For the increasing numbers of UK students applying to top Ivy League universities like Yale, Harvard and Princeton, there is often little support available during the demanding admissions process. UK schools are simply not always well-informed about the requirements and procedures students will have to go through to enter top US universities. Our previous blog outlined some top tips for applying to the Ivy League, but now we focus in more detail on the most important aspect of American university applications: the admissions essay.

The reason this essay strikes fear into the hearts of so many UK A-level students is that it is completely different from anything expected of university applicants in this country. Whilst the only ‘personal’ part of the Oxbridge admissions process is the personal statement, the US admissions essay is a deeply personal and introspective account of your own personal development and the attributes you will bring to college life.


The Common Application for US universities offers six options for admissions essay topics:

  1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
  2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
  3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
  4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
  5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
  6. Topic of your choice.

As the topics suggest, the kind of essay they are looking for is quite different from the academic, formal A-level assignments most UK students are used to. So read on for our top tips on writing the perfect Ivy League admissions essay!

Get the Tone Right

The admissions essay is meant to be very personal, so it is essential that you allow your personality and character to shine through in your tone. This doesn’t mean using lots of slang and colloquial language, but you don’t need to stick to a strictly academic and formal tone either. Try to write as if you were talking to a close confidante who you respect, like a parent or close teacher. Someone with whom you would feel relaxed enough to be yourself. Don’t be afraid to use rhetorical questions and direct address as you would in a conversation – the aim is to grab the admissions tutor’s attention.

Analyse, analyse, analyse

The single biggest pitfall students tumble into when writing American university admissions essays is failing to adequately evaluate the story or experience they are recounting. Whatever you do, don’t just tell the story of the event or person you are writing about – ask why and how it had such an influence on you. The more complex your analysis of your own character and development and how it was affected and changed by your experiences, the more chance you have of succeeding.

Think Outside the Box

For each of the admissions topics, it is easy to imagine several common, generic answers that admissions tutors must read over and over again. Making the vital goal in a football game is not going to stand out as an original and exciting experience to describe; nor is discussing a stereotypical ‘important issue’ like abortion or the influence of Nelson Mandela likely to gain you any attention.

Try to think carefully about something very specific that genuinely had a huge impact on your life. Remember that the questions are open to wide interpretation – it doesn’t specify, for example, that the person who influenced you had to do so for good!

The more original and thoughtful your topic, the more attention the admission tutors will pay, so spend some time just working out what you can write about to make you stand out from the crowd. Try to think of something uniquely important to you. It doesn’t have to be a crazy or unusual experience, but it should be something that affected you in an interesting or different way.

A story about going to the supermarket, for example, whilst completely commonplace in itself, could be an enormously successful topic if you can show that it had a deep and resounding impact on your development or your way of thinking.

Check it Carefully!

Before sending your essay off, have as many different people read it as you possibly can. Ask them to let you know how it comes across, which bits grab their attention the most, and whether it truly reflects your personality. Don’t be afraid to make changes and go through several drafts – you want it to be perfect.

Above all, make sure the spelling and grammar are faultless – nothing can land an application in the trash faster than the implication that you didn’t care enough to check it through thoroughly.