How I Got Into Princeton - Harry (Story #20)

How I Got Into Princeton - Story #20

Harry's Story

Profile - Harry"If I want to pursue something, I am very good at figuring out what the best approach is and directing my energy into that approach."

Meet Harry, a member of Princeton's class of 2021.

In high school, Harry pursued a rigorous schedule of academics and extracurricular activities. He was one of only 8 students in his year to attain all A*s at GCSE level, won the Award for Outstanding Academic Achievement at A-Level, and earned the History Subject Prize. He spent his free time participating in and coaching athletics and engaging in history discussion groups and other school societies.

Harry credits much of his success to mindful goal-setting and family support.

"The small things add up," Harry says. "I’ve learned in academics and athletics in particular that, when pursuing a goal or seeking a particular outcome, it’s best to focus not on a big late effort or intense “grind,” but on a steady approach that incorporates habits and daily tendencies which all promote the end goal."

Please read below to learn more about Harry and the personal qualities, values, and support system that have allowed him to succeed.

We recommend reading from beginning to end but feel free to skip around. Our favorite section is the "What Makes You You" section, where Harry describes his personal philosophies.

About this Series

In our "How I got Into" series, we share the stories of successful applicants to Princeton and other great colleges.

Our profiles go beyond a simple list of academic and extracurricular achievements. We also delve into the “how” and the qualities that successful applicants exhibit.

We provide a rare look into what drives these students, how they've overcome their challenges, how they've been shaped by significant events in their lives, how they deal with the pressure to succeed, and much more.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

SECTION 1 - FAMILY
SECTION 2 - SCHOOLING
SECTION 3 - ACTIVITIES
SECTION 4 - ACADEMICS
SECTION 5 - THE COLLEGE APPLICATION
SECTION 6 - DAY IN THE LIFE
SECTION 7 - WHAT MAKES YOU YOU
SECTION 8 - CONCLUSION

Disclaimer

Here's what we're NOT doing with this series:

  • We are NOT prescribing an over-engineered approach to college admissions
  • We are NOT presenting a blueprint for how you should get into college
  • We are NOT suggesting that you must gain admissions to a selective school to be successful (you most certainly do not)

Here's what we ARE doing:

  • We are presenting data and sharing stories
  • We are providing context that you usually don't see to highlight that we are more than just our grades and GPA
  • Our ultimate goal is to uncover the values and personal qualities that drive successful applicants

Whether you are considering selective colleges or not, it is our unwavering belief that our values and personal qualities (and luck) are the major contributors to success.


SECTION 1 - FAMILY

Geography

Birthplace: Manchester, UK
Where did you grow up? Cheshire, UK

Siblings

# of older siblings:  1
# of younger siblings: 1
Sibling Education Levels:  Sibling 1: Completed a Bachelors Degree, History, in the UK. Sibling 2: Currently undertaking A Level exams.
Where did your siblings go to college?  Sibling 1: Bristol University. Sibling 2: At High School (Sixth Form)

Parents

Parent's Marital Status: Married
With whom do you make your permanent home? Both Parents
Parent 1 Current/Former Occupation: Wine Consultant / Runs an English Tutoring Business
Parent 1 Highest Level of Education: Bachelors
Parent 2 Current/Former Occupation: Manager, Lords’ Marketing Consultancy
Parent 2 Highest Level of Education: Bachelors

Parent Beliefs

How would you characterize your parents' parenting style(s)?

Relaxed. They let me follow my passions, but also give advice and encourage me to think actively about important decisions. 

On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the most important), how important to your parents was:

Academics 1
Extracurriculars 1
Service 5
Family 3
Friends 4
Physical Health/ Fitness 2
Mental Health Never directly made it a priority, but indirectly encouraged positive mental health with a focus on the above… Particularly physical health/activities outside of the classroom.

Did your parents have specific philosophies regarding any of the areas above?

I’d say that my parents always encouraged me to pursue my passions and areas of interest, providing support for me to do this. They taught me to value family and good health above other things, and saw academics as an area of life through which fulfilment and personal growth could be achieved. They told me that I shouldn’t see it as a means to an end, i.e. doing Medicine to be a Doctor to get a good salary or doing Maths to go into accounting.


SECTION 2 - SCHOOLING

Middle School

Middle School: The Grange School Hartford
Type of School: Private

High School

High School: The Grange School Hartford
High School City, State: Northwich, Cheshire
Type of School: Private
Class Size: 120/year group up until Sixth Form (last 2 years), in which my class was 91 strong.

SECTION 3 - ACTIVITIES

Jobs

Did you work in high school?  Yes
What kind of job/s did you have? Worked part time during Christmas and summer breaks. Worked at a Packaging Warehouse putting together Hampers, and at Summer Sports Camps. 
Average hours/week worked? Seasonal. During term time I didn’t work, since I couldn’t find time alongside studies and extracurriculars. I worked for around 2 weeks at Christmas (9hrs/day), and 3 weeks during summer (7-8 hours/day).
Why did you work? For money for living expenses (public transport,) and leisure money (seeing friends, cinema, food etc.)

Extracurriculars/Passions & Interests

What were your major passions/ interests in high school?

Sports, Politics and Current Affairs, Philosophy & Political Philosophy.

I took part in a history discussion group where we talked about various historical periods/approaches to understanding history, and also led a political forum for students where we met during lunchtime to talk about current affairs & the UK/global political landscape. This ended up being heavily focused on the Brexit referendum and we engaged a range of students from different years. I think these made me more comfortable speaking in a smaller group setting and discussing problems academically, skills that I've found helpful in precepts at university. Being able to clearly explain ideas, refine them and justify them to others is critical in doing philosophy!

How much time did you spend on these things?

Sport ~ 20 hours/week. Other interests ~ 2 hours/week in school societies, and a good amount of time just reading and listening to news.

When did these passions/interests first come about?

When I was very young – around 15.  But more to the point, it was when I started to realise a bit more independence in my own life (as an early-mid teen) and started to set future ambitions based on what I enjoyed and valued!

How were these passions/interests developed over time?

Largely by my parents who encouraged me to take an interest in lots of things outside of school activities. I was very busy in the evenings after classes finished at school, and my family often did things together on weekends.

What level of achievement did you reach?

A good level. In sport, I represented England in the Multi-Events (Track and Field).

Each year, English Schools Athletics Association selects the top 4 finishers from the national championships to participate in a home countries international which takes place in Glasgow, Scotland. There, I competed for England against the other home countries and earned an international vest. It meant a lot to me at that point in my life as, just coming into my last two years of high school, I realised that I wanted to pursue my passion for track and field and that I had a genuine talent in it. I also spent all summer working hard to compete in the championships that qualified me for the England team, and can distinctly remember feeling amazing about being paid back for my hard work. Looking back, it made me really motivated to set goals and create plans to achieve them, which I tried to apply to my academics too.

Tell us a little bit about how you achieved these achievements?

I worked very hard from the third-to-last year (year 11) of high school. Committed 4 days a week and 3 school nights out of 5 to a pretty demanding training programme.

What kind of support did you have?

Good support. School teachers and staff were understanding of my commitment and parents worked incredibly hard to ensure I could follow my passion in track and field.

What kind of sacrifices/challenges did you overcome to achieve these extracurricular results?

Had to give up a lot in terms of social life, missing out on things that an average teen would enjoy. By this I mean things like going out with friends on weekends when I would be training instead, staying at home in the summer to compete, when my friends would travel. There was also the challenge of being more disciplined in my time management, in order to create sufficient time for academics. But this helped me be more productive and efficient I think!

Service

What were your major service-related activities?

I did a good amount of coaching athletics, both in school and outside of school. In school, I took care of younger students’ soccer practices, and outside of school I organized and oversaw track and field practices for children from the local area (in Manchester).

How much time did you spend?

2 hours/week.

Why did you choose this activity?

I think sport has tremendous power to bring people together and give young people confidence and fulfilment. I also enjoyed the personal relationships I could develop through coaching.

Summers

What did you do in the summers during high school?

Summer after 9th grade, I relaxed. Saw friends, Went on vacation. I did sport, went to camps and met other kids. Saw parts of the UK with my family and went to the theatre, saw plays. Because that’s what I enjoyed doing, and I didn’t have too much of an eye on the future!

Summer after 10th grade, was pretty similar to the previous summer. But I did spend a little time in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster shadowing my local MP, as I became more interested in politics.

Summer after 11th grade, again, lots of leisure/cultural activities, often with family. I also visited universities in the UK, gained some work experience at a local marketing company and coached at a summer athletics course. I worked part-time, and started putting together my application for college in the US. I began to narrow down my choices, and by August I was set on either Cornell or Princeton.


SECTION 4 - ACADEMICS

Grades/GPA/Awards

Class Ranking: We didn't receive class rankings
GPA - Weighted: We didn’t receive GPAs. However, I achieved 9 A*s at GCSE and A*, A, A in my A Levels. A* is the top grade in both sets of examinations.
GPA - Unweighted n/a

SAT/ACT

How many times did you take the SAT? 1
How many times did you take the ACT? 0
What were your SAT and/or ACT scores? SAT: 1990
Did you take a class or receive private tutoring? No
How many hours did you study in total? 8-10 hours, intermittently
When did you start preparing for the test? Around a month before I took it
When did you take the test? During 11th grade

Do you know which test to take? Check out our recommendations here - Should I Take the SAT or the ACT?

Not sure WHEN to take the test? We created 9 Sample Testing Schedules to help get you started

SAT Subject Tests & AP/IBs

Which SAT Subject tests did you take? 

None.

Which AP/IBs did you take?

None.

What were your major academic achievements in high school?

I was one of only 8 students in my ~120 year group to attain all A*s at GCSE level. Gained full marks in Physics GCSE. Won the Award for Outstanding Academic Achievement at A-Level (given to students who earn at least an A grade in all their subjects). I also won the History Subject Prize, given to the highest achieving History A-Level Student in the school

What do you attribute your academic success to?

My parents - they always read to me, took me to see different things and ensured I was exposed to a lot of different learning experiences when I was young. I would also say I saw how hard my brother worked in his high school examinations and wanted to also work hard. The discipline of studying and setting aside time well in advance really helped me, especially in my last two years at school.

What kind of support did you have?

Besides my parents, I had a quality set of teachers and good relationships with these teachers. My relationships with those teachers started to form later on in my time at school and many were the result of doing extracurriculars where I'd spend time with teachers outside the classroom setting. Lots of this were the societies I mentioned, and also just casual things like playing pickup soccer against the teachers every Friday night. Lastly, I was lucky in that the subjects I chose for A Level had a small group of students in them. So, in history, philosophy and politics we had discussions and spoke individually with the teachers regularly. I'd talk over essays with them, and also ask for advice about universities, have them look over personal statements, application materials etc. In the last couple of years of school especially, 2/3 teachers really did start to become mentors more than anything else, which I'm very grateful for. They were invaluable in weighing up and making possible my future options.

Did you ever receive private tutoring?

No.

What kind of sacrifices/challenges did you overcome to achieve these academic results?

Time management was the major challenge, but I never saw it as a sacrifice because I enjoyed my extracurriculars enough to justify the challenge to myself. It was a choice for me to pursue sport to a demanding level, and so I didn’t regret that finding time for academics became harder consequently. In fact, I found (and still find) that this forced me to structure my time in a productive manner!

Any specific approaches/tips & tricks to studying that were particularly helpful for you?

Explain ideas and concepts to other people. When studying for exams that would test me on concepts and ideas, such as Philosophy, Politics and History, I would make an effort to explain key ideas to another person (family member, friend). This was really helpful! Additionally, starting on a blank page and just writing down an explanation sometimes really helped; I didn’t feel like I fully understood something until I was able to write it down and communicate it clearly on paper.


SECTION 5 - THE COLLEGE APPLICATION

Applications & Acceptances

Did you apply as an international or domestic student? International
Did you apply regular or early? Early
How many schools did you apply to? 1
Were you a legacy applicant at any of these schools? No.
Were you recruited for athletics, arts, music, etc...? Athletics, Track and Field. (Unsure whether this assisted my app as I was not an official recruit, but I spoke with the Coach who encouraged me to apply.)
Did you declare a major? Did this end up being your actual major? Philosophy. Yes! (Though I did consider Politics particularly until right before declaration deadline!)

Which schools did you apply to (that you remember)?

Princeton UniversityRead more


College Admissions & the Impact of COVID

College Admissions & the Impact of COVID

Bonus Material: Get Access to Our College Admissions Seminar (+Presentation Slides)

The pandemic has profoundly impacted the world of education as we know it, but what can we expect when it comes to COVID and college admissions?

We certainly don’t claim to have all the answers.

BUT… we do have some thoughts and recommendations - based on data, recent research, and 15+ years of industry experience.

We recently presented a live seminar on this topic. Want to watch the video? Get access to the video link below. As an added bonus, we'll include the presentation slides as well.

Here's what we cover in this post:

  1. How the College Admissions Process Works
  2. How College Admissions Has Been Changing
  3. The Impact of COVID and College Admissions
  4. Our Recommendations
  5. Bonus: COVID & College Admissions Seminar (Slides and Video)

1. How the College Admissions Process Works

Foundational to understanding how COVID has impacted college admissions lies in first understanding how this process generally works.

It’s also important to understand how the landscape of college admissions has been changing in recent years, before the pandemic began.

If you haven’t done so already, we strongly encourage you to check out our post on what college admissions officers look for in applications and how they read your application

We summarize the key facts of this guide below.

Fact #1: College admissions officers assess both quantitative and qualitative factors in applications

Most college applications contain some combination of the following factors:

  • Quantitative
    • Test scores
    • Transcripts & GPA
    • Resume
  • Qualitative
    • Recommendation letters
    • Personal essay(s)
    • Portfolio(s)

Admission officers will review both quantitative and qualitative factors. Typically, this boils down to the review of three core "pillars":

  1. Academic achievement
  2. Extracurricular distinction
  3. Character

Fact #2: Selective schools are looking for students with potential

Admissions officers of selective institutions look for students of exceptional potential who will become successful leaders.

How do we know this?

Admissions officers want to admit students who will advance their college’s mission(s). 

Princeton University’s mission, for example, is as follows:

“Princeton University has a longstanding commitment to service, reflected in Princeton’s informal motto — Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity — and exemplified by the extraordinary contributions that Princetonians make to society.”

So we analyzed the mission statements of selective institutions and found some common ground in their themes:

Fact #3: Every school has its own approach to admissions

Every institution has its own individual mission statement or vision. This means that every institution has its specific priorities, and might weigh certain parts of applications differently. 

Larger public schools, for example, place more emphasis on quantitative factors, while smaller private schools will place more emphasis on qualitative.

How can you learn more about what schools value?

Mission statements are a great place to start. School admission officers sometimes offer general insight into how they review applications as well. For insight into quantitative factors and their weight in admissions, we recommend looking at school Common Data Sets.

We recently delivered a presentation on COVID and college admissions. Download a copy of this presentation's slides below.


2. The Changing Landscape of College Admissions

The college admissions process has been changing. We’ve been following these changes closely, and summarize the most important trends below.

Fact #1: More students are applying to college

College application numbers are increasing. They are also increasing faster than growth in available spots. This means that college admissions rates are falling across the board (COVID aside).

As you can see in this chart, over the last 20 years, increasing numbers of students have been submitting 3+ or 7+ applications.

This results in colleges having lower admission rates and higher selectivity.

Fact #2: Selective schools often get disproportionate attention

That being said, more selective schools get the spotlight here, and disproportionately so. 

Only about 19% of national institutions accept fewer than 50 percent of applicants, even though they receive about 36% of all applications.

Fact #3: Character is becoming more important in admissions

We’re seeing a general shift in college admissions towards character evaluation in applicants. The three pillars of admissions--character, extracurricular distinction, and academic achievement--are still important.

But admissions officers are increasingly emphasizing components like student essays and recommendation letters, as the below chart demonstrates.

These are not far behind grades, strength of curriculum, and test scores.


3. COVID and College Admissions: The Impact

Academics are a large piece of every college application. And COVID has significantly impacted many areas of academic life, including:

  • Grades / Transcripts
  • Standardized tests
  • Extracurriculars
  • Campus visits and
  • Other important factors (e.g. wellness, finances)

Many high schools reverted to a Pass/Fail system in the spring of 2020. 

Students taking AP exams this spring ran into many difficulties, and online learning has been incredibly challenging for even the brightest scholars.

Colleges have been scrambling to adjust their admissions policies related to standardized testing, given the fact that students had incredibly limited SAT and ACT testing options. Many students experienced repeated test center closures and administration cancellations. Two-thirds of colleges are now test-optional.

What's more, scores of students have been unable to participate in volunteering experiences, internships, employment, extracurricular activities, and college campus visits. As a result, it’s fundamentally difficult to show extracurricular distinction and demonstrated interest in applications.

In sum, almost every single important admissions factor has been affected by COVID. We’ve indicated these factors in red arrows below.

What does this mean? Colleges must adapt to these new circumstances in order to continue admitting students in a fair and equitable manner still in line with their mission.

The good news is that colleges have been speaking out about the ways that they are choosing to adapt to these circumstances. We’ve compiled some concrete data on what they’ve been saying in the next section.

What Admissions Officers Are Saying

Here is what admissions officers at selective institutions have been saying about COVID and college admissions.

We want to point out that these officers are HUMAN. As Tulane’s Director of undergraduate admissions admitted during the earlier stages of the pandemic, they’re “figuring it out as [they] go,” just like applicants, teachers, and parents.

Notice how most of these responses demonstrate a shift in admissions' officers focus on character distinction and qualitative factors in the application review process. 

Historically, character has been one of the three pillars of admissions, but its role is likely more significant, as we discussed above.

How do officers assess character?

They infer it from these elements of an application:

  • Personal statement and essays (most important)
  • Recommendation letters
  • Nature of extracurricular and work activities
  • Interviews

The chart below indicates results from a survey of 447 admissions officers in response to the question: how do you assess character attributes of applicants?

Officers very much understand the extraordinary challenges students have been facing because of COVID, as they emphasize in this "Care Counts in Crisis" report. They will be reading applications in this context.

The Care Counts in Crisis Report is endorsed by over 360 U.S. institutions. It outlines what admission officers value during this time, what they expect from students, and what they don’t expect.

Most importantly, they value:

  1. Self care (#1 priority)
  2. Academic work (assessed in context)
  3. Service and contribution to others (meaningful and authentic)
  4. Family contributions (i.e., supervising siblings, caring for sick relatives)
  5. Extracurricular and summer activities (no student will be disadvantaged here)

The COVID Essay

Coalition and the Common App both give students the chance to write about how COVID has impacted them personally in an optional essay.

Here’s the Common App’s COVID essay prompt:

We give pointers for responding to this essay in a separate post. Yet we encourage students to use this essay prompt as an opportunity to deeply reflect on something that has influenced everyone’s lives – in a specific, authentic way that demonstrates significant awareness.


COVID's Initial Effects on Admissions

Initial data (from November 2020) from the Common App and FAFSA on early decision and early action applications has revealed the following data points:

  • Colleges have seen 8% fewer ED / EA applications
  • 60% of colleges have seen a decline in applications overall
  • First generation applications are down by 16%
  • FAFSA completion rates are falling (by at least 15.5%)

Many colleges have indicated that their greatest concerns are related to:

  • Fall or summer enrollment
  • Finances
  • Online learning environments
  • Laying off faculty or staff
  • Mental well-being of students

This means that application rates are falling and low-income and first-generation students have been disproportionately impacted. It's important to note that applications from this group might rebound later in the process.

It also means that colleges are doing the best that they can to navigate financial concerns, enrollment challenges, online learning, and student need.

So, what do we recommend that applicants and families do in terms of navigating COVID and college admissions? 

We weigh in in the next section.


4. Our Recommendations

We are encouraging all of our students and families right now to focus on what is most important and what you can control.

Keep in mind that colleges are definitely very aware of context. They are adapting to these changing circumstances and doing their best to admit applicants with the pandemic's context in mind!

They are also placing an emphasis on what cannot be measured in concrete data points: character, personality traits, and individual potential.

We also recommend that students make use of the guidance offered by the "Making Caring Common" Project, which places high emphasis on the following (in this order):

  • Self care
  • Academic work
  • Service and contributions to others
  • Family contributions
  • Extracurricular or summer activities

Lastly, students should prioritize reading, writing, and thinking.

Applicants who can express themselves extremely well on the page are at an advantage in admissions, as this quote shows:

“Your ability to write well is critical to our decision because your writing reflects your thinking. No matter what question is asked on a college application, admission officers are looking to see how well you convey your ideas and express yourself in writing. It is our window to your world.”
Janet Rapelye (former Princeton University Dean of Admissions)

Students should spend a significant amount of time working on their personal statement and supplemental essays, for example. We've also compiled a reading list for all four levels in high school for students preparing for college.

We understand that these are challenging times. We are here to help! Send us a note for any questions or thoughts you have about COVID and college admission. We want to hear from you.


5. Get Access to Our COVID & College Admissions Seminar

We recently delivered a presentation to our families and students about COVID and college admissions.

You can download the slides we used in this presentation and get access to the seminar's recording below.


Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.



Responding to the COVID Essay on the Common App_PrepMaven

How to Approach The Common App's COVID Question

How to Approach The Common App & Coalition COVID Question

Students applying for 2021 college admission using either the Common Application or Coalition App have an opportunity to discuss how the pandemic has impacted them.

This question is entirely optional. But many of our students have been asking us about it. 

Should they write a response? And if so, what should they say?

It’s hard to answer these questions, given that the COVID question is without precedent.

However, using what we know about what college admissions officers are looking for, we’ve come up with some helpful answers for students navigating the admissions process this fall and winter.

Here’s what we cover:

The Common App’s COVID Question

The Common App claims that it wants to “reduce anxiety for applicants affected by the pandemic” and “provide them with a way to share their experience with colleges and universities” about how the pandemic has impacted them “academically and/or personally.”

Students thus have the opportunity to answer an optional question about COVID-19 in 250 words or fewer in the Additional Information portion of the application:

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.

  • Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
  • Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

Examples the Common App provides of “impacts” include (but are not limited to):

  • Illness or loss within your family or support network
  • Employment or housing disruptions within your family 
  • Food insecurity
  • Toll on mental and emotional health
  • New obligations such as part-time work or care for siblings or family members
  • Availability of computer or internet access required to continue your studies
  • Access to a safe and quiet study space
  • A new direction for your major or career interests

This question does not replace the Additional Information question (which gives students 650 words to address anything they feel has not been entirely reflected in their application). 

Note: Guidance counselors will also have an opportunity to discuss how the pandemic has impacted their specific school in a 500 word response. This is where they’ll have a chance to talk about any of the following:

  • Grading scales and policies
  • Graduation requirements
  • Instructional methods
  • Schedules and course offerings
  • Testing requirements
  • Your school’s academic calendar
  • Other extenuating circumstances

Coalition’s COVID Question

Students may have to apply to some colleges on their list using the Coalition platform. Coalition also gives room for students to mention the pandemic with its own COVID question.

It’s a little different than the Common App’s question. Coalition invites applicants to check boxes of any situations that apply and/or generate an optional response providing more information.

Here’s what that looks like:

Natural disasters and emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted the lives of many students and their families. While entirely optional, you may share information here regarding how any of these events have affected you or your family circumstances.

Check all of the following that apply to you:

I had inconsistent or unreliable access to home internet and/or a computer, laptop or tablet.

At least one parent/guardian lost their job or was unable to work.

I lost my job or was no longer able to work.

At least one parent, guardian or caretaker was considered an essential worker (e.g. healthcare worker, grocery store employee, public transportation driver, first responder, sanitation worker) and was required to work.

I was considered an essential worker and required to work.

My community had a curfew affecting the hours I could travel, use electricity, or access the internet.

My home responsibilities (i.e. childcare, elder care, etc.) substantially increased or changed.

My health was affected.

A member of my household's health was affected.

None of these apply to me.

I would like to provide additional information. 

If you check this last box, you’ll have 300 words to generate a response in the text box that appears.

Guidance counselors will also be able to complete a similar check-list on their portion of the application to address how the pandemic has disrupted the learning environment at their school (and other details).

What College Admissions People Are Saying

Some colleges have released information about these COVID questions in hopes of clarifying how admissions officers will be approaching these responses.

Eric Furda, the Dean of Admissions at UPenn, for example, recently stated

“Students should explain as well as they can the context of their lives during COVID,” he said. “That means hunting deep for insight about how COVID affected them, how they were able to derive meaning from it, how it will impact them moving forward.”

On Tulane’s Admission Blog, Jeff Schiffman reiterates that the COVID question has the potential to  

“add more context to your overall experiences during the pandemic and let admission committees know about how you've been impacted. It might also shed some light into our applicant's self-awareness.”

Schiffman encourages applicants to consider the following questions when preparing to respond:

  • Are my experiences different from others’?
  • Are there noticeable changes on my transcript?
  • Am I aware of my privilege?
  • Am I being specific? Am I explaining rather than complaining?
  • Is this information being included elsewhere on my application?
  • Is this more of an extracurricular activity or experience? (if more extracurricular, use the “elaborate on an extracurricular activity” portion of the application, if available)

Lastly, the CEO of the Common App clarifies that students should

“Focus on the areas that have had the greatest impact, that have had the greatest significance, that have really changed their approach to their education or impacted their ability to take their classes, or that impacted their outlook on going to college.”

Should You Respond to the COVID Question?

Given what college admissions people are saying, students should answer the COVID question if doing so gives colleges insight into:

  • Meaningful context
  • Self-awareness
  • Values
  • Growth
  • Voice & perspective
  • Relevant impact

Now, we know that a lot of terms on this list are tough to define. What constitutes “meaningful” context, for example? What does “relevant” impact mean?

It’s hard to answer these questions generally, especially because so many of our students have been experiencing different things in the wake of the pandemic.

But do keep in mind several things:

  1. College admissions officers generally have less to assess in applications this year
  2. Guidance counselors should address the majority of shared learning impacts (standardized tests, online schooling, grade policies, etc.)
  3. Every piece of your application should give us insight into who you are

What does this mean? The COVID question is probably not your opportunity to state that you didn’t have the opportunity to take the SAT as many times as you’d have liked or that online learning hasn’t been all that fun.

But it is a great space to discuss how the pandemic has done the following:

  • Changed your perspective on something (like community, education, or equity)
  • Allowed you to think in a new way about something meaningful (like family, college, or employment)
  • Significantly altered your learning environment, home life, or responsibilities
  • Influenced college or career aspirations
  • Presented a specific challenge you found a way to overcome

Our advice?

We generally recommend you take advantage of the opportunity to write a COVID response.

We think that this question is another great opportunity for applicants to deeply reflect on something that has influenced everyone’s lives--in a specific, authentic way that demonstrates significant awareness. When writing, focus on our core principles: values, insights, growth, and distinction.

Here’s are three example sentences from what we feel are meaningful COVID question responses given their authenticity and insight:

I now have a new understanding of what it means to actually have “access” to meaningful education, which has fundamentally reframed my desire to pursue a teaching degree.

After my dad lost his job due to the pandemic, I suddenly had a new understanding of the word "essential."

While I was ultimately unable to compete in the national science competition, I improvised research at my kitchen table and in my backyard, redefining what it means to be an independent researcher.

And here are three example sentences from what we feel are not as meaningful responses, given that they do not touch on the points we discussed earlier and refer to more universal experiences:

I planned on taking the SAT four times to earn a competitive score but was ultimately only able to take the test once.

Online learning is much less effective than in-person learning.

It's been difficult not to see my friends as often these last six months.

Keep in Mind

We recognize that this is a lot to ask of students who are already doing such deep thinking in other areas of their application, especially the personal statement. Some students might also not feel that they have sufficient “impact” to discuss here.

So, if you don’t respond to this question, is your application less competitive? Absolutely not! 

This is an optional question, and Tulane’s Director of Admission (quoted above) states that this question likely “won't get you in to college nor will it prevent you from admission.”

We also want to point out that colleges are coming at this from a perspective of care. College admissions officers have actually released a statement that demonstrates their commitment to student well-being on many fronts. You can read it here.

You can trust that admissions officers are not going to be treating your words lightly. They simply want to hear about how your life has changed as a result of these extraordinary times.

As always, we are here if you want further advice on approaching this part of the Common App (and any other part!). 


Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


How I Got Into Princeton - Devon (Story #19)

How I Got Into Princeton - Story #19

Devon's Story

"I dedicated a lot of time to being able to be competitive and successful."

Meet Devon, a member of Princeton's class of 2021.

In high school, Devon pursued a rigorous schedule of academics and extracurricular activities. She earned high marks on AP exams and membership in National Honor Society, and spent her free time horseback riding, running in Track & Field, and tutoring.

Devon attributes much of her success to her own internal drive and commitment to others.

"My drive to succeed was mostly an internal drive to do the best I could in everything I tried to do," Devon says. "This wasn’t always a feasible goal, so as I got older I had to learn how to prioritize what I truly wanted to succeed in."

Please read below to learn more about Devon and the personal qualities, values, and support system that have allowed her to succeed.

We recommend reading from beginning to end but feel free to skip around. Our favorite section is the "What Makes You You" section, where Devon describes the challenges she faced and how these contributed to her personal and academic success.

About this Series

In our "How I got Into" series, we share the stories of successful applicants to Princeton and other great colleges.

Our profiles go beyond a simple list of academic and extracurricular achievements. We also delve into the “how” and the qualities that successful applicants exhibit.

We provide a rare look into what drives these students, how they've overcome their challenges, how they've been shaped by significant events in their lives, how they deal with the pressure to succeed, and much more.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

SECTION 1 - FAMILY
SECTION 2 - SCHOOLING
SECTION 3 - ACTIVITIES
SECTION 4 - ACADEMICS
SECTION 5 - THE COLLEGE APPLICATION
SECTION 6 - DAY IN THE LIFE
SECTION 7 - WHAT MAKES YOU YOU
SECTION 8 - CONCLUSION

Disclaimer

Here's what we're NOT doing with this series:

  • We are NOT prescribing an over-engineered approach to college admissions
  • We are NOT presenting a blueprint for how you should get into college
  • We are NOT suggesting that you must gain admissions to a selective school to be successful (you most certainly do not)

Here's what we ARE doing:

  • We are presenting data and sharing stories
  • We are providing context that you usually don't see to highlight that we are more than just our grades and GPA
  • Our ultimate goal is to uncover the values and personal qualities that drive successful applicants

Whether you are considering selective colleges or not, it is our unwavering belief that our values and personal qualities (and luck) are the major contributors to success.


SECTION 1 - FAMILY

Geography

Birthplace: Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Where did you grow up? Santa Barbara, CA, USA

Siblings

# of older siblings:  2
# of younger siblings: 0
Sibling Education Levels:  Bachelor 's Degree, Attending College
Where did your siblings go to college?  UCSB and Southern New Hampshire

Parents

Parent's Marital Status: Divorced
With whom do you make your permanent home? Both Parents
Parent 1 Current/Former Occupation: Professor
Parent 1 Highest Level of Education: Master's
Parent 2 Current/Former Occupation: Professor
Parent 2 Highest Level of Education: PhD

Parent Beliefs

How would you characterize your parents' parenting style(s)?

My mom was laid back, my dad was strict and protective.

On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the most important), how important to your parents was:

Academics 4
Extracurriculars 3
Service 2
Family 5
Friends 3
Physical Health/ Fitness 4
Mental Health 4

Did your parents have specific philosophies regarding any of the areas above?

Both of my parents had the philosophy of being happy with my best even if it didn’t meet my expectations, but I often felt pressure to meet certain standards in academics and extracurriculars anyways. My dad was more focused on academics and expected me to get certain grades, although his expectations were based on what he thought I could achieve and not necessarily just getting the best grade possible.

My mom had/has very strong feelings about family, which I think have transferred to me as well. She always puts family first and is very inclusive in who is included in our “family” whenever we have holiday dinners, which pretty much means there is an open invitation to any friends who want to come.


SECTION 2 - SCHOOLING

Middle School

Middle School: La Colina Junior High
Type of School: Public

High School

High School: San Marcos High School
High School City, State: Santa Barbara, CA
Type of School: Public
Class Size: 500

SECTION 3 - ACTIVITIES

Jobs

Did you work in high school?  Yes
What kind of job/s did you have? I was a working student at a competitive hunter/jumper showjumping stable. I also tutored private clients, usually in math.
Average hours/week worked? 15-20 hours as a working student. 2 hours as a tutor.
Why did you work? I worked in order to pay for my own horse’s training and horseback riding lessons. I also worked because I enjoyed riding many different horses a day and it made me a better rider. Lastly, I enjoyed the community and the responsibility it gave me.

Extracurriculars/Passions & Interests

What were your major passions/ interests in high school?

Horseback riding and track & field.

How much time did you spend on these things?

Horseback riding: 15-20 hours. Track: 10-15 hours.

When did these passions/interests first come about?

I have been around horses since I was born, as my mom rode when she was younger and my older sister has been riding since she was 5 years old. I ran in a few track meets in elementary school but only got serious about it when I entered high school.

How were these passions/interests developed over time?

I took horseback riding lessons from the age of about 5 until I left for college (when I stopped riding). I also rode/exercised multiple horses a day as part of my job.

In track, I went to practice 4-5 days a week from January-June starting my freshman year of high school. I started practicing 3 days a week in the preseason during my junior and senior years as well. I currently run track for Princeton and have practice 6 days a week starting in September and ending mid-May.

What level of achievement did you reach?

Horseback riding: I participated in the Emerging Athletes Program, qualified for various medal finals, year-end high point champion in multiple divisions.

Track and field: Channel League champion, runner of the month, qualified for CIF division finals.

Tell us a little bit about how you achieved these achievements?

I achieved these by practicing and dedicating myself every day and never skipping small details that seemed insignificant at the time. I also listened carefully to my coaches in both sports and made an active movement to change what I was doing based on their feedback.

What kind of support did you have?

I had a lot of support from my coaches and family in both sports. My horseback riding trainer was very supportive in giving me the working student position so I was able to pay off my own training, as well as giving my opportunities to ride and compete on other horses. 

What kind of sacrifices/challenges did you overcome to achieve these extracurricular results?

I don’t know if the correct word is sacrifice, but I dedicated a lot of time to being able to be competitive and successful at both of these sports. This made me sacrifice hanging out with friends, going to parties, and other social things. For example, I was late to my senior prom because I ran at the Division Prelims track meet.

One challenge I had to overcome was the limited number of hours in a day, especially in the winter when daylight doesn’t last very long. This caused me to overschedule myself because I committed to too many things, but I overcame this by prioritizing everything and learning to be better about time estimation.

Another challenge I encountered was the subjective aspect of the hunter/jumper showjumping world. The types of competitions I competed in were subjectively judged in how “perfect” your ride was over all of the fences, which allowed the results to be very influenced by money as the fancier/prettier moving horses were more expensive. As I worked for all of my training and usually had horses of my own that were not considered to be the fanciest or had difficult quirks to work with, I often felt discouraged. I overcame this by realizing that the important thing in the sport was to do the best I could do given the circumstances and to celebrate the bond between my horse and I. My hard work was recognized when I was accepted into the Emerging Athletes Program.

Service

What were your major service-related activities?

I volunteered at my old elementary school to tutor the 4th, 5th, and 6th grade math superbowl teams and at my high school to tutor my peers who were receiving failing grades.

How much time did you spend?

3 hours/week.

Why did you choose this activity?

I chose these volunteer activities because I enjoy tutoring and I wanted to give back to the schools I attended/previously attended.

Summers

What did you do in the summers during high school?

Summer after 9th grade, I stayed in Santa Barbara to hang out with friends, worked at the summer camp at my horseback riding stable, and went to horse shows. I went out of the country for my first time with my mom when we travelled to Thailand for a few weeks. I also went backpacking with my dad for a week, which we did almost every summer.

Summer after 10th grade, I did pretty much the same thing as the summer after 9th grade, except I travelled to Italy for vacation and Germany to horseback ride and learn from a trainer who specialized in training young horses.

Summer after 11th grade, I did pretty much the same thing as the other summers, except I didn’t travel anywhere. I became more serious about track in 11th grade, so I also trained for track.


SECTION 4 - ACADEMICS

Grades/GPA/Awards

Class Ranking: 3
GPA - Weighted: 4.8
GPA - Unweighted 4.0

SAT/ACT

How many times did you take the SAT? 2
How many times did you take the ACT? 0
What were your SAT and/or ACT scores? SAT: 2270
Did you take a class or receive private tutoring? No
How many hours did you study in total? 10 hours the first time, 20 hours the second
When did you start preparing for the test? A few hours before each test date
When did you take the test? 11th grade and summer after 11th grade

Do you know which test to take? Check out our recommendations here - Should I Take the SAT or the ACT?

Not sure WHEN to take the test? We created 9 Sample Testing Schedules to help get you started

SAT Subject Tests & AP/IBs

Which SAT Subject tests did you take? 

Math Level 2- 800, Ecological Biology- 760

Which AP/IBs did you take?

AP Biology (5), AP Calculus BC (5), AP Chemistry (5) , AP Environmental Science (4), AP English Language and Composition (5), AP Microeconomics (5), AP US History (5)

What were your major academic achievements in high school?

AP Scholar with Distinction, member of the National Honor Society.

What do you attribute your academic success to?

I was diligent about studying for the AP tests. For NHS, I applied to the program and did the required community service.

What kind of support did you have?

Some of my teachers held review sessions for the AP tests and focused their classes on preparing for the test itself, which was very helpful because then I had to do less work on my own.

Did you ever receive private tutoring?

No.

What kind of sacrifices/challenges did you overcome to achieve these academic results?

I had to sacrifice a lot of time in order to study for the AP tests, when there were plenty of other things I would rather have been doing.

Any specific approaches/tips & tricks to studying that were particularly helpful for you?

I found it helpful to study in groups because it is beneficial to everyone when someone is confused about a concept. Explaining things to other people helps solidify concepts in your own mind and having a peer explain something that you are confused about is usually easier to understand than a teacher explaining it because a peer is more likely to understand why you are confused.


SECTION 5 - THE COLLEGE APPLICATION

Applications & Acceptances

Did you apply as an international or domestic student? Domestic
Did you apply regular or early? Regular
How many schools did you apply to? 18
Were you a legacy applicant at any of these schools? My dad and grandfather attended Princeton.
Were you recruited for athletics, arts, music, etc...? I was recruited for track and field at various schools (but at Princeton, I walked on to the team).
Did you declare a major? Did this end up being your actual major? No, I applied undeclared.

Which schools did you apply to (that you remember)?

Princeton University, Duke, UC Davis, UCLA, UC Berkley, UC San Diego, Stanford , CalPoly SLO, Pomona College, Claremont McKenna College, UNC Chapel Hill, Lewis and Clark College, Scripps College, Brown University, University of VirginiaRead more


How to Read_PrepMaven

How to Read - and Actually Remember What You Read - 3 Practical Strategies

How to Read - and Actually Remember What You Read - 3 Practical Strategies

What’s the last book that you read? What was it about? If it was fiction, what happened in it? If it was non-fiction, what was the author’s main argument?

Chances are high that, like many people, you remember very little of what you read.

When we read, we’re usually fixated on finding out what happens next, and on simply getting to the end. As a result, we tend to read quickly, without stopping to reflect on what we’ve read, to take notes, or to otherwise engage with the text.

As a result, we forget the information very quickly.

The fact is, our brains were not designed to hold huge amounts of information at once. Our capacity for immediate recall of information is relatively small.

For that reason, our brains must constantly sort through our experiences to prioritize important vs. unimportant information, saving only the essentials so that it can remain free to function. We forget most of what we read or watch or hear within 24 hours.

If the text you’re reading is on a screen, the problem is even worse. Research has found that we have a harder time remembering content that we read online. And one paper by Ziming Liu, a professor of information science at San Jose State University who studies reading behavior, confirmed we tend to skim more when we read digital text, and to read printed text on paper more carefully.

The lack of tactile and spatial information in digital text also makes it harder to remember and retain information. Have you ever flipped through a book to look up something you’ve read before, and had a vague sense of where on the page the information was? That’s because we’re wired to effortlessly remember spatial information — as described in greater depth in this post.

Obviously, forgetting most of what we read is less than ideal. After all, books, articles, and other forms of the written word are the primary way we learn. They teach us things that make us smarter, that convey practical skills, that teach us how to think and make our way in the world, and that help us grow and develop as humans.

And given how much time we need to spend reading for school, it seems like a shame for all that time to go to waste, and all that knowledge to be immediately forgotten.

Fortunately, there are a number of practical strategies you can embrace to help you read more deeply, and actually remember what you read. We’ve summed up the most useful ones here.


How to Read (and Remember What You Read)

1. Create the environment and situation you need to focus.

This might seem obvious, but it’s always worth repeating a few basics of learning. You’ll get the most out of your reading when you’re focused and well-rested, so:

  • Read when you are well-rested: Otherwise, you’ll be doomed to reread the same page over and over again, without taking any of it in.
  • Eliminate distractions: Figure out what conditions you need to focus, whether that means a quiet room, a computer that isn’t connected to the internet, or a hard copy in lieu of a digital version of the text.

2. Slow down.

Have you ever binge-watched an entire season of an online show in one day? Have you noticed that when you do that, it’s much harder to remember what happened, compared to when you watch one episode a week, or even one episode a day? That’s because we need time to process the information.

A study conducted by Jared Horvath, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, found that people who binge-watched TV shows forgot them much more quickly than people who watched the episodes once a week. (The binge-watchers did score higher on a quiz about the show taken right after watching the show, but after several months, they scored lower than the people who watched it weekly.)

Watching the show once a week made people regularly call back up their memories of the show, and recalling information repeatedly is how memories get reinforced. “If you read a book all in one stretch—on an airplane, say—you’re just holding the story in your working memory that whole time,” writes Julie Beck in an Atlantic Monthly article about Horvath’s study. “You’re never actually reaccessing [the information],” Horvath says in the piece.

3. Find ways to engage with the text.

Have you ever found yourself automatically picking up a pen during class, or during a phone call, and writing down random words and doodles? Congratulations — without even realizing it, you were working to better encode the information you were hearing into your brain. We learn and remember things better when we actively engage with the information.

That includes methods like:

  • taking notes during class
  • drawing pictures in the margins of books
  • highlighting important passages
  • seeking out patterns or other information while we read - this might mean flagging passages that relate to other passages you’ve read, or looking for clues about how the writer has structured their writing.

“Active reading — taking notes, sketching, and talking with a friend about the text — can … help forge mental connections between the information you’re taking in and what you already know, increasing your retention,” writes Emily Underwood in a piece for Forge about ways to remember what you read.

“This doesn’t mean passively highlighting, re-reading, or retyping what you’re reading but effortfully engaging with the text: jotting down your own thoughts, questions, and connections that occur to you, whether you do it in the margins or take notes elsewhere.”

As for specifics, some techniques we recommend are to:

  • Summarize what you've read
  • Outline the work - which will reveal its structure, and the author’s thinking when organizing the information, to you
  • Read with question in mind - such as, “How does this relate to my life?” or “How is this similar and different from this other book I read on a similar topic?”

“Engaged readers are constantly making associations between what they’re reading and what they already know, evaluating how the material fits with their past experiences, trying to decide if they believe or agree with what they’re reading or taking another person’s perspective,” writes Underwood in her Forge piece. Cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf explains why in the piece: “There’s a lot of hypothesis-generating that goes on in your frontal lobes: ‘Oh, this is true. This is what it means. Oh, wait a minute, is that really true?’” she says.

We also recommend looking into the Cornell note-taking method, which encourages readers to:

  • jot down questions they have about a text
  • re-summarize the information
  • do all this soon after learning something, which is the optimal time to truly commit the information to memory

4. Skim first, then reread analytically.

The classic, bestselling tome “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren recommends reading books — at least, important books that you truly want to learn deeply — at least three times.

They recommend doing a quick overview first, of a book’s title, table of contents, index, and maybe a few paragraphs here and there throughout the book, especially from the conclusion.

Then, they recommend doing a very quick skim, to get a general sense of the book’s central argument or thesis.

Then, subsequent readings involve slowing down and analyzing the text — mapping out the author’s argument, noting the structure of the book, and then once you really start digging in, asking questions, reflecting on what aspects of the text you agree and disagree with, and comparing it to other, similar works you’ve read.

We realize that realistically speaking, chances are low that you’ll actually read a book, article, or paper the three or more times that the authors recommend.

But, we do agree that reading something repeatedly will commit it more deeply to memory, and that moreover, it’s helpful to first skim very quickly, to get a general sense of the argument and content as quickly as possible, and then to do a second, slower read devoted to taking notes, asking questions, summarizing, and otherwise analyzing and engaging with the text.

Those are just a few of many great ways to read more deeply, and therefore, to learn and remember more of what you read. Embrace these techniques, and the next time someone asks you about the last book you read, you won’t draw a blank. 


Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


3 Memorization Techniques for High School Students

Memorization Techniques for High School Students

Memorization Techniques for High School Students

It’s time for class. You sit down, pull out your notebook, and spend the next hour taking copious notes on everything the teachers says. Maybe you even organize your notes into a neat outline, and highlight a few key points here and there.

Congratulations--you’re doing things right! Science has shown that taking notes while you’re learning something helps you remember the material better.

But then, the bell rings. You close your notebook, head to your next class (or, click over to it, if you’re doing online learning), annnnd …never look at your notes again. That is, until a day or two before a test.

Does this sound familiar?

If so, we’re here to tell you that while you’re certainly on the right track to not just learning but learning things well, there’s still a lot more you could be doing.

It’s easy to take notes within the structure of class time, but when it comes to actually reviewing the material, on your own time, in a way that will truly commit it to memory? Well, that’s a whole other story.


3 Memorization Techniques for High School Students

Note-taking is just one step in a wide array of techniques for learning and memorizing information.

We're talking about the techniques that competitive memory athletes — otherwise perfectly average people with average memories — use to pull off superhuman-seeming feats of memory, like quickly memorizing the order of an entire deck of cards, or a long list of random numbers. 

Chances are that you’re not planning to enter a national-level memory competition anytime soon.

However, you probably do have more immediate needs that could be served by learning how to memorize information efficiently, whether that be recalling the periodic table of contents for your next chemistry quiz, memorizing SAT vocabulary, trying to score extra credit by rattling off more digits of the number Pi than your classmates, or describing the Krebs cycle without the aid of notes.

Fortunately, how humans commit information to memory, and the most effective way to do so, is a rich area of academic study, with many decades of research devoted to the topic.

Whatever reasons you have for wishing to master this skill, there already exist a number of tried-and-true techniques for memorizing large amounts of information. We’ve boiled down the great wealth of available information into the three most useful takeaways!

1. Visualize the information — and orient it in space

Have you ever noticed that when you open your textbook, your eye automatically travels first to the photographs, charts, and other graphics on the page?

That’s because we’re naturally oriented toward the visual. Try incorporating that into your note-taking and review sessions, by creating with your own imagery to help visualize information.

For example, try to come up with a visual for especially important information and drawing it in the margins of your notebooks.

Maybe the number 6 looks to you like a nose, so you visualize a nose every time you think of a 6, and from there, remember that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 by conjuring an image of the founding fathers gathered together and sniffing the fresh ink on the document. Over time, all it will take is a quick doodle of a nose to help you remember information related to the number 6.

Another great way to engage with and process the information, and therefore commit it more strongly to memory, is to translate it into a chart or graph. Making flashcards of the information, where one side of the flashcard is a drawing of some type, is also a great way to memorize things.

Have fun with it by unleashing your inner artist and making use of markers and highlighters of various colors! Color coding is a great way to group related ideas together in your notes.  

Beyond all this, you can remember even more information if you situate it spatially, using a technique called a “memory palace.” Have you ever noticed that when you’re trying to flip back to something you read in a physical book, you often have a vague sense of where on the page the information was?

Once again, that’s because we’re wired to remember both visual and spatial information — so well, in fact, that we do it effortlessly all the time as we’re moving around in the world.

“Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t need to recall phone numbers or word-for-word instructions from their bosses or the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum or (because they lived in relatively small, stable groups) the names of dozens of strangers at a cocktail party,” writer Joshua Foer puts it in the New York Times Magazine.

“What they did need to remember was where to find food and resources and the route home and which plants were edible and which were poisonous. Those are the sorts of vital memory skills that they depended on, which probably helps explain why we are comparatively good at remembering visually and spatially.”

The memory palace technique supposedly arose from a discovery made during the fifth century B.C. The poet Simonides of Ceos was allegedly the only survivor of a deadly banquet-hall collapse, and when asked to recount who had been killed in the collapse, realized that he was able to easily remember every guest in the hall, and where they’d all been sitting.

“From that simple observation, Simonides reportedly invented a technique that would form the basis of what came to be known as the art of memory,” writes Foer. “He realized that if there hadn’t been guests sitting at a banquet table but, say, every great Greek dramatist seated in order of birth — or each of the words of one of his poems or every item he needed to accomplish that day — he would have remembered that instead. He reasoned that just about anything could be imprinted upon our memories, and kept in good order, simply by constructing a building in the imagination and filling it with imagery of what needed to be recalled. This imagined edifice could then be walked through at any time in the future.”

How would this translate to memorizing study materials?

If you’re trying to remember, say, a timeline, assign an image to each event on the timeline, and then place each image inside an architectural space of some type, along a route you know well.

For example, you might conjure your childhood home, and use the route you take from the front door to your bedroom. Picture yourself walking in the front door, and seeing the first image from the timeline hanging on the wall, the next image at the base of the stairs, and so on. You could use the same technique to memorize a long string of numbers, by assigning a visual to each digit, then placing each of those images in your childhood home, or another space you know well.

2. Replace cramming with short, frequent review sessions

News flash: We don’t remember information well when we cram all our studying into one giant session.

Monotony interferes with our ability to remember things — that’s why we tend to remember the beginning and ending of a reading passage, but not the middle. All-nighters are even worse, since studies have shown that sleep plays an important role in helping us commit information to memory.

In fact, it’s helpful to break up your studying by doing completely unrelated activities, or at least switching to studying very different subject matter, in between short sessions.

(For example, 20 minutes of trigonometry followed by 30 minutes of art history, then 30 minutes of reading for English class, then going for a walk, then studying 20 more minutes of trigonometry, will help you remember that trig material better than if you studied trigonometry for 40 minutes straight.)

Ideally, you should also review newly learned information as soon as possible after class. As you probably know instinctively, you remember more right after hearing or learning the information, and over time, forget more of it.

We recommend not only reviewing the information soon after class, but doing so actively — for example, through some of the techniques mentioned above like translating your notes into visuals and charts. Another great way to commit the information more deeply to memory is to summarize your notes soon after class. (The Cornell note-taking method, an interesting technique recommended by many educators, advises this as well.)

The review session doesn’t need to be long — maybe 25 minutes, maybe less; whatever you need to go back over everything and boil it down into as summary and/or visuals. Then from there, set short, frequent review sessions of your notes and readings — not long, about 10-15 minutes is enough. From there, space additional review sessions over time at a lower frequency.

Just how far apart all these sessions should be spaced depends on what time period you need to learn it over. If you’re learning material for an end-of-semester test several months in the future, review sessions can obviously be spaced farther apart than if you’re preparing for a quiz at the end of the week. The important thing to remember is that frequency of study and effective spacing of study sessions is more important than length of time spent studying in individual sessions.

And since novelty and variety helps with memory, try switching up your study routine.

That could mean studying in different locations, or studying at a different time of day than usual. Because of sleep’s proven role in committing information to memory, just before any nap times, or before bedtime, are especially great times for reading material that you want to commit to longer-term memory.

3. Find a study buddy

To all of this we’ll add one more tip that builds on the previous one: it’s enormously helpful to occasionally switch things up by studying with a friend.

The reasons are numerous — for one, it’s a way of changing up your environment and bringing more novelty into your study session. Your friend will bring a new and different way of thinking to your study, for example, by making comments or jokes about the material which will help you remember it even more strongly.

Moreover, having another person there enables you to engage with and process the information in a wider range of ways.

One great technique is to take turns teaching the material to each other — it will force you to summarize what are probably a large amount of notes into a more digestible summary, to read things out loud (which research has shown significantly improves your memory of the material), and, not least of all, to have more fun while studying.

We remember things better when there’s an emotion tied to the experience, so why not make the best of things by having a good time, creating positive emotions, and in the process, remembering things more vividly. It’s a win-win for everyone.


Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


Self-Directed Learning

The Importance of Self-Directed Learning

Many successful, high-achieving students share one quality: the capacity to learn on their own.

Whether they're independent research scientists, self-taught artists, or simply curious young minds, these students are proficient in self-directed learning.

We encourage all of our students, wherever they are at in the college admissions process, to reflect on the importance of independent learning--and to think of ways they can incorporate it into their schedules.

What is Self-Directed Learning?

The term can mean different things to different people, but, generally speaking, self-directed learning is a pedagogic approach in which students largely steer their own education.

You might say that they follow their curiosity by deciding what they want to learn and determining how to best acquire that knowledge.

“A self-directed learner is a person who takes responsibility for their education, for their attainment of knowledge, and their development of mastery,” writes David Handel, a retired physician and creator of flashcard software company IDoRecall, who frequently discusses learning topics on Medium.

“They are capable of determining not only what they want to learn; they can determine what they need to learn. They can recognize gaps in their knowledge and then develop plans to narrow the gaps. Finally, they execute on those plans and acquire the missing knowledge.”

Becoming a Self-Directed Learner

But how does one become a self-directed learner?

Handel, who describes himself as having been a “mediocre student” throughout grade and high school, argues that the most important skills for self-directed learners to develop are “learning how to learn,” and from there, the ability to exercise metacognition, or “thinking about your thinking.”

Self-directed learners are able to think critically about their own learning: They can recognize the gaps in their own knowledge, or as the expression goes, “know what they don’t know.” And, in filling in these gaps, they’re also able to periodically step back and assess the approach they’ve been taking, identify any shortcomings, and adjust or revamp it accordingly.

Metacognition, writes Handel, is “a supervisory kind of thinking and not at all passive. It is the act of observing your cognition and interrogating your thinking. This prevents your everyday cognition from accepting and filing away to memory inputs from the external world that may be misinformed or outright bogus.”

These are the skills that help student distinguish credible sources from bogus ones — a crucial life skill these days, when the internet is awash with misinformation.

Of course, like anything, self-directed learning still benefits from a certain amount of structure. Creating a learning plan with a schedule, concrete goals and deadlines, and perhaps even a budget, will help learners push themselves toward a deeper level of knowledge than, say, that of a mere hobbyist. It will also help learners know when they’re making progress, which in turn will deliver a sense of satisfaction that encourages them to continue.

One method that might help with planning is to find existing lesson plans around a topic you’re interested in studying. Many professors share their course syllabi online, so browse around — chances are high someone has already done the work of structuring out a learning plan for you, though obviously, you can tailor their timelines to better match your own preferred pace.

Another useful resource is the the Cutting Edge Course Design Tutorial by Barbara J. Tewksburg and R. Heather Macdonald.

Self-Directed Learning Resources

Happily, there are a great deal of free ebooks, academic journals, online courses, etc. available online that may help in your educational journey.

Here are just a few:

  • Coursera: take university courses for free
  • Khan Academy: instruction videos around math and science topics, mostly at the secondary school and university levels
  • placeholder
  • placeholder

    •    Coursera: take university courses for free

    •    Khan Academy: instruction videos around math and science topics, mostly at the secondary school and university levels

    •    OpenCulture: open-source ebooks, audiobooks, videos, etc.

• The Directory of Open Access Journals: enormous database of science, technology, medicine, humanities, and social science journals

    •    JSTOR: free articles across disciplines on their open-access site

    •    Google Scholar: always a good source for free PDFs of academic work

    •    Manchester University Press: open-access social science and humanities books and journals

    •    Unpaywall: this app legally redirects you to free versions of otherwise paywalled journal articles

    •    Academia.edu and ResearchGate: access papers uploaded by academics

    •    Project Gutenberg: one of the largest troves for free ebooks

    •    LibriVox: free public-domain audiobooks

    •    Online Books: a digital archive hosted by the University of Pennsylvania

    •    Duolingo and Memrise: free language learning apps

These are just a few of the many resources out there for students looking to steer their own learning. Obviously, there’s no one right approach, and every person is different when it comes to what works best. The important thing is to keep trying, assessing, and adjusting accordingly.

The reward speaks for itself — a way of living life in which you will always be interested, engaged, and growing.

As Handel writes, “The adults who tend to have the greatest success in their careers, who contribute the most to the betterment of society, and who achieve the highest degree of self actualization are, by-and-large, self-directed learners lifelong learners.”


Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


How I Got Into Princeton - Natalia (Story #18)

How I Got Into Princeton - Story #18

Natalia's Story

"The pressure to succeed was internal."

Meet Natalia, a member of Princeton's class of 2021.

In high school, Natalia pursued a packed schedule of academics, extracurricular activities, and volunteering opportunities. She maintained exceptional grades, earning high marks on AP exams and membership in National Honor Society, and contributed many hours to the Red Cross and her school's Homework Help Center.

Natalia attributes much of her success to her own internal drive and commitment to others.

"No one ever pressured me to achieve anything," Natalia reflects. "I wanted to be happy with myself and therefore pushed myself often."

Please read below to learn more about Martin and the personal qualities, values, and support system that have allowed him to succeed.

We recommend reading from beginning to end but feel free to skip around. Our favorite section is the "What Makes You You" section, where Martin describes his unique qualities and how they contributed to his personal and academic success.

About this Series

In our "How I got Into" series, we share the stories of successful applicants to Princeton and other great colleges.

Our profiles go beyond a simple list of academic and extracurricular achievements. We also delve into the “how” and the qualities that successful applicants exhibit.

We provide a rare look into what drives these students, how they've overcome their challenges, how they've been shaped by significant events in their lives, how they deal with the pressure to succeed, and much more.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

SECTION 1 - FAMILY
SECTION 2 - SCHOOLING
SECTION 3 - ACTIVITIES
SECTION 4 - ACADEMICS
SECTION 5 - THE COLLEGE APPLICATION
SECTION 6 - DAY IN THE LIFE
SECTION 7 - WHAT MAKES YOU YOU
SECTION 8 - CONCLUSION

Disclaimer

Here's what we're NOT doing with this series:

  • We are NOT prescribing an over-engineered approach to college admissions
  • We are NOT presenting a blueprint for how you should get into college
  • We are NOT suggesting that you must gain admissions to a selective school to be successful (you most certainly do not)

Here's what we ARE doing:

  • We are presenting data and sharing stories
  • We are providing context that you usually don't see to highlight that we are more than just our grades and GPA
  • Our ultimate goal is to uncover the values and personal qualities that drive successful applicants

Whether you are considering selective colleges or not, it is our unwavering belief that our values and personal qualities (and luck) are the major contributors to success.


SECTION 1 - FAMILY

My parents wanted me to feel I had given my best.

Geography

Birthplace: Lapy, Poland
Where did you grow up? Hillsborough, NJ, USA

Siblings

# of older siblings:  2
# of younger siblings: 0
Sibling Education Levels:  Law Degree, Bachelor Degree
Where did your siblings go to college?  Law School in Warsaw Poland and Rutgers University

Parents

Parent's Marital Status: Married
With whom do you make your permanent home? Both Parents
Parent 1 Current/Former Occupation: Machine Operator
Parent 1 Highest Level of Education: High School
Parent 2 Current/Former Occupation: None
Parent 2 Highest Level of Education: Technical School

Parent Beliefs

How would you characterize your parents' parenting style(s)?

Laid back

On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the most important), how important to your parents was:

Academics 3
Extracurriculars 3
Service 3
Family 3
Friends 2
Physical Health/ Fitness 2
Mental Health 4

Did your parents have specific philosophies regarding any of the areas above?

My parents always wanted me to try my best and feel that I had given my best.


SECTION 2 - SCHOOLING

Middle School

Middle School: Hillsborough Middle School
Type of School: Public

High School

High School: Hillsborough High School
High School City, State: Hillsborough, NJ
Type of School: Public
Class Size: 620

SECTION 3 - ACTIVITIES

I enjoy seeing the smiles on peoples' faces when I help them.

Jobs

Did you work in high school?  Yes
What kind of job/s did you have? I worked as a receptionist at a local dental office. I also worked at an ice-cream shop, babysat, and tutored.
Average hours/week worked? 15 hours
Why did you work? I worked so that I could have spending money of my own as well as learn the ethics of working. It was expected of me to get a job just to enter adult life.

Extracurriculars/Passions & Interests

What were your major passions/ interests in high school?

I loved volunteering and participating in service organizations. The most important activities were Homework Help Center, Red Cross, and hospital volunteering.

Homework Help Center: I started out volunteering here freshman year. I would spend about 2 hours a week helping young students do their homework. I really loved this experience as I found great pleasure in providing students with tricks to multiply, etc. Senior year I took leadership of the organization and was involved in planning out the schedule for other volunteers, advertising the program, and considering ideas for further expansion. I had to stay in touch with our community partner, the local library, and ensure all rules and time commitments were being respected.

Red Cross: Similarly, I joined the Red Cross when I was a freshman. I started out by helping at the blood drives and attending hand washing campaigns for young kids. The second year I took on more roles and helped coordinate some of the drives myself. Finally my junior and senior year I was on the executive board. I did most of the volunteer requirement, retention and event promotion work. I found it really exciting because it better connected me with my student body and made me more devoted to the club as a whole. I got to interact with the community and figure out what the needs really were.

Hospital Volunteering: Sophomore year I began volunteering at the hospital. I worked at the maternity ward and every week for 2+ hours I would fold blankets, make birth guide packets, transport patients, stock gloves, and any other miscellaneous task that I was given for that day. This task made me realize that service isn’t doing the grand thing of saving the patient's life but it starts as something small, more foundational, like birthing packets. These tasks carry value, too. It is about what the community needs and not necessarily about what we might want to do.

Extended School Year Volunteer: Over the summer I worked with individuals with disabilities to continue their learning. I mostly worked with the younger grades and practiced skills with them such as eye contact and other primary motor skills.

How much time did you spend on these things?

I spent around 10 hours a week on these things.

When did these passions/interests first come about?

They first came to me freshman year when I decided to volunteer at a hospital.

How were these passions/interests developed over time?

Over time I began participating in more organizations and soon realized that I loved volunteering. I joined several other clubs such as Homework Help Center, the Red Cross, as well as began helping at the local food distribution center.

What level of achievement did you reach?

In terms of achievement, I soon became the president of several of these clubs.

Tell us a little bit about how you achieved these achievements?

I simply devoted my heart to the club and took on leadership roles. I came to meetings regularly and participated in external service meetings.

What kind of support did you have?

I had the support of my parents in terms of them cheering me on and taking care of my basic needs such as food and car fuel. I also had the support of teachers who were always kind to me. I often talked with them about anything and everything and soon grew a relationship with the advisers of those clubs.

What kind of sacrifices/challenges did you overcome to achieve these extracurricular results?

I often had to pick between my friends and family time. I feel that I chose my extracurricular activities often, which did lead me to miss out on some memories.

Service

What were your major service-related activities?

My major service organization was volunteering at the hospital. I absolutely loved it and did it every week for over 2 hrs for 3 years. I also volunteered at a free health clinic, a homework help center, and the Red Cross.

How much time did you spend?

On average, per week, I spent 2 hrs at the hospital, 1 hr at the homework help center, 2 hrs at Red Cross, and 3 hrs at the free health clinic.

Why did you choose this activity?

I chose this activity because I love medicine, therefore it was perfectly up my alley. Additionally, I enjoy seeing the smile on peoples' faces when you help them. I simply like interacting with others and this allows me to do that freely.

Summers

What did you do in the summers during high school?

Summer after 9th grade, I went to Poland to visit my family. 

Summer after 10th grade, I worked at the dental office and volunteered at a program for individuals with disabilities. I also volunteered at my local church camp.

Summer after 11th grade, I participated in a religious program in Trenton that worked with adults with disabilities. I also volunteered at my school with individuals with intellectual disabilities and helped out at my local church camp.


SECTION 4 - ACADEMICS

Grades/GPA/Awards

Class Ranking: Top 10%
GPA - Weighted: 104.25
GPA - Unweighted 94.57

SAT/ACT

How many times did you take the SAT? 3
How many times did you take the ACT? 2
What were your SAT and/or ACT scores? SAT: 2160, ACT: 35
Did you take a class or receive private tutoring? Yes, I did take a Kaplan class for SAT
How many hours did you study in total? 100
When did you start preparing for the test? January
When did you take the test? 11th grade and Fall of 12th

Do you know which test to take? Check out our recommendations here - Should I Take the SAT or the ACT?

Not sure WHEN to take the test? We created 9 Sample Testing Schedules to help get you started

SAT Subject Tests & AP/IBs

Which SAT Subject tests did you take? 

Biology: 740

Which AP/IBs did you take?

AP Biology (4), AP Chemistry (5), AP Literature (5), AP English Composition (5), AP US History (5), AP Calculus AB (5)

What were your major academic achievements in high school?

I almost always had straight As. I frequently got the highest grades in Chemistry Class and History. I was also in National Honor Societies.

What do you attribute your academic success to?

I studied a lot.

What kind of support did you have?

My parents supported me by providing me with basic necessities.

Did you ever receive private tutoring?

No.

What kind of sacrifices/challenges did you overcome to achieve these academic results?

I often had to not spend time with my parents, barely got any sleep, and was always driving from one place to another in a whirlwind.

Any specific approaches/tips & tricks to studying that were particularly helpful for you?

I found that rewriting my notes and redoing class problems several times helped me the most.


SECTION 5 - THE COLLEGE APPLICATION

Applications & Acceptances

Did you apply as an international or domestic student? Domestic
Did you apply regular or early? Regular
How many schools did you apply to? 8
Were you a legacy applicant at any of these schools? No
Were you recruited for athletics, arts, music, etc...? No
Did you declare a major? Did this end up being your actual major? Yes. I declared biology and became that major.

Which schools did you apply to (that you remember)?

Princeton University, Cornell University, Boston College, University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers University, Johns Hopkins University, The College of New Jersey, Drew University, New Jersey Institute of Technology. Read more


Taking a Gap Year (1)

Taking a Gap Year: Should You Do It?

Taking a Gap Year: Should You Do It?

Though considered a normal rite of passage in the UK and Europe, gap years have taken longer to catch on in the United States.

However, taking gap years has become more popular over the last decade or so, as students, parents, and educators have come to understand the value of devoting time to personal growth while transitioning between life stages.

The Benefits of Gap Years

It helps that more data is emerging about the benefits of gap years.

The Gap Year Association, a nonprofit that accredits such programs, found that 90% of students who take a structured gap year return to school within a year, and are more likely to graduate on time and with a higher grade-point average. 

David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told USA Today that taking a gap year “…could actually help students succeed in college.”

And Mark Sklarow, chief executive officer of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, told the New York Times, “A higher percentage of those who took a gap year will complete college than those who do not.”

“A gap year gives us time for more introspective evaluation and some thinking about what we want to do and, more importantly, why we want to do it,” writes Princeton undergraduate Jae-Kyung Sim in an October 2019 Daily Princetonian piece. He ends with the advice, “One year of break will not only prepare you better for Princeton but also broadly for your career path and life.”

Taking a Gap Year

What should I do during my gap year?

What a gap year looks like is up to you. Many students do gap years after graduating high school and before starting college, but some take them partway through college.

The possibilities are endless when it comes to how to spend that time, but common options are

  • volunteering or service work
  • traveling
  • participating in an internship
  • working to save money for college, or
  • engaging in independent study (which can help students figure out what they want to major in)

All of these are activities that can help young people develop valuable life experience and better self-understanding, and therefore, arrive on campus more focused and mature.

“Being plugged into another culture caused me to learn a lot about myself and reach a different level of maturity and readiness that I would not have had without the year,” writes Cody O’Neill on the website of the Princeton Gap Year Network, a student group at Princeton University that supports students who take gap years.

One thing to consider is whether to do your gap year through a program run by your college, through a formal organization that handles the logistics of gap years for students, or on your own.

As an example of a program run by a college, Princeton University has the Novogratz Bridge Year Program, which “allows incoming students to begin their Princeton experience engaged in nine months of tuition-free, University-sponsored service at one of five international locations.

Bridge Year participants study the local language, live with carefully selected homestay families, and take part in a variety of cultural enrichment activities, while learning from host communities through their volunteer work.” Interested students may apply to the program through the website.

Beyond university-run programs are the following:

For those interested in politics, Election 2020 Gap Year helps students volunteer with election campaigns.

Many of these, like Global Citizen Year and Rotary Club, have the added benefit of offering financial aid. AmeriCorps covers most expenses, while the nonprofit Service Year Alliance offers paid long-term service opportunities.

Finally, of course, there’s the option of designing your own gap year. That might mean finding an internship, volunteering locally, trying to build a business, or creating your own learning experience, whether that be taking online courses or studying a foreign language. Most universities require students to submit a plan detailing their goals and how they they plan to achieve them.

“I tell students to come up with three to five personal, practical or professional goals,” advised Julia Rogers, board president of the Gap Year Association and the owner of EnRoute Consulting, in the New York Times.

Practical Considerations

There are a number of logistical considerations that need to be worked out when it comes to the nuts and bolts of making a gap year happen.

Get University Approval

For one, chances are that you’ll need to get approval from your university.

Start by looking up whether your university has resources around supporting students taking gap years. For example, the website of the student-run Princeton Gap Year Network includes all kinds of helpful resources, like a handbook; FAQ about what the process is like; links to other resources, at not just Princeton, but other universities like Middlebury College, and other outside organizations; and suggestions of what students can do during their time off.

When all else fails, call or email the admissions or undergraduate affairs office directly, and they can direct you to the right method for securing approval to take a gap year. At Princeton, returning students considering a gap year must contact their residential college deans, while newly admitted students must contact the admission office.

Financial Aid

Another significant consideration is that it’s almost entirely certain that students who defer a year will have to reapply for financial aid the following year.

Again, on-campus resources like Princeton’s Gap Year Network can be an invaluable aid in figuring out how to do it, and whether there’s any risk of not receiving as much aid the next year.

What about COVID-19?

The ongoing pandemic obviously affects what kind of gap year students can or should take. Gap year plans involving travel are particularly tricky.

Even if travel restrictions lift everywhere, it seems prudent to assume that any student who travels should be prepared for the possibility of seeing border restrictions imposed at any time in the U.S., the country they’re visiting, or even within a country, in the counties and towns they’re staying in.

For now, the New York Times reports, “Some organized programs that offer immersive trips abroad — like Amigos International, Where There Be Dragons, and Thinking Beyond Borders — are still enrolling students for fall 2020, with generous cancellation policies.”

It might be a safer bet to stay in the U.S. But for students hoping to get out of the house, there may still be plenty of adventurous and structured opportunities that involve working in the field — including working on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. For structured programs like Election 2020 or AmeriCorps and other service organizations, check out the websites for their various programs for updates on their Covid-19 policies. 

All of that said, be aware that some schools are disallowing gap years altogether right now. And even if they aren’t, many are warning that services that require advance budgeting, such as housing, financial aid, and dining plans, may not be guaranteed if students defer a year.

The Princeton University campus paper, The Daily Princetonian, reported in May that “Due to housing and enrollment constraints, students who take gap years this fall may not be guaranteed immediate return to the University,” adding that “If too many students choose to take leaves of absence for the 2020–21 school year, over-enrollment could occur the following year, putting a strain on housing and dining services.” In other words, taking a gap year could turn into two years off.

For some, that could be worth it. For others, that’s all the more reason to hunker down now and devote oneself to virtual college in the fall. At the end of the day, only you are qualified to judge what course of action is right for you.


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They were engineering majors at Princeton and had successful careers in strategy consulting and finance. They now apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


11 College Essays That Worked

11 College Essays That Worked

Bonus Material: 30 College Essay Examples

In this regularly updated post, we share the admissions essays that helped students get into their dream schools.

But this isn't simply a collection of college application essays.

We also provide a link to in-depth profiles of the authors who wrote the essays, providing you with the most comprehensive picture available of the nation's most successful applicants.

While you should always craft the best essay you are capable of, please remember that the essay is but one component of the application process! The essays you'll read below are all of varying quality, but each one of these students gained admission to the most selective schools in the country.

You can also find 19 more college essays that worked below.

Here's what we cover in this post:

  1. College Essay #1 - It Takes More Than Wishing Upon a Star
  2. College Essay #2 - "I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier"
  3. College Essay #3 - "You know nothing, Jon Snow"
  4. College Essay #4 - "I'm still questioning"
  5. College Essay #5 - "My place of inner peace"
  6. College Essay #6 - "So this is what compassion is all about"
  7. College Essay #7 - "I believe that every person is molded by their experiences"
  8. College Essay #8 - The California Cadet Corps
  9. College Essay #9 - "I never want to lose what we had in that corner"
  10. College Essay #10 - "It is the effort that counts, not the result"
  11. College Essay #11 - "The problem of social integration"
  12. Bonus: 30 College Essay Examples

COLLEGE ESSAY #1 - It Takes More Than Wishing Upon a Star

Author: Erica
Class Year: Princeton University 2020
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement
School Acceptances: Princeton University, Harvard University, Williams College, Duke University, College of William & Mary, Davidson College, Boston College, Johns Hopkins University, Texas Christian University

At eleven years old, I wrote the New York Times best-selling novel, The Chosen, the first installation in a trilogy that would become the newest sensation of the fantasy genre, and grow to be even more popular than the Harry Potter series. At least, that what I originally imagined as I feverishly typed the opening words of my manuscript. I had just received a call from my parents, who were on a business trip in London. While touring the city, they heard about an amateur novel writing contest open to all ages, and thought that I, as an amateur writer, would be interested. All I had to do was compose an original manuscript of merely 80,000 words and submit it to an office in London, and I could win $20,000 in addition to a publishing deal.

I hung up the phone with a smile plastered on my face. Never mind that I was barely eleven, that my portfolio consisted of a few half-page poems from elementary school, or that the contest was taking place on another continent, I was determined to write the most extraordinary fantasy novel ever created. For months afterward the sight of me was accompanied by the tap, tap, tap of my fingers flying across the keyboard, and the sharp glint of obsession in my eyes. The contest in London closed, a winner was chosen. I didn’t care. I kept writing. After a year I had stretched my writing project into a three hundred page novel. I scraped together a few dollars of allowance money, slapped it in my mom’s hand, and asked her to have Staples print a bound copy of the manuscript.

She handed me my magnum opus when I got home from school that day. I ran my fingers across the shiny laminate over the cover page, caressed the paper as if it were some sacred tome. After more than fourteen months fleshing out characters and cultivating mythologies, I was ready to publish. With the copy in hand I ran to my dad. “Read it and tell me what you think!” I said, imagining the line of publishing companies that would soon be knocking down my door.

Within two weeks my father handed it back to me, the pages now scrawled over in bright red ink. “You’ve got a lot of work to do,” he told me, with his typical soul-wrenching brusque.

I stared at him for a moment, jaw locked tight, eyes nearly brimming with tears. He proceeded to list for me all the things I needed to revise for my next draft. Less colloquial dialogue, vivid descriptions, more complex subplots, the list went on and on.

“A serious author doesn’t get offended by constructive criticism,” he said, “whether you take my advice or not will prove whether or not you are one.”

My dreams fell like the Berlin wall. What was the point of slaving over a novel if I had to start from scratch again? My father’s advice would force me to rewrite the entire novel. What sort of writer was I, that my work warranted such substantial alteration?

As I soon learned—a normal one.

Today, six years, 10 drafts, and 450 pages later, I am finally close to finishing. Sometimes, when I’m feeling insecure about my ability as a novelist I open up my first draft again, turn to a random chapter, and read it aloud. Publishing that first draft would have been a horrible embarrassment that would have haunted me for the rest of my life. Over the past half-decade, I’ve been able to explore my own literary voice, and develop a truly original work that I will be proud to display. This experience taught me that “following your dreams” requires more than just wishing upon a star. It takes sacrifice, persistence, and grueling work to turn fantasy into reality.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Erica's story here]


COLLEGE ESSAY #2 - I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier

Author: Emma
Class Year: Princeton University 2021
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement
School Acceptances: Princeton University, Duke University, Northwestern University, Cornell University, University of Virginia, University of North Carolina, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of California Berkeley, University of Michigan

I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier. Ever since I was a child, I have been in search for all that is spicy. I began by dabbling in peppers of the jarred variety. Pepperoncini, giardiniera, sports peppers, and jalapeños became not only toppings, but appetizers, complete entrées, and desserts. As my palate matured, I delved into a more aggressive assortment of spicy fare. I'm not referring to Flamin' Hot Cheetos, the crunchy snack devoured by dilettantes. No, it was bottles of infernal magma that came next in my tasting curriculum.

Despite the current lack of certification offered for the profession which I am seeking, I am unquestionably qualified. I can tell you that a cayenne pepper sauce infused with hints of lime and passion fruit is the perfect pairing to bring out the subtle earthy undertones of your microwave ramen. I can also tell you that a drizzle of full-bodied Louisiana habanero on my homemade vanilla bean ice cream serves as an appetizing complement. For the truly brave connoisseur, I suggest sprinkling a few generous drops of Bhut Jolokia sauce atop a bowl of chili. Be warned, though; one drop too many and you might find yourself like I did, crying over a heaping bowl of kidney beans at the dining room table.

Although I consistently attempt to cultivate the rarest and most expertly crafted bottles of molten spice, like an oenophile who occasionally sips on five dollar bottles of wine, I am neither fussy nor finicky. I have no qualms about dousing my omelets with Cholula, dipping my tofu in pools of Sriracha, or soaking my vegetarian chicken nuggets in the Frank's Red Hot that my mom bought from the dollar store. No matter the quality or cost, when gently swirled, wafted, and swished; the sauces excite my senses. Each initial taste, both surprising yet subtly familiar, has taught me the joy of the unknown and the possibility contained within the unexpected.

My ceaseless quest for piquancy has inspired many journeys, both gustatory and otherwise. It has dragged me into the depths of the souks of Marrakech, where I purchased tin cans filled with Harissa. Although the chili sauce certainly augmented the robust aroma of my tagine, my food was not the only thing enriched by this excursion. My conquest has also brought me south, to the valleys of Chile, where I dined among the Mapuche and flavored my empanadas with a smoky seasoning of Merkén. Perhaps the ultimate test of my sensory strength occurred in Kolkata, India. After making the fatal mistake of revealing my penchant for spicy food to my friend's grandmother, I spent the night with a raw tongue and cold sweats. I have learned that spice isn't always easy to digest. It is the distilled essence of a culture, burning with rich history. It is a universal language that communicates passion, pain, and renewal. Like an artfully concocted hot sauce, my being contains alternating layers of sweetness and daring which surround a core that is constantly being molded by my experiences and adventures.

I'm not sure what it is about spiciness that intrigues me. Maybe my fungiform papillae are mapped out in a geography uniquely designed to appreciate bold seasonings. Maybe these taste buds are especially receptive to the intricacies of the savors and zests that they observe. Or maybe it's simply my burning sense of curiosity. My desire to challenge myself, to stimulate my mind, to experience the fullness of life in all of its varieties and flavors.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Emma's story here]


COLLEGE ESSAY #3 - "You know nothing, Jon Snow"

Author: Shanaz
Class Year: Princeton University 2021
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement
School Acceptances: Princeton University, Duke University, Williams College, Boston College, Brandeis University, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Stony Brook

"You know nothing, Jon Snow”

Being an avid Game of Thrones fanatic, I fancy every character, scene, and line. However,Ygritte’s famous line proves to be just slightly more relatable than the incest, corruption, and sorcery that characterizes Westeros.

Numerous theories explore the true meaning of these five words, but I prefer to think they criticize seventeen-year-old Jon’s lack of life experience. Growing up in a lord’s castle, he has seen little about the real world; thus, he struggles to see the bigger picture until he evaluates all angles.

Being in a relatively privileged community myself, I can affirm the lack of diverse perspectives —and even more, the scarcity of real-world problems. Instead, my life has been horrifically plagued by first world problems. I’ve written a eulogy and held a funeral for my phone charger.

I’ve thrown tantrums when my knitted sweaters shrunk in the dryer. And yes, I actually have cried over spilled (organic) milk.

Well, shouldn’t I be happy with the trivial “problems” I’ve faced? Shouldn’t I appreciate the opportunities and the people around me?

Past the “feminism v. menimism” and “memes” of the internet, are heartbreaking stories and photos of life outside my metaphorical “Bethpage Bubble.” How can I be content when I am utterly oblivious to the perspectives of others? Like Jon Snow, I’ve never lived a day in another person’s shoes.

Fewer than three meals a day. No extra blanket during record-breaking winter cold. No clean water. I may be parched after an intense practice, but I know nothing of poverty.

Losing a loved one overseas. Being forced to leave your home. Coups d'état and dictatorial governments. I battle with my peers during class discussions, but I know nothing of war.

Denial of education. Denial of religion. Denial of speech. I have an endless list of freedoms, and I know nothing of oppression.

Malaria. Cholera. Cancer. I watch how Alzheimer’s progresses in my grandmother, but I know nothing of disease.

Living under a strict caste system. Being stereotyped because of one’s race. Unwarranted prejudice. I may be in a minority group, yet I know nothing of discrimination.

Flappers, speakeasies, and jazz. Two world wars. Pagers, hippies, and disco. I’m barely a 90’s kid who relishes SpongeBob episodes, and I know nothing of prior generations.

Royal weddings, tribal ceremonies, and Chinese New Years. I fast during Ramadan, but I know nothing of other cultures.

Hostile political parties. Progressive versus retrospective. Right and wrong. I am seventeen, and I know nothing of politics.

Is ignorance really bliss?

Beyond my community and lifetime exists myriad events I'll never witness, people I'll never meet, and beliefs I'll never understand. Being unexposed to the culture and perspectives that comprise this world, I know I can never fully understand anyone or anything. Yet, irony is beautiful.

Embarking on any career requires making decisions on behalf of a community, whether that be a group of students, or a patient, or the solar system.

I am pleased to admit like Jon Snow, I know nothing, but that will change in college.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Shanaz's story here]


COLLEGE ESSAY #4 - "I'm still questioning"

Author: Aja
Class Year: Princeton University 2020
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement - Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
School Acceptances: Princeton University, MIT, University of Maryland, Stern College for Women, Queens College and City College

I walked down the pale pink stone pathway, up a ramp, past the library building, and towards the Student Activities Center of the college campus, carrying a large brown cardboard box. People might’ve taken note of the load I was carrying, and particularly the other high school students with whom I ate my dinner. Out of the box I grabbed my meal, which was wrapped in two separate plastic airplane meal style trays; one container for the side and one for the main. I tried not to call attention to myself as I unwrapped the tight double wrapping of plastic around both trays.

My actions and practices were the same, but for the first time I stood out. While I was eating my meals, in the lab, or during the lectures, I began to ask myself some questions.

Was it worth continuing to strictly observe my customs in such an environment? I thought.

Could I afford to take time away from the lab to walk to the kosher restaurant to pick up lunch? Was continuing to dress in a long skirt, on hot summer days and with additional lab dress codes, worth the discomfort? Was it worth standing out from most other people?

The science experiment that I performed that summer in a way mirrored the experiment that I “performed” to test my practices. My lab partner and I researched the current issue of antibiotic resistant bacteria strains, which left certain bacterial infections without an effective cure; this was our observation. We then hypothesized that an alternative mechanism of destruction, by physically slicing the bacterial membrane, would be more efficient. Similarly, I hypothesized that an alternative life path without my religious practices might be an “effective” life path for me, as it had been for the students that I met, with the added social benefits of fitting in. I hypothesized that perhaps my own life would be “effective” or fulfilling without these practices, as it was for the students whom I had met. Wearing our purple nitrite gloves, our safety goggles pressing against our faces, my partner and I began to prepare our tiny metal chips, containing a thin coating of polymer blends, which would prick the membranes of the bacteria cells.

In my personal experiment, the “testing” stage became tricky. I didn’t put on my lab coat, and start spin casting my solutions or pipetting liquids onto surfaces. I didn’t even try eating some food that was not kosher, or actively violate my practices. My experiment eventually went beyond the scientific approach, as I questioned in my thoughts. I had to determine what my beliefs meant to me, to find my own answer. I could not simply interpret results of an experiment, but needed to find my own interpretations.

I found from my experiment and questioning within my mind that my practices distinguished me from others, thereby allowing me to form relationships on the basis of common interest or personality, rather than cultural similarities, that summer. I valued the relationships more, and formed a deep connection with my lab partner, whom I had found was similar to me in many ways. We talked about our very different lives, genuinely interested in one another’s.

I’m still questioning, and I think the process does not end, which is part of what makes my religious practice important to me – it urges me to constantly reflect on my values and the moral quality of my actions. I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish that “experiment,” but by experiencing and valuing the practices and lifestyles of other people, I also got to reflect on my own. That summer showed me that the questions themselves proved my practices were valuable to me, and left me with a stronger commitment to my religious faith than I had before.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Aja's story here]


COLLEGE ESSAY #5 - My place of inner peace

Author: James
Class Year: Princeton University 2019
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement
School Acceptances: Princeton University

Simply put, my place of inner peace is the seat of that 50 foot sliver of carbon and kevlar called a rowing shell, cutting through the water in the middle of a race. This is the one situation in which I find myself to be completely comfortable; the one environment in which I feel most empowered, at home, and content, despite it being quite at odds with the conventional definition of the word "comfortable". There is something special about a rowing race; that 6 minute, 2000 meter tour de force that many who have truly experienced one (and all who have emerged victorious) will describe as the most painful, and yet the most thrilling activity they have ever been a part of.

The pain of rowing 2000 meters is like nothing else I have ever experienced. It is a short enough distance so that there is no pacing (it's all out, everything you've got, from start to finish), but at the same time it's long enough to require every ounce of strength and will power to reach the finish. By the end, the lungs scream out for oxygen, and the legs, chest, and arms all burn as if boiling water has been injected into every pore. The mental toughness required to drag oneself through this ordeal, from the moment it starts to hurt 30 seconds in to the moment you cross the finish line, is immense. The psychological state that is entered into during a race is one of unparalleled focus, drive, and will to win.

The race begins with six boats lined up side by side, tensed and ready to pounce. The umpire then makes the call, “Attention. Row” in a tone that seems entirely too casual for the occasion, and the bows spring forward. What was moments before an atmosphere of complete silence is transformed into a world of noise. Here is a short list of things one hears at the start of a rowing race: the authoritative yell of the coxswains, the rhythmic click of the oars, the fluid swish of the water under the boat, the roar of the officials’ launches falling in behind the boats. I always find it funny though, that while the tense silence of the pre-race moments dissolves so quickly into noise from every direction, a rower can only actually hear any of it for a surprisingly short period of time. This is because at about two minutes into a race, a rower begins to lose his senses. Scent disappears completely, touch is negligible, hearing dissolves into nothing but the calls of the cox, and sight reduces itself to a portrait of the back of the rower in front of you. It is in this bizzare state of mind and body that I am truly in my "comfort zone".

The pain is intense, yes, but I have felt it before. I feel it quite regularly, actually. The training a rower goes through to prepare for a race begins months in advance and consists of pushing oneself to the limit; repeatedly putting oneself in positions of pain and discomfort so that when crunch time comes, a rower is truly without fear of what lies ahead of him. This is how I feel when the going gets tough at around two minutes in: fearless. In these moments I feel invincible; I feel like I was born to do exactly what I am doing right then and there. In these moments I am completely and totally content.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out James' story here]


COLLEGE ESSAY #6 - So this is what compassion is all about

Author: Amanda
Class Year: Princeton University 2019
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement
School Acceptances: Princeton University, Rutgers University

So this is what compassion is all about? Piece of cake.

Joey was a sweet, ten-year-old boy who could derive pleasure even in the most prosaic of activities: catching a balloon, listening to music, watching other children run, jump, and play. But Joey himself was confined to a wheelchair – he would never be able to participate in the same way that his friends without physical disabilities could.

Joey was the first child assigned to me when I began volunteering for the Friendship Circle, an organization that pairs teenage volunteers with special-needs children. Right from the start, I was grateful for being matched up with this sweet, easy-going child; I felt immense relief at how effortless my volunteering commitment with Joey could be. Simply by wheeling my friend through tiled halls and breezy gardens, I simultaneously entertained him and inspired others with my acts of kindness.

Piece of cake.

Truthfully, though, during my time with Joey, I felt more than a little virtuous and pleased with myself. There I was, able to impress everyone with my dedication to Joey, with only minimal effort on my part. My experience with Joey led me to mistakenly believe that I had, by the age of thirteen, attained a complete understanding of what a word like “empathy” really meant. I was complacent in my comfort zone, confident that I understood what compassion was all about.

Then I met Robyn, and I realized how wrong I was.

Prone to anger, aggressive, sometimes violent (I have the scar to prove it). Every Sunday with Robyn was a challenge. Yoga, dancing, cooking, art, tennis – none of these activities held her interest for long before she would inevitably throw a tantrum or stalk over to a corner to sulk or fight with the other children. She alternated between wrapping her arms around my neck, declaring to anyone who passed by that she loved me, and clawing at my arms, screaming at me to leave her alone.

One day, after an unsuccessful attempt to break up a brawl between Robyn and another girl, I found myself taking dazed steps towards the administrator’s office. I was near my breaking point, ready to quit. In that moment, though, I vividly recall looking up and seeing Robyn’s parents walking down the hall coming to pick her up. Tired eyes. Weary, but appreciative smiles. A realization then struck me: I was only with Robyn for one day a week. During the rest of the week, Robyn was the sole responsibility of her parents. The same parents who once confided in me that Robyn behaved no differently at home than she did at the Friendship Circle with me.

Robyn’s parents undeniably loved her. There were even moments when Robyn transformed into one of the sweetest children I had ever met. But she was no Joey. Sweet, easygoing Joey. Joey who I thought had taught me true empathy. If I was such a saint, how could I give back to Joey’s parents, but not to Robyn’s? How could I not provide them a brief respite every week, from the labors of caring for her? Was I sincerely an empathetic person if I could only be so when it was easy? Was I truly compassionate because others thought I was? Complacency does not equate with compassion; true empathy is not an ephemeral trait that one possesses only when it suits him or her – when it doesn’t require him or her to try.

Progress exists in steps. The first steps were the ones I took with Joey, my earliest experience in volunteering. But the steps I took away from the administrator’s office, the steps I took back toward Robyn, were the steps of a different person, I like to think.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Amanda's story here]

You can read 19 additional college essays that earned students acceptance into top-tier colleges. Grab these essays below.


COLLEGE ESSAY #7 - I believe that every person is molded by their experiences

Author: Martin
Class Year: Princeton University 2021
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement
School Acceptances: Princeton University, University of California Berkeley, University of California Davis, University of California Santa Cruz, CSU Sonoma, CSU Long Beach, CSU San Jose, CSU Chico, New York University

I believe every person is molded by their experiences whether they be positive or negative. I have been impacted by many events and challenges, both personally and socially, that have made me who I am today.

I was born in Concepcion de Buenos Aires in Jalisco, Mexico. My dad did not always live with us and worked doing manual labor in the United States every three months to provide income for us transitioning between the United States and Mexico when he could. When I was six, my Spanish-speaking family immigrated to the United States. Once here in the United States, I found English difficult to learn at school since it was brand new to me. English-speaking students always had to translate for me which motivated me to become fluently proficient by third grade.

In addition to the language barrier at school, my family would constantly move due to apartment rent increase, so I never grew accustomed to a group of friends.  Because of this, I had social difficulties in elementary school.  I remember hardly speaking in class and not playing any recess games unless invited. I recall playing tetherball mostly by myself and observing the children with longing eyes. In the sixth grade, my social life began to change; I met my best friend, Luz. We fostered a tight-knit bond immediately, and my confidence developed little by little each day. As each year passed, I acquired more confidence to become more sociable, but my awkwardness did not completely go away.

My earlier language barrier, my soft-hearted and quiet personality, and my social self-consciousness found me drawn to playing with girls and not sports with the other boys. I soon began to feel excluded by boys asking me why I played with girls; it made me feel small and different from the rest. Looking back, I have never been the “masculine boy” as society says my role to be. I have always thought I do not fit the social definition of a male as one who is “manly” and “sporty” and this alienating feeling of being different still persists today at times. However, I also have become more comfortable with myself, and I see my growth firsthand throughout high school.

In my freshman year I began to come out of my shell and develop self-confidence, largely due to my participation in choir and drama class. In these classes I could be myself and found my real voice. Here I felt a connection to a family not connected by blood but by a unifying passion in the creative arts.  That connection allowed me to confide in my friend Luz my struggle with my personal identity. One day I messaged her: “I have something to tell you… I think I might be bisexual.” My heart pounded as I waited anxiously for her reply. She responded: “How long have you been thinking of this?”  In her response I felt reassured that the she would not reject me.  From that moment my best friend thanked me and said our friendship was now stronger as a result. I felt so relieved to get that secret off my chest; it was a cathartic moment in my life and a significant turning point!

Throughout high school, I have become more open about who I am, and my confidence and acceptance in myself has grown tremendously. Although I still have not told my parents about my sexuality, I will when I am ready.  I am who I am today as a result of these experiences and personal challenges. In my short life so far, I have developed my soft-hearted and quiet personality to become more open, creative, and self-assured while preserving my identity. I know more challenges lie ahead, but I am open to those opportunities.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Martin's story here]


COLLEGE ESSAY #8 - The California Cadet Corps

Author: Justin
Class Year: Princeton University 2021
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement
School Acceptances: Princeton University, Harvard University, Stanford University, UCLA, UCSD

During my freshman year at Cajon High School, I enlisted in the California Cadet Corps (CACC). The CACC is essentially a JROTC program based on a state level. Every summer, the CACC holds a summer encampment at Camp San Luis Obispo. A myriad of leadership schools are offered: Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) School, Officer-Candidate School (OCS), etc. I participated in OCS my freshman year, Survival my sophomore year, and Marksmanship last summer. Of those three, Survival was definitely my biggest challenge and marked my transition from childhood to adulthood.

Within the CACC, there’s an honor so admirable that those who receive it are inducted into an order of elites: the Red Beret. It signifies completion of survival training, the most rigorous and difficult training course within the CACC. With a heart mixed with excitement and fear, I stepped onto the bus headed for Camp San Luis Obispo in June of 2015.

After basic instruction, we were transported to arid Camp Roberts to begin field training. Upon arrival, we were separated into groups of four with one leader each (I was designated as team leader). We then emptied our canteens, received minimal tools, and set off. Our immediate priority was finding areas to build our shelter and latrine. Then, we needed to locate a clean source of water. After, we had to find food. It was truly a situation that required making everything from scratch. As the day drew to a close and night advanced, I felt seclusion and apprehension envelop me.

As the days drew on, constant stress and heat along with lack of food took a toll on my sanity and drove me almost to my breaking-point. At one moment, I remembered a handwritten phrase that had been on my desk: “Your biggest enemy is yourself.” At this moment, it hit me: I wasn’t going to quit. I was going to overcome this challenge and show myself that I have what it takes to survive for five days using nothing but my wits.

On the morning of the sixth day, my team and I reported to headquarters to complete training. With pride, I received the honor of wearing that glorious Red Beret on my head.

Through Survival, I learned many things about myself and the way I approach the world. I realized that I take for granted innumerable small privileges and conveniences and that I undervalue what I do have. Now that I had experienced true and sustained hunger, I felt regret for times when I threw away food and behaved with unconscious waste. Additionally, being isolated from mass civilization and relying heavily on my companions gave me an appreciation for my friends and for the absolute necessity of teamwork. Being the leader of my team meant that they all looked to me for motivation, inspiration, and a will to survive; I got first-hand experience on how important a leader can be in a situation of literal life and death. Most importantly, however, I gained priceless insight into the amount of effort and work my parents put in for me every day.

As demonstrated, survival training taught me essential lessons to survive successfully as an adult. Looking back, it’s absolutely unbelievable how one week affected me so profoundly. Even today, I remember the phrase that motivated me that day: “Your biggest enemy is yourself.” Thinking of that, I go to school and say to myself, “Justin, you truly are an amazing young man!”

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Justin's story here]


COLLEGE ESSAY #9 - I never want to lose what we had in that corner

Author: Jonah
Class Year: Princeton University 2019
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement - Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
School Acceptances: Princeton University, Swarthmore College

The squeaks of whiteboard markers have now replaced the scritch-scratch of chalk, but the hubbub of voices is always the same. For millennia, the great thinkers of their day would gather and discuss. In ancient Greece, it was Socrates debating about philosophy; centuries later it was Newton lecturing at Cambridge on fluxions and physics. This summer Paul Steinhardt and his eminent colleagues sat down for a panel about inflationary theory at the World Science festival- though there was neither chalk nor markers there. Though we make no claim to be the greatest thinkers of our day and our school in no way resembles the hallowed edifices of science, my friends and I have staked out a corner of our AP Calculus room where we can have our own discussions. We even have a whiteboard.

It started small: just myself, Avery, and Sam and a problem set that didn’t take us long enough. Appropriately enough, we were working on one of Newton’s problems: differential equations describing cooling curves. His solution is fairly simple, perhaps overly simple, which prompted me to ask Avery what he thought. We had both taken Chemistry the year before, and Newton’s equation didn’t take into account thermal equilibrium; (to be fair to Newton, adding thermal equilibrium doesn’t appreciably change the solution at normal conditions). Since we were slightly bored and faced with an empty hour ahead of us, we started to modify the equation. We had learned in Chemistry that both the surroundings and the actual cooling object both change temperature, which Newton had ignored. We wrote up a first attempt on the infamous whiteboard, paused a second, and then started laughing as we realized that our inchoate equation meant a hot cup of coffee could plummet Earth into another Ice Age. This disturbance in an otherwise fairly quiet classroom drew the attention of Sam. He too was amused with our attempt and together we began to fix the poor thing. Huddled around the back of the classroom, we all pondered. It wasn’t an important problem, it wasn’t due the next day, it wasn’t even particularly interesting. But we loved it.

The three of us had been friends since middle school, which in many ways seems astounding. Avery, a track runner, Sam, a Morris dancer, and myself, a fencer. Our interests could not be more diverse. Avery was an avid programmer while Sam was fascinated by the evolution of language. I always had a soft spot for physics. Luckily for us, we had found each other early on in middle school and our discussions started soon after. As we learned more math, read more books, and culled more esoteric facts from our varied experiences, the quality of our rebuttals has dramatically improved. The laughter is immutable.

In the back of algebra class in eighth grade, Avery taught me how to program calculators in TIBasic while I traded theories with him about the Big Bang. From Sam I learned the phonetic alphabet and more recently the physics of bell ringing. Since then our dynamic has always stayed playful no matter how heated the discussion; only our arguments have changed. I may have learned as much in the back of classes with my friends as I learned from my teachers. Joseph Joubert wrote, “To teach is to learn twice,” and I could not agree more. In the myriad hours Avery, Sam, and I spent together, the neuron-firing was palpable, the exuberance impossible to miss.

But not only did I learn linguistics, Python, and philosophy with Avery and Sam, I learned a little more about myself. I never want to lose what we had in that corner. Our interplay of guessing and discovering and laughing seemed like paradise to me. I looked for other opportunities in my life to meet brilliant and vivacious people, to learn from them, and to teach them what I loved. I co-founded a tutoring program, participated in original research, and taught lessons in Physics and Chemistry as a substitute.

I expected to be nervous, I expected to embarrass myself. Yet on every occasion, whether I’m facing the board or with my back to it, whether I’m in the ranks of my peers or addressing my teachers, I feel the same elation. In my friends I see Socrates, Newton, and Steinhardt. There’s no place I would rather be than in their company.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Jonah's story here]


COLLEGE ESSAY #10 - It is the effort that counts, not the result

Author: John
Class Year: Princeton University 2021
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement - The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
School Acceptances: Princeton University

For as long as I can remember, wrestling has been an important part of my life. I can recall playing dodgeball after wrestling practice, summer wrestling camps, hard practices with my older brother, and hundreds of wrestling tournaments as cornerstones of my childhood. From a young age I was determined to be the best; and quickly concluded that meant winning a PIAA state championship. When I entered Junior High, I discovered that only ten wrestlers in the history of Pennsylvania had won a state championship each year of their high school careers - and becoming the eleventh became my personal ambition.

Entering high school, I centered my life around the goal of winning a state title my freshman year. I became disciplined in every aspect of my life: from how many hours of sleep I got, to what exact foods I ate. I was obsessed with my intensive training regimen, and fell asleep each night to the dream of my hand being raised in the circle of the main mat on the Giant Center floor.

As the season progressed, I experienced success. My state ranking climbed steadily and by the time the state tournament began, I was projected to finish third. I wrestled well throughout the tournament, advancing to the semifinals where I defeated the favorite 11-0. At last: I was to wrestle in the final match for the state championship. I prepared for my opponent, whom I defeated the week before. However, when the match began, I wrestled nervously, was unable to fully recover, and ended up on the short end of a 3-1 decision.

In just a few short minutes, my dream was shattered. For me, it felt like the end of the world. I had based my whole identity and lifestyle on the dream of winning four state titles. It felt as though the sport I loved most had ripped out my heart,  and on live television, in front of thousands of people. I was upset after the match.  I was depressed and felt worthless, devoid of my passion for and love of wrestling.

After a month or perhaps more of introspection, and some in depth conversations with the people closest to me, I began to realize that one lost wrestling match, at age fifteen, was not the end of the world. The more I reflected on my wrestling journey, the more gratitude I developed for all of my opportunities.   I realized that wrestling had helped forge some of the most important relationships of my life, including an irreplaceable fraternity with my older brother, teammates, and coaches. My setback in the state finals also helped me to understand all of the lessons learned through wrestling, and that there was much more I could still accomplish. Wrestling helped me learn the value of hard work, discipline, and mental toughness. But most important, I learned that no matter how much we try, we cannot control everything, including the outcome of a wrestling match. We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control our reaction, attitude, actions, and effort. In the words of my father, “it is the effort that counts, not the result.”

Hence, through my experience of failure I learned an invaluable lesson applicable to every walk of life. In retrospect, I am grateful for the opportunity to compete, to represent myself and my school, and to lay all my hard work on the line. The process of striving to become a state champion taught me more than achieving this title ever could, and my failure in the state finals was a blessing in disguise.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out John's story here]


COLLEGE ESSAY #11 - The problem of social integration

Author: Harry
Class Year: Princeton University 2020
Type of Essay: Universal Common Application Personal Statement - How do we establish common values to promote harmony in an increasingly diverse society?
School Acceptances: Princeton University

Establishing a cohesive society where common values are shared is increasingly difficult in multi-faith, globalised societies such as the one I’m part of in the UK. My studies in politics and philosophy have made me more sensitive to this problem and as I have a much larger number of friends from different ethnic backgrounds than my parents and the previous generation, I realise that the friction created by the presence of different ethnic and social groups is not going to disappear anytime soon.

Admittedly, the problem of social integration is one I feel can be widely overstated – for example, when I was looking into some research for a similar topic a couple of years ago, I found numerous surveys indicating that ethnic minorities (especially Islam) identify much more closely with Britain than do the population at large. Still though, I, like many others, find myself constantly troubled by the prospect of the war from within that seems to be developing. This fear is fuelled by events such as the brutal killing of the soldier Lee Rigby at the hands of two British Muslims a couple of years ago.

This cold blooded murder provides a clear example of what can happen when people lose their human connection to the society that they’re a part of and instead pursue hate and violence on a pretence to a higher purpose (killing in the name of religion). I think suggestible minds are undoubtedly most prone to this, and the two British men who killed Rigby, previously Christians, are examples of how minds devoid of any instilled social values are fertile ground for the fomentation of harmful ideas.

What I find particularly worrying is the distinct danger of allowing a largely atomised society to develop, where conflicts such as this one begin to characterise the interaction between the different parts. It’s imperative that we avoid this situation and work towards social unity, and so I think a long-term and complex solution to social integration must be found. Given the upward trends in multiculturalism and globalisation, it is going to be paramount that my generation takes on the problems of integration and cultural diversity to create a harmonious society.

The solution will no doubt be an ongoing process, involving years of detailed and thoroughly considered legislation, but I think that in working towards it, we should focus on certain things.

With regard to the role of religion, I think its relationship with the state needs to be clarified and communicated to everyone. As the case of Lee Rigby quite bluntly reveals, where religion triumphs over civic duty, there’s a potentially dangerous situation, especially when put into the context of radical fundamentalism. By the same token however, it’s neither desirable nor feasible to have a society where politics trumps religion, so I think that when addressing the issue of social cohesion there must be an overarching commitment to other people within society that’s established – humanity must transcend any form of politics or ideology, and bind the two camps so their incompatibility does not become entrenched.

I think that this has to be done primarily through education: both within the formal curriculum which all citizens of a democratic nation state should be compelled to follow until at least the age of 16, and in the wider sense through more promotion of cultural programmes nationally that encourage the nation’s population to participate in the continuing discussion and examination of our core, shared values. We have to work at this constantly since identity is itself always in a state of flux and accept that this continuing ‘conversation’ will always require us to confront some very difficult questions about freedom and responsibility. People need to understand these ideas not simply as abstract questions, but also as issues of practical, pragmatic relevance, deconstructing them into how we actually treat each other, the true test of how civilised and tolerant we are.


Download 30 College Essay Examples

You can check out even more college essay examples by successful applicants! For 19 additional essays, download PrepMaven's 30 College Essays That Worked.

With this document, you'll get:

  • The essays included in this post
  • 19 additional full personal statements of applicants admitted to top-tier institutions

Need some additional help? Check out our college essay service and work with one of our Master Consultants.

At PrepMaven, our mission is not only to help your child increase their test scores and get into a great college but also to put them on the right track for long-term personal and professional success.


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.