YOU need to do to get into Harvard, especially if you don’t match my interests and personality at all.

As I explain in my Harvard guide, I believe I fit into one archetype of a strong applicant – the «academic superstar» (humor me for a second, I know calling myself this sounds obnoxious). There are other distinct ways to impress, like:

  • being world-class in a non-academic talent
  • achieving something difficult and noteworthy – building a meaningful organization, writing a novel
  • coming from tremendous adversity and performing remarkably well relative to expectations

Therefore, DON’T worry about copying my approach one-for-one. Don’t worry if you’re taking a different number of AP courses or have lower test scores or do different extracurriculars or write totally different personal statements. This is what schools like Stanford and Yale want to see – a diversity in the student population!

The point of this guide is to use my application as a vehicle to discuss what top colleges are looking for in strong applicants. Even though the specific details of what you’ll do are different from what I did, the principles are the same. What makes a candidate truly stand out is the same, at a high level. What makes for a super strong recommendation letter is the same. The strategies on how to build a cohesive, compelling application are the same.

There’s a final reason you shouldn’t worry about replicating my work – the application game has probably changed quite a bit since 2005. Technology is much more pervasive, the social issues teens care about are different, the extracurricular activities that are truly noteworthy have probably gotten even more advanced. What I did might not be as impressive as it used to be. So focus on my general points, not the specifics, and think about how you can take what you learn here to achieve something even greater than I ever did.

With that major caveat aside, here are a string of smaller disclaimers.

I’m going to present my application factually and be 100% straightforward about what I achieved and what I believed was strong in my application. This is what I believe will be most helpful for you. I hope you don’t misinterpret this as bragging about my accomplishments. I’m here to show you what it took for me to get into Harvard and other Ivy League schools, not to ask for your admiration. So if you read this guide and are tempted to dismiss my advice because you think I’m boasting, take a step back and focus on the big picture — how you’ll improve yourself.

This guide is geared toward admissions into the top colleges in the country, often with admissions rates below 10%. A sample list of schools that fit into this: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, MIT, UChicago, Duke, UPenn, CalTech, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Brown. The top 3-5 in that list are especially looking for the absolute best students in the country, since they have the pick of the litter.

Admissions for these selective schools works differently from schools with >20% rates. For less selective schools, having an overall strong, well-rounded application is sufficient for getting in. In particular, having an above average GPA and test scores goes the majority of the way toward getting you admission to those schools. The higher the admission rate, the more emphasis will be placed on your scores. The other pieces I’ll present below – personal statements, extracurriculars, recommendations – will matter less.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to aim for a stronger application. To state the obvious, an application strong enough to get you Columbia will get you into UCLA handily.

In my application, I’ve redacted pieces of my application for privacy reasons, and one supplementary recommendation letter at the request of the letter writer. Everything else is unaltered.

Throughout my application, we can see marks made by the admissions officer highlighting and circling things of note (you’ll see the first example on the very first page). I don’t have any other applications to compare these to, so I’m going to interpret these marks as best I can. For the most part, I assume that whatever he underlines or circles is especially important and noteworthy – points that he’ll bring up later in committee discussions. It could also be that the reader got bored and just started highlighting things, but I doubt this.

Finally, I co-founded and run a company called PrepScholar. We create online SAT/ACT prep programs that adapt to you and your strengths and weaknesses. I believe we’ve created the best prep program available, and if you feel you need to raise your SAT/ACT score, then I encourage you to check us out. I want to emphasize that you do NOT need to buy a prep program to get a great score, and the advice in this guide has little to do with my company. But if you’re aren’t sure how to improve your score and agree with our unique approach to SAT/ACT prep, our program may be perfect for you.

With all this past us, let’s get started.

The #1 Most Important College Application Question: What Is Your PERSONAL NARRATIVE?

If you stepped into an elevator with Yale’s Dean of Admissions and you had ten seconds to describe yourself and why you’re interesting, what would you say?

This is what I call your PERSONAL NARRATIVE. These are the three main points that represent who you are and what you’re about. This is the story that you tell through your application, over and over again. This is how an admissions officer should understand you after just glancing through your application. This is how your admissions officer will present you to the admissions committee to advocate for why they should accept you.

The more unique and noteworthy your Personal Narrative is, the better. This is how you’ll stand apart from the tens of thousands of other applicants to your top choice school. This is why I recommend so strongly that you develop a Spike to show deep interest and achievement. A compelling Spike is the core of your Personal Narrative.

Well-rounded applications do NOT form compelling Personal Narratives, because “I’m a well-rounded person who’s decent at everything” is the exact same thing every other well-rounded person tries to say.

Everything in your application should support your Personal Narrative, from your course selection and extracurricular activities to your personal statements and recommendation letters. You are a movie director, and your application is your way to tell a compelling, cohesive story through supporting evidence.

Yes, this is overly simplistic and reductionist. It does not represent all your complexities and your 17 years of existence. But admissions offices don’t have the time to understand this for all their applicants. Your PERSONAL NARRATIVE is what they will latch onto.

Here’s what I would consider my Personal Narrative (humor me since I’m peacocking here):

1) A science obsessive with years of serious research work and ranked 6 th in a national science competition, with future goals of being a neuroscientist or physician

2) Balanced by strong academic performance in all subjects (4.0 GPA and perfect test scores, in both humanities and science) and proficiency in violin

3) An irreverent personality who doesn’t take life too seriously, embraces controversy, and says what’s on his mind

These three elements were the core to my application. Together they tell a relatively unique Personal Narrative that distinguishes me from many other strong applicants. You get a surprisingly clear picture of what I’m about. There’s no question that my work in science was my “Spike” and was the strongest piece of my application, but my Personal Narrative included other supporting elements, especially a description of my personality.

This might be what you’re picturing as you read this Personal Narrative, which is good, because it’s distinctive.

A good test of a strong Personal Narrative: if you swap out one item in the Personal Narrative, you’ll get a feeling of a completely different person.

It’s far easier to grasp onto three strong points about a person than ten different thin threads. This, again, is why being well-rounded is so deadly – mix ten different paint colors together and you end up with an unappealing, indistinguishable mess.

Note also that point #2 is probably the weakest, least unique part of the Personal Narrative. Most people applying to top colleges have great test scores and grades, so this is rarely distinguishing by itself. By point #2, I meant to say that I wasn’t 100% hardcore science geek and was competent in other aspects of life.

Throughout the rest of my guide, I will keep referring back to my Personal Narrative so that you’ll see how strongly each piece of my application reinforces it, from my extracurriculars to personal statements and recommendation letters. You should get a very strong flavor of who I am, which is the hallmark of a memorable, effective application.

I’ll end this guide with strategies and questions for you to ponder for yourself. The major question for you to ponder as you read is – what is YOUR Personal Narrative, and how are you going to show it through every component of your application?

Want to get into Harvard or your personal top choice college?

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My College Application, at a High Level

Drilling down into more details, here’s an overview of my application.

  • I had a 4.0 GPA, unweighted, with 12 AP courses (5 in senior year). I got perfect SAT and ACT scores (1600 and 36) and seven 5’s on AP courses by the time I applied.
    • This put me comfortably in the 99 th percentile in the country, but it was NOT sufficient to get me into Harvard by itself! Because there are roughly 4 million high school students per year, the top 1 percentile still has 40,000 students. You need other ways to set yourself apart.
  • My extracurriculars and awards were what really got me into Harvard. In particular, I ranked nationally in the top 20 in the US National Chemistry Olympiad, and I participated in Research Science Institute, what was then (and may still be now) the most prestigious science research program for high school students.

    • Your Spike will most often come from your extracurriculars and academic honors, just because it’s hard to really set yourself apart with your coursework and test scores.
  • My letters of recommendation were very strong. Both my recommending teachers marked me as “one of the best they’d ever taught.” Importantly, they corroborated my Personal Narrative, especially regarding my personality. You’ll see how below.

    Finally, let’s get started by digging into the very first pages of my Common Application.

    My Complete Common Application, Page by Page

    To set the stage, I applied Early Action to Harvard early in senior year, and this is the application I used to get in early. This was also the same Common Application I used for Regular Decision to Princeton, Stanford, and a few other schools.

    Let’s start with the Common Application, which will form the bulk of the application. Then we’ll go into the Harvard supplemental application. Both applications have changed in format a bit since 2005, so I’ll be indicating what each section is now known as in the latest Common Application.

    Personal Data

    Now known as: Profile

    This is a straightforward section where you list your basic information. But as I point out below, a lot is conveyed about you through just a few questions.

    I’ve redacted some stuff here for privacy reasons.

    There are a few notable points about how simple questions can actually help build a first impression around what your Personal Narrative is.

    First, notice the circle around my email address. This is the first of many marks the admissions officer made on my application. The reason I think he circled this was that the email address I used is a joke pun on my name. I knew it was risky to use this vs something like allencheng15@gmail. com, but I thought it showed my personality better (remember point #3 about having an irreverent personality in my Personal Narrative).

    Don’t be afraid to show who you really are, rather than your perception of what they want. What you think UChicago or Stanford wants is probably VERY wrong, because of how little information you have, both as an 18-year-old and as someone who hasn’t read thousands of applications.

    (It’s also entirely possible that it’s a formality to circle email addresses, so I don’t want to read too much into it, but I think I’m right.)

    Second, I knew in high school that I wanted to go into the medical sciences, either as a physician or as a scientist. I was also really into studying the brain. So I listed both in my Common App to build onto my Personal Narrative.

    In the long run, both predictions turned out to be wrong. After college, I did go to Harvard Medical School for the MD/PhD program for 4 years, but I left to pursue entrepreneurship and co-founded PrepScholar. Moreover, in the time I did actually do research, I switched interests from neuroscience to bioengineering/biotech.

    Colleges don’t expect you to stick to career goals you stated at the age of 18. Figuring out what you want to do is the point of college! But this doesn’t give you an excuse to avoid showing a preference. This early question is still a chance to build that Personal Narrative.

    Thus, I recommend AGAINST «Undecided» as an area of study – it suggests a lack of flavor and is hard to build a compelling story around. From your high school work thus far, you should at least be leaning to something, even if that’s likely to change in the future.

    Finally, in the demographic section there is a big red A, possibly for Asian American. I’m not going to read too much into this. If you’re a notable minority, this is where you’d indicate it.

    Educational Data

    Now known as: Education

    This section was straightforward for me. I didn’t take college courses, and I took a summer chemistry class at a nearby high school because I didn’t get into the lottery at my school that year (I refer to this briefly in my 4.0 GPA guide).

    The most notable point of this section: the admissions officer circled Principal here. This is notable because our school Principal only wrote letters for fewer than 10 students each year. Counselors wrote letters for the other hundreds of students in my class, which made my application stand out just a little.

    I’ll talk more about this below, when I share the Principal’s recommendation.

    (In the current Common Application, the Education section also includes Grades, Courses, and Honors. We’ll be covering each of those below).

    Test Information

    Now known as: Testing

    Back then AP scores weren’t part of this section, but I’ll take them from another part of my application here.

    I scored a perfect 1600 on my SAT (the SAT changed to a 2400 scale in 2005, and it’s changed back to 1600 in 2016), a 36 on my ACT, 800’s on all but one SAT Subject Test, and seven 5’s on AP tests.

    I need to make one very important point that stresses a lot of students and parents out.

    You do NOT need perfect scores to get into Harvard, Princeton, Yale or other top schools.

    It’s true that colleges want you to take a very demanding courseload and to excel academically. After all, schools like Harvard have the pick of the litter, and there are plenty of students who get super high test scores AND have amazing achievements. Remember, over 40,000 students fit in the top 1 percentile of students nationwide.

    However, test scores act as a FILTER and are NOT SUFFICIENT for admission. Top schools are generally looking to see that you fit in the top 1 percentile of the country. But within that 1 percentile, your score does NOT make a big difference in your chances of admission.

    Just a sanity check: the average SAT score at Harvard is a 1540. The 75 th percentile is a 1600, and the 25 th percentile is a 1470. For the ACT, that’s an average of 34, and a 75 th percentile of 35 and a 25 th percentile of 32.

    In other words, a 1530 on the SAT is NOT going to significantly change your chances, compared to a perfect 1600. In their eyes, you’ve already proven yourself academically. They know that there is some amount of chance every time you take a test, so a 1600 is more or less equivalent to a 1530.

    NO ONE looked at my test scores alone and thought, «Wow, based on his GPA and test scores, Allen really deserves admission!”

    However, their standards are still very high. You really do want to be in that top 1 percentile to pass the filter. A 1400 on the SAT IS going to put you at a disadvantage because there are so many students scoring higher than you. You’ll really have to dig yourself out of the hole with an amazing application.

    I talk about this a lot more in my Get into Harvard guide (sorry to keep linking this, but I really do think it’s an important guide for you to read).

    Are you struggling with your SAT/ACT scores? Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We’ve written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

    Let’s end this section with some personal notes.

    Even though math and science were easy for me, I had to put in serious effort to get an 800 on the Reading section of the SAT. As much as I wish I could say it was trivial for me, it wasn’t. I learned a bunch of strategies and dissected the test to get to a point where I understood the test super well and reliably earned perfect scores.

    I cover the most important points in my How to Get a Perfect SAT Score guide, as well as my 800 Guides for Reading, Writing, and Math.

    Between the SAT and ACT, the SAT was my primary focus, but I decided to take the ACT for fun. The tests were so similar that I scored a 36 Composite without much studying. Having two test scores is completely unnecessary – you get pretty much zero additional credit. Again, with one test score, you have already passed their filter.

    Family

    Now known as: Family (still)

    This section asks for your parent information and family situation. There’s not much you can do here besides report the facts.

    I’m redacting a lot of stuff again for privacy reasons.

    The reader made a number of marks here for occupation and education. There’s likely a standard code for different types of occupations and schools.

    If I were to guess, I’d say that the numbers add to form some metric of “family prestige.” My dad got a Master’s at a middle-tier American school, but my mom didn’t go to graduate school, and these sections were marked 2 and 3, respectively. So it seems higher numbers are given for less prestigious educations by your parents. I’d expect that if both my parents went to schools like Caltech and Dartmouth, there would be even lower numbers here.

    This makes me think that the less prepared your family is, the more points you get, and this might give your application an extra boost. If you were the first one in your family to go to college, for example, you’d be excused for having lower test scores and fewer AP classes. Schools really do care about your background and how you performed relative to expectations.

    In the end, schools like Harvard say pretty adamantly they don’t use formulas to determine admissions decisions, so I wouldn’t read too much into this. But this can be shorthand to help orient an applicant’s family background.

    Extracurricular, Personal, and Volunteer Activities

    Now known as: Activities

    For most applicants, your Extracurriculars and your Academic Honors will be where you develop your Spike and where your Personal Narrative shines through. This was how my application worked.

    Just below I’ll describe the activities in more detail, but first I want to reflect on this list.

    As instructed, my extracurriculars were listed in the order of their interest to me. The current Common App doesn’t seem to ask for this, but I would still recommend it to focus your reader’s attention.

    The most important point I have to make about my extracurriculars: as you go down the list, there is a HUGE drop in the importance of each additional activity to the overall application. If I were to guess, I assign the following weights to how much each activity contributed to the strength of my activities section:

    Activity Name

    Contribution to Application