High School Senior Essays

Luke Kenworthy, 17, was nervous on Ivy Day — the last Thursday in March, when all eight schools drop their admissions decisions.

He had already received a rejection from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was wait-listed by the University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon University, and was deferred at Harvard University after applying early.

"I legitimately was convinced I wasn't going to get into any Ivy League schools," Kenworthy told Business Insider.

But his incredulity turned to shock and then excitement as he opened his decision letters and saw he'd been accepted nearly all of them — Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania. He also received a wait-list spot from Yale.

The Ivy League is notoriously hard to get into, as the hundreds of thousands of other applicants to the eight elite schools are well aware. At Harvard, 5.2% of the nearly 40,000 applicants — about 2,000 — were accepted this year.

These schools look for the right mix of academic achievement and participation in extracurricular activities. Kenworthy, a senior at Mercer Island High School, near Seattle, has taken all the advanced-placement courses available at his school. (He favors his physics and comparative government AP coursework.) He also is heavily involved in student government and has taken mission trips to Serbia, Turkey, and Guatemala.

For Kenworthy, nailing his admissions essay was also important. After he was deferred from early action at Harvard, he felt compelled to change his essay topic. He worked with a mentor at CollegeVine— a junior at Duke University majoring in biochemical engineering — to improve his essay.

Kenworthy chose to write about a deeply personal childhood experience.

"To write an essay like that was a little bit weird for me, but also was very important to me, too," Kenworthy said. "The events that happened in my life very much shaped who I am."

Kenworthy graciously shared his Common Application admissions essay with Business Insider. It's reprinted verbatim below.

"The soft thumping of my dad's heart provided a small degree of solace as I cried with my head on his chest. I was in fifth grade. He had just told me that my mom, having been attacked by her boyfriend, was in the hospital. I remember being surprised with myself, surprised that I would be sad after all she had done. This was the same person who, when I was eight, threw a drunken party at our house for teens younger than I am now. This was the same person who would disappear after spending nights at the bar, the person who went to jail for trying to strangle my dad in an inebriated stupor. She had not been a part of my life for over a year since my dad received sole custody; I thought I had closure, that I was ready to move on. Yet, hot tears still ran down my cheek as I imagined her swollen face and the bruises on her arms.

"I had always been shy as a kid and the absence of my mom exacerbated this problem as I tried to unhealthily suppress my insecurities and fill her absence with others' approval. In sixth grade, I constantly sought the attention of a group of kids who, in turn, bullied me. Consequently, when I switched schools going into seventh grade, I was shy and timid, afraid to engage with new people. I pictured myself near the bottom of a rigid social hierarchy. The next year, I started to branch out more, but inside, I remained obsessed with how others perceived me.

"Entering high school, I would spend hours at a time thinking about my insecurity and talking through memories of my mom with my dad. During this time, I would always remember how I had stared numbly into the ripples of my dad's shirt as a fifth grader. I could never forget that feeling of helplessness, but with repeated reflection, I began to understand this moment in a different way. Given her circumstances — raised by an abusive, alcoholic father and a neglectful mother; involved in several dysfunctional relationships with controlling men; drinking to numb the injustices of life, but then realizing it was too late to stop — I have no way of knowing if my life would be any different from hers.

"For the first time, I began to understand an idea that has since granted me freedom: I cannot walk in my mom's shoes, and thus, no one else can truly walk in mine. The way others perceive me is inherently inaccurate, so I do not need to concern myself with what others think. This realization provided me the freedom to become untethered from the approval of others, finally at ease with myself.

"I started to open up. Throughout high school, I began talking to others about ideas that fascinated me, like space travel and philosophy, rather than frantically searching for common ground. I quit football, realizing that I largely participated for the status it brought me, and joined cross country, because I genuinely enjoy running. I started holding the door open for my classmates almost every morning, greeting them as they arrived at school, hoping to brighten their day. I became engaged in my role on student council, which paid off when I was elected student body president. Even then, it wasn't the role itself that I found meaningful, but the way I could use it to help others. The basis of my friendships shifted from validation seeking to mutual, genuine respect.

"As I listened to my dad's heartbeat that night, my mind filled with anger and sorrow. However, in hindsight, I am thankful for the lessons I learned from my mother; the pain I felt was a necessary step in the process of becoming the person I am today, someone who is unafraid to express himself."

If you have something to share about your college-admissions experience, email ajackson@businessinsider.com.

Sep 25, 2017

Today, students are applying to more and more colleges every year as acceptance rates all over the country continue to slump. As a rising senior in high school, I’m currently undergoing the admissions process. In between assignments, an internship, and ACT prep, I’m currently working on college application essays. When the CommonApp essays were released on August 1st, my parents went into attack mode.After being in the drafting process for about a month now, I have managed to learn a few things about it.

Use Your Voice

It is essential to let colleges hear your voice in your personal statement, not your resume. Your essay is in essence, a “Why me?” statement. Something about you needs to resonate with the application reader in the office. It can be your humor, literary prose, or unique fascination with the history of snails. Something has to set you apart from the pack. Talk about why you love reading poetry on a rainy day and how it makes you feel. Talk about the activities that make you whole and how they’ve helped you find what you love. Talk about something that only YOU could talk about. Make your essay about who you are and who you’ve become. Application readers should be drawn in by your essay because it’s unapologetically you.

Start Early!

I started working on my application essays in late August, but I wish I had started in July. It’s important to finish your personal statement or CommonApp as early as possible, by mid-September/October is ideal so you have time to work on your supplements. And if you’re like me, you have a lot of supplements to write. It’s definitely a long, stressful process but it’s important to stay motivated and determined because if you don’t, it’ll reflect in your admissions. I’ve set aside around two hours every day to work on my essays, because my best thoughts don’t come out immediately. Some people can put pen to paper and think of everything on the spot; it depends on who you are.

Brainstorming Is Essential!

Don’t draft and scrap your essays and then redraft. Every essay might not be good, but there is good in every essay. Save the drafts in separate documents in versions so you can see your previous thoughts. Glancing over the essay with fresh eyes can sometimes really help with your perspective on your writing. I have work that I thought I didn’t like when I wrote it, but I slept on it. When I woke up I reread it and realized it wasn’t great, but there were some key thoughts I could take from it.

Get Feedback

Get a second set of eyes to read your essays, always! The counselors at school are usually a great resource to edit essays as well as English teachers, your recommenders, and parents. Take their feedback, but sometimes you’ll face so much feedback that you’ll be overwhelmed by the new stylistic change in the essay. The final say of what to incorporate into your essay is ultimately up to you. The most important thing is to not let your work lose your voice!

Finish the CommonApp First

Focus on the CommonApp first and then college-specific essays. If you really love your first-choice school, make sure the school knows that. Your college-specific essays shouldn't be something where you can change the name of the college and still apply. Visit the campus and talk about specific things you observed on your visit. Talk about what you love about the school and make sure it is specific! A supplement is not “I love you” 30 times, but specific details that lead us to love a college. My love for a college should come across through descriptive writing and sensory language.

When you write your essays, think about your activities, talents, passions, and future goals to decide what you want people to know about you. You have one true chance to make a thoughtful, profound impression on others and if you write your essay truly about who you are and what makes you unique, it won’t be wasted.

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