Admissions Essay Help?

by OnTheOtherHandle3 min read1st Aug 201235 comments


Personal Blog

I need help writing a college application essay that will maximize my chances of getting into a school that the world considers prestigious. (17 years old, preparing to enter 12th grade at a central California high school as of this writing.)

Throughout high school, I resisted being over-scheduled, and basically eschewed all extracurricular activities in favor of having time to think and read. Even when my parents pushed me into things like tennis, dance, or debate clubs (ugh), I was secure in the belief that I could forgo them and rely on my grades and test scores to get me into a college that was good enough to earn a useful engineering degree and find a few interesting friends. (I was right.)

However, my priorities have changed, and I’m starting to really value the extra leverage prestige can bring me. I plan to start a Less Wrong/80,000 Hours club at whatever university I end up attending. I would have access to more intelligent, interested people at Stanford than at, say, UC Irvine. Perhaps more importantly, the club itself would have a better standing in the outside world if it were founded in Stanford. (This in addition to the fact that Stanford already has a world-class Decisions and Ethics Center that may be able to help.)

This is not to say I now regret not being an officer in a dozen useless clubs or participating in endless extracurricular activities. I do, however, regret not doing at least one really impressive, externally-verifiable thing like writing a book. Nothing in my life would make someone say, “Wow, how the hell did she do that?” If admissions officers could scan my brain, they would find a lot that would make them say, “How the hell could she think that?” – but not much of it would be positive.

So my question is, how do I write a personal statement essay, 250-500 words, that will leave an impression in an admissions officer’s mind, without lying or plagiarizing, given that my adolescence was spent thinking and reading, not *doing*? Each university then has 2-4 follow-up prompts (<= 250 words), such as these from Stanford:

  1. Stanford students possess intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.
  2. Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. What would you want your future roommate to know about you? Tell us something about you that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.
  3. What matters to you, and why?

The problem with answering these is that all of my *best* answers for these questions (“Newcomblike problems,” “Hey, do you want to join this rationality club I want to start?”, and “optimal philanthropy,” respectively) would take way more than 250 words to explain.

The focus on Stanford, by the way, is because my parents would be extremely unwilling to send me to a university on the East Coast, even if it were really prestigious. But feel free to give me general advice or advice specific to another university. :) If it actually happens, I'll be in a better position to convince them.

May Be Relevant:

I once tutored a girl in Algebra 1 over a period of three months, bringing her grades up from a D to a B. She stopped needing help and I didn’t go looking for another tutee.

I completed NaNoWriMo my freshman year – yeah, it was pretty bad.

I’ve been writing a daily essay on 750 words since December 2010, and have written over 518,000 words in 562 days – writing something 98% of the time, and completing my words 95% of the time. (Although a lot of the missed days were due to glitches in the early website eating my words.)

I entered the Science Fair with a couple friends, hated it because it crushed the spirit of curious inquiry under a predetermined experimental procedure with a predetermined result, and unsurprisingly didn’t win – although we got a certificate from the US Army.

I joined a community service club, hated it because we were just unpaid labor for rich people who didn’t need much help, but stayed anyway because my friends were in it.

General SAT: Reading and Writing scores slightly above the median for most prestigious universities, Math score slightly below. 800's on SAT Math II (Pre-calculus), SAT Biology Molecular, and SAT US History.

5's on AP Calculus AB, AP English Language, and other, less relevant AP's. Five AP classes so far taken, received A's, planning to take 6 more next year.

High probability of a good letter of recommendation from APUSH and Calculus teachers.

Thank you!

Edit: Fixed the hyperlink formatting.


34 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:48 AM
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all of my best answers for these questions ... would take way more than 250 words to explain.

Not true, especially if you just say what they are, as opposed to truly explaining them. For example, you don't say "Newcomblike problems, which are hypothetical situations where... (etc)", you say, "Newcomblike problems, a notorious class of philosophical dilemmas which I believe have real-world implications". Do this in a first draft and you will actually have room left to expand on the description in a second draft.

I was accepted to Stanford this spring. At the welcome weekend, we talked a lot with the admissions representatives about what they're looking for - I'd be happy to share tips and my own essays. PM me.

Congratulations! And thank you. :)

Looks like PMing is down, actually. You can email me at kelseyp [at] (not written out to avoid spambots).


The article you linked talks a little bit about modeling admissions officers. One nonobvious thing to consider:

There's a very good chance that the only person who will ever read your college essay is 25 years old.

Some unsolicited advice: private universities are way overpriced right now, and 17- & 18-year-olds are regularly encouraged to take on massive nondischargable debt in a way that many consider exploitive. Stanford's tuition broke $40K this year...have a plan, is all.

Yikes, good point. Especially if I'm going to study something like engineering, which is going to be pretty similar across most colleges, it might not even be worth the money. My parents are also pushing me into this, though, and they would be perfectly willing to help out financially, even if it would wound my pride not to be able to take care of that myself.

[-][anonymous]9y 0


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In case it's not obvious: you want to figure out if you should try to pursue a high-variance or a low-variance strategy. If you think you've got a solid chance, you should choose a relatively safer essay topic. If you think you're unlikely to get in, choose something wilder that could either be a disaster or a slam dunk.

I suspect that wild topics are safer than you think. I figure college admissions officers are more about selecting a varied, colorful student body than making sure every student meets a certain set of criteria. Explicitly signalling that you're an intellectually curious introvert, as opposed to an extroverted club-leading go-getter, may actually be a good idea. My experience of elite university students is that intellectual curiosity is rare, so if you can convey that successfully it could set you apart.

In other words, what's your evidence for

If admissions officers could scan my brain, they would find a lot that would make them say, “How the hell could she think that?” – but not much of it would be positive.

? Here's some evidence I have: my writing about the singularity did not prevent UC Berkeley from admitting me as a transfer student. (Personal message me if you want to read my essays; I probably have them on my hard drive somewhere.)

Advice specific to another university: If Stanford doesn't offer you any aid and you want to save money, you might want to go to community college for a couple years and then transfer to UC Berkeley or UCLA. The UC system is optimized to receive transfer students from community colleges, and last I checked, overall transfer admission rates are actually substantially higher than freshman admit rates at UCB. Transfer students aren't really expected to do extracurriculars either, so your free time is your own.

(The community college I went to, De Anza College in Cupertino, was really good. My best friend was a Sri Lankan-native science fiction aficionado. Pretty much everyone I met was more interesting and down-to-earth than the people I knew in high school--I found UCB's student culture to be a significant step down. And some of the professors were better than UC Berkeley's best (ex: Peterson, a Lockheed project manager who taught math in the evenings using the Socratic method, and physics teacher Newton). Of course, most california community colleges are probably lamer. Note for younger high schoolers in California: if you pass this very easy test you can start attending at 16 like I did.)

The problem with answering these is that all of my best answers for these questions (“Newcomblike problems,” “Hey, do you want to join this rationality club I want to start?”, and “optimal philanthropy,” respectively) would take way more than 250 words to explain.

You should see this as a good sign, not a bad one. You've got more interesting stuff to talk about then you have room for. I would suggest brainstorming a long list of potential topics, then try to figure out which topics you brainstormed fit best with which questions.

In general, my assessment is that you have what the universities are looking for (intelligence, intellectual curiosity, drive) and you just need to find a way to credibly signal those qualities. I'd advise against trying to dumb yourself down by writing about relatively boring stuff like your algebra tutee for every essay (although having at least one essay that's completely divorced from the LW meme cluster is probably a good idea).

One very high-variance idea would be to write an essay criticizing the entire process students use to apply for college. Even if admissions officers are part of it, they don't necessarily endorse it, and this guy did give a talk at Stanford. It's not that unreasonable for you to write about the college admissions process--it is a primary focus of many high schoolers' lives, and this focus makes perfect sense and is entirely reasonable; I don't think high schoolers should be ashamed of this at all. You could gather some objective data from their friends about how high a priority they placed on getting in to a good school and how much time they put in to get there so your essay wouldn't be as anecdotal. (Send me a personal message if you want more ideas on this.)

Hmm, I actually jokingly considered going meta and writing an essay about the challenges of writing an essay to capture what's worthwhile about me, to capture what's worthwhile about me - but going empirical and studying the effects of the college application process is way better. It would show, not tell, that I'm dedicated to science. Thank you! (Not sure I can make it work well enough to be my top choice, but thank you for making me think of things in a different light.)

Going meta about the effects of the admission process is worth a shot, so long as you really are empirical about it and don't just repeat conventional wisdom about all the ways the process goes wrong. If possible, reach an original (or at least uncommon) conclusion. Not a faux-contrarian conclusion that huge numbers of people repeat as if they're each part of a tiny minority, a really original one that most people will disagree with but still seems reasonable to you.

You're right; lots of people will repeat vague criticisms of the admissions process, without really thinking about the implications. Especially the implication, "Then what would replace it?" Given what we have to work with, what, specifically would be a more fair or less game-able system? Would there be anything less susceptible to Goodhart's Law? I don't really know. I think finding the answer would probably take more research than one application essay is worth, though.

you might want to go to community college for a couple years and then transfer to UC Berkeley or UCLA.

The transfer program applies to all the UC's... except for UCLA and UC Berkeley. This summer I took two classes at a California city college, and most of the students were trying to transfer to UCSB, which also will be unavailable for transfer in the near future. The classes (PSY 100 and ANTH 103) were worse than the AP classes I've taken at the high school, and honestly some students thought Japan was Korea and India was Africa. Probably lamer.

The transfer program applies to all the UC's... except for UCLA and UC Berkeley.

According to this page on UC Berkeley's website, they admitted roughly 25% of California-resident transfer applicants. (I'd guess the number is even higher if you look at community college applicants only.) It looks like it's gotten more competitive since I transferred, but they're still pretty big on transfers.

You may be getting transfers in general mixed up with the transfer guarantee programs that the less prestigious UCs have. It's probably worthwhile applying for the transfer admission guarantee (TAG) for UC Davis or whatever as a backup plan if they let you do that as a backup plan, but transferring in to UC Berkeley is still very doable. (You might as well apply to almost all of the UCs in your transfer application, because the $50 application fee is nothing compared to your tuition, right?)

Ah, I was confusing the two. Thanks for the clarification.

I tried to send this as a message, but clicking send sent me to a blank page, and didn't send the message. Has anybody else experienced problems with messaging recently? (If you have, you can get the message back by clicking your browser's "go back one page" button...but I didn't realize this the first time I tried to send a message, alas.)


I was so happy to read your introduction and discussion posts- you seem very clicky, and many of your interests are very near and dear to my heart too!

For your essays, a few ideas:

  • It seems like your essay topics would need to either assume lots of background knowledge or run over by explaining the background. Have you considered only explaining the background (eg game theory for Newcomb's Problem) and then at the end mentioning Newcomb's Problem, and how you were inspired by, I dunno, Nozick's original paper or Marion Ledwig's thesis?

  • Writing multiple first drafts of your essay, with different topics, is probably worth it; it's not that much more effort, and you can then rely on others' feedback to select the best one to revise further.

  • Don't trust Word/Writer's character count; for me, at least, the Common App website gave a different number.

On the plus side, I'm told that most people's essays typically give very negative first impressions, as boasting about what they've done, so you've got a leg up on many people already!

If you'd like, shoot me a message at or on Facebook and I'll send you my essays (you may want to wait until you've written your first drafts, though, so as to avoid bad priming.)

Also, if you're interested in getting to know other highschool LessWrongers (and, by now, a fair number of college freshmen), there's a LW Highschoolers FB group:

1/8 of the members will be freshmen at Stanford this year! (Yes, it's a small group. ;))

Cheers, Alex Richard

Thank you very much for your advice, seem to be affiliated with Stanford. Are you a student or a faculty member? If the latter, I'd feel a little...uncomfortable taking any more specific help from you. Even if it's legal, it feels like cheating, and that kind of thing would eat at me.

Your idea to write multiple drafts is a good one; they're really short essays after all.

On the plus side, I'm told that most people's essays typically give very negative first impressions, as boasting about what they've done.

See, that's what I really hate about this whole process. You're expected to have incredibly good marketing skills, and trying really hard never to lie to yourself or doublespeak in any way, even if you don't succeed, is going to make you worse at marketing. You have to get rid of useful, realistic humility by emphasizing only the things you think the admissions officers think makes you a well-rounded person - but at the same time you have to be subtle enough and modest enough to make them think you're not bragging, even though they know perfectly well that the only reason you wrote this essay was to show them how cool you are.

Honestly, I'm probably just a little resentful that my talents don't run in that direction - or I didn't choose to develop them in that direction.

Edit: None of these new comments showed up as a little red envelope. I thought no one had looked at this yet until my karma increased slightly. Has that happened to any of you?

I'm a freshman at Stanford, not a faculty member.

I'm not entirely sure (I rarely make posts), but I believe that you only get the red envelope from replies to comments, not replies to posts.

I tried to send this as a message, but clicking send sent me to a blank page, and didn't send the message. Has anybody else experienced problems with messaging recently?

I tried to send a PM to someone just now, and I had the same problem.

For what the advice is worth, admission essay prompts are not seeking facts about your life, they are seeking insight into your emotional life.

If your essay presents some part of your internal thinking as interesting (uniqueness is good, but being interesting is better), it probably does not matter whether it addresses the question on all fours.

The focus on Stanford, by the way, is because my parents would be extremely unwilling to send me to a university on the East Coast, even if it were really prestigious.

This is a curious sentence. It suggests that your parents are probably overprotective and overinvolved. Is there any more explanation to it? Are your parents paying for your education, or is there some other reason (cultural?) that they want to exert this degree of control over you once you're an adult?

Note that this is limiting your options a lot, which is reducing your probability of succeeding at your stated goal. Nobody can count on getting into any particular prestigious university anymore; the top of the applicant pool is too saturated. This is especially true of Stanford, which I believe is widely acknowledged to be a crapshoot. (I got into UC Berkeley, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon (which I attended), UCLA, etc. etc. but was rejected from Stanford.) Applying to more places is, I suspect, going to help you more than fine-tuning 250 words of prose.

I intend to apply to as many places as I think would be useful, don't worry, including plenty of schools that are much less of a long shot than Stanford, Ivy Leagues, etc. I love giving myself options. :)

To answer your question, the arrangement we've worked out is that we take out a loan, my parents start off paying it if I can't, then once I get a job I take over the payments, and later reimburse them fully. It would cost them more financially to send me to the East Coast, but I know them well enough to know that's not the reason they wouldn't let me go. It's largely cultural, I would guess, plus the fact that I don't have any siblings and so they might have grown more attached to me than most parents would. Additionally, they're conservative and I'm female. If I really couldn't afford to come home regularly (which they imagine to be at least twice a month, but will probably work out to be way more rare), I think they might have nightmares about all the (scandalous, immoral) fun I could be having over the weekends and the breaks.

I do love them though, and I can't get so angry with them for the way they were brought up. There's no way in hell I'm going to be perfectly obedient if I've decided that something is safe, ethical, and worthwhile, but I'll still care, just like I still care that my mom doesn't like that I'm an atheist.

Um, can someone please help me with the mark-up? I've been doing the same thing I do in comments to add links, like this.

When writing posts, the formatting is different. When you write a post, there should be a number of options in the text box above it. One of them looks like a chain. If you highlight a block of text, and click that button, that's how you do hyperlinks. The other things should be pretty self explanatory. It's all in that toolbar though, nothing is formatted as it is in comments.

In the mean time, you can edit the post and repost it to your drafts if you'd like.

I went through this process last year, and it resulted in my starting at MIT in three weeks. Here's my advice:

  • Make your essay different from other people's. Admissions officers read hundreds of essays that are all nearly the same, and hate it. Make yours different enough that they get a break from the crushing boredom.

  • Be candid about yourself without being clichéd. With any school essay, there's a pressure to spout BS phrases that don't really mean anything. If you can really mean everything you say, in language that's more your own than the platitudes you've been trained to write, it will show through.

  • If there's any chance you can talk your parents into it, apply to more schools. As many schools as you can bear to write essays for. I applied to 8 schools and only got into 2 (my first choice and my safety). After a certain point, there's about 3 classes worth of equally qualified students applying to every school, and there's a strong element of Random Number God determining which of those get in. You need to apply everywhere you think you'll be happy and get the future you want.

I don't know if I ever said this (I have a feeling that I have but I'm not sure) but I got into University of Chicago, the only school to which I applied. I applied Early Action and found out before sending out any other applications, still, in hindsight it was pretty dumb not to apply anywhere else. I'm getting a bunch of financial aid, but if they hadn't offered me so much, I probably would have had to go to my local community college or something.

While I agree that it would have been a good idea to apply to more universities, I just want to congratulate you on a unique and incredibly fun essay topic!

Thanks, and good luck.

I know this isn't what you were asking for, but would you mind reconsidering going to college at all?

Consider the Lost Purposes article and also the fact that a lot of students acquire debts to go to college. Nowadays there are lots of alternative ways to get an education and network. Have you considered the Singularity Institute as an option?

I went to college and I think it was a waste of time, but this is only my personal view, I'm sure there are lots of people who will disagree.

Two of the top contributors here(Eliezer and lukeprog) never went to college(or at least broke up after a short while) and I'm sure there are more...

I did know that Eliezer never went to college, but I don't think that would be a viable option for me.

The most important reason for this is that I haven't figured out how to incentivize myself to get stuff done. Over the summers, I always resolve to teach myself to program, or write a story, or paint, or get a job, but I always just end up reading and sitting around, running my brain, getting excited (and paralyzed) by the endless possibilities.

It's not that I have an awful work ethic - at least not when the tasks are assigned to me. I work hard in school, because grades in most classes measure conscientiousness. But as far as I've been able to tell, I need a structured schedule and external motivation to tear me away from fun little useless thought experiments. It might not be the best way for me to get things done - I've only tried two so far - but it's the only way that works for now. I thought college would be a nice stepping stone, laxer than high school but not as free-form as self-employment, where I could figure out what my brain needs to make my body work.

The less important (but more inescapable) reason is that my parents couldn't stand for me not to go to college, and even if I don't have to obey them as a major, I still want to please them.

Make yourself seem like the kind of person who will eventually donate lots of money to his Alma mater. But don't be obvious about it or you will seem low class.

Also explain why you are totally committed to promoting the kind of diversity that colleges value. But since lots of people have figured out that colleges look for this try to come up with some credible signal.

I'm not saying this wouldn't work, but I think it this violates the "without lying" clause. Even if it's not technically lying, my goal is to stay securely within the territory of honesty, not to get as close as possible to the border.