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Admissions Strategy

How to write a great essay 

| “Remember, the purpose of your essay is to give a voice, to personalize your application. Your personal statement gives you control over how the admission officers should understand all pieces of the rest of your application.”

After reading through tens of thousands of college application essays,  professional admissions officers say they see many of the same mistakes resurfacing every year.

Listen to this podcast to find out what those mistakes are and how to avoid them! 


  • How long should it really take to write an outstanding essay
  • Do’s and don’t of writing your personal statement to set yourself up for success
  • What are the types of memories you should be recording in your essay
  • Why writing it in the same way as many other students will cost you huge opportunities
  • 3 KEY words that you should keep in mind as you’re writing your essay

And so much more.

Click here to gain FREE access to the journal I referenced in the podcast


Too many people are overwhelmed, stressed out, and frustrated about college admissions prep. I created this podcast to help you build a standout college profile and boost your confidence. Enjoy!

– Steve Gardner, Founder

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Welcome back to season two of the Ivy League Prep. Academy podcast equips you to successfully pursue the college of your dreams. We believe everyone deserves to reach their full potential, and the admissions process shouldn't hold you back.

For many students, the most frustrating task you will have to do before submitting your college application will be your personal statement. We're talking about the essays here, also known as the personal essay, right? This personal statement is an opportunity to share the voice and context that admissions officers should use to personalize your application, all right. This is your opportunity to really give that context and give that personality to all of the rest of the pieces of that application. And it should not exceed 650 words.

Now, right away, even before we get into the tips and the dos and don'ts and everything that you should be thinking about when you write your statement. I really want to emphasize that one of the reasons the personal statement can be the source of so much frustration is that when you're under the pressure of a critical deadline, it can be difficult or even impossible to think reflexively and thoughtfully.

In order to write an essay that helps you stand out, in fact, many successful students spend a few months remembering and then reflecting and just kind of ruminating on all the various moments in their lives that inspired growth or change in them.

One strategy that many of these successful students use is they might list out 20 or more of these moments and then just begin refining their list and choosing the final essay topic based on a lot of tips and dues. And don't know what I'm going to give you in this podcast.

Now realize this process that I've just described of thinking and ruminating and arriving at a list of so many different options and then refining it down to the final topic and figuring out exactly how to present it. That entire process, if done correctly, is going to take months. At the very least, you're looking at six weeks if you really want to put yourself in a tough situation. If you want to do it right, it's going to take, for most people, 3 to 6 months. But this is exactly the phase of your life that is busier than ever before. When you're filling out your applications, and you're busy with your ap or your ib classes your senior year, you've got a lot on your plate; that can be really difficult to take extra hours, tens of hours out of your day to create an outstanding personal statement.

It gets even worse because if you're doing this when you're all flustered and frustrated and you don't have time on your schedule, you try to sit and be reflective and take the hours that you need. Often, it still doesn't work. You still forget about some of the best essay opportunities that might have happened over the previous months or years of your life.

What I recommend, and I've actually created a resource for you. I've been giving this resource out to participants of the ivy league challenge. I'm now making it free just as a resource to help everyone out there. That is a record, a journal that you keep of those moments as they happen. I will set up a link in the show notes that will take you there. But in case you don't get the show notes easily or whatever else. Just remember this URL, TILC, which stands for the Ivy League Challenge. So tilc. toforward/essay that will take you to a website where you can let me know that you'd like a copy of this resource. And I will email it directly to you. So you can print it out. You can write it out by hand. You can keep a copy of it on your computer; just fill it in that way, whichever works best for you. And if you are listening to this podcast, because you're already junior or senior and you're already actually writing the essay.

Then I really hope you share this podcast with students who are in 8th grade, 9th grade, and 10th grade, who could really benefit by keeping track of those moments as they happen and share the link tilc dot to forward slash essay.

Now let's dive into the dos and don'ts of your personal statement, as well as the tips that you're looking for so that you can really knock it out of the park and set yourself up for success. So if you're in 8th grade or 9th grade, what are the types of memories that you should be recorded in this document? Or if you're in 12th grade and you're trying to scramble to get your essay written? What are the moments you should be trying to recall so that you can write about them? Remember that the purpose of this essay is to give a voice to personalize your application. Your personal statement gives you control over how the admissions officers should understand the rest of the pieces of your application and how they fit together.

Therefore, this moment that you write about this experience that you highlight in your life should reflect one of the most important issues in your life. The strongest essays actually represent self-awareness. They demonstrate that the teenager understands his or her core values and makes courageous choices that align with those core values.

So to bring this issue to life, to demonstrate how you live your core values, you should choose a scene or a moment or an experience, often just a moment in time, that can represent why that value or issue is important to you. And then this moment or scene or experience should be explained as a story that encapsulates or embodies or inspires real change and real growth in you. So you take the reader back to that moment in time when you used to think one thing. But because of this life-changing event, or this moment in time, or this experience that you had, you grew, you changed, you developed. And you became more self-aware. You became more authentic and more you. The key here is that you should show complexity and nuance and definitely show personal growth, authenticity, and personality. So the best way to do that is to look for those moments in your life. When you really change your mind about something. In other words, when the admissions officer finishes reading, they should feel like they know you and they know your voice.

Now sometimes it's tempting when you write an essay like this to say, I used to be an idiot. I used to really not understand, but now I understand better that kind of essay comes across as being a little bit self-righteous and a little bit judgmental. You're judging the previous you, but inadvertently, you don't realize that you're also judging a whole group of people who still believe the way you used to believe.

When you explain this process, it's really important to kind of consider that and to not present your previous perspective as being uneducated or inferior, but just less nuanced, less aware, so that you're not saying I used to be an idiot, and now I've outgrown my young idiocy. You're saying I used to understand things this way, and that makes sense, considering the context and considering where I came from at that time. But through these important moments in life, I gain new nuance and new understanding, and greater depth to the way that I think about problems.

And now I've realized this, so you're not attacking your previous self in order to show how much you've grown. The important thing is not the distance or the gap between where you used to be and where you are. Now, the important thing is demonstrating that nuance and demonstrating that, complexity and self-awareness. Let's talk about some of the other things to avoid besides just being judgmental of even yourself or of other people, as I've spoken to admissions officers and application readers. These are people who read applications for a living. And over time, have amassed tens of thousands of essays read. These are some of the really, really common mistakes and areas to be aware of.

As you think about your essay, the first and one of the most common mistakes is writing about your most impressive accomplishment. Remember, there are plenty of other places on the application to showcase this, and your letters of recommendation will probably highlight this as well. If you do mention this accomplishment, that might be okay, but you shouldn't mention it to come across as impressive, even if you're kind of humble bragging. Instead, you should mention the accomplishment because you have something really thoughtful or reflective or personal and surprising to say about the story that leads me to another biggie.

Probably the worst thing that you could do with this essay, honestly, is to be boring, to be predictable. If the application reader can read the first sentence or first two sentences and more or less guess what's going to happen throughout this essay, then it's boring, and it's predictable. And there's almost no such thing as an essay that's a kiss of death. Obviously, if you're offensive in your essay, that's even worse, and that might be the kiss of death on your application. But being boring won't completely sabotage your application. But as far as essays go, the value of an essay is to add this voice to this personality to personalize the rest of your application. If you're bored and just kind of predictable, then that's a huge missed opportunity. It's gonna be very difficult for your admissions officer; even if they like the rest of your application, you're making it a lot harder for them to present you in committee.

If, on the other hand, your essay stands out and you give them that context and help them to understand who you are as a person through this experience that you highlight in your essay, then they can say, look at this, but let me tell you about this person.

Let me explain how this person comes to life, how these numbers and how this academic track record and these extra curricula just come to life in an amazing way. We've already talked about how being offensive is even worse, and I'll just leave it there. A lot of people try to be memorable. They know that being memorable is more important than being impressive. Then maybe they've even heard that from me and my podcast I've talked about that many times. And that is true. It's very important to be memorable, but don't be shocking or offensive in order to be memorable. First of all, you won't shock the admissions officers. By the time you've read 10,000 essays. They've read everything, trust me, but being offensive or shocking in the wrong way, even if it makes you memorable, it's not gonna help you succeed.

Now, the next tip really relates to this being predictable and boring because the next one is don't generalize, don't be too general. In other words, don't talk about the violin. Even if that's the biggest part of your life, don't just talk about the violin; talk about that practice, that moment in practice when you learned something new or something came together, and you discovered something about yourself; talk about that one practice or that one recital, or that one moment in that one song where everything came together, or you saw someone smile in a new way or whatever don't talk about in turning at the hospital.

Talk about that day when you met that person or talk about the moment when you saw something or heard something that changed your perspective. Don't talk about running; talk about that one run. You just want to highlight those moments in time when you grew, when the world changed, or you were able to understand yourself differently in this world. And related to the suggestion to not be offensive or shocking, some people try to take that down one notch and just demonstrate being quirky and write about something that's super quirky or something super unusual about themselves.

That can be helpful to make you memorable. But if you write something quirky, it shouldn't be just because it's quirky; you'd better have something thoughtful and reflective, or personally meaningful, or some way that this quirky activity demonstrates something about you and your growth and your change on this planet. In other words, you need to have something meaningful to say, and then it's okay, but don't be quirky, just to be quirky. So you should not let that essay finish the 600 and some odd words finish without the admissions officer, without the person who's reading the essay feeling like they got to know you and that they know something deep and meaningful about you. Three words that I like to use that you should just keep at the top of your paper as you're writing your essay are authentic, reflective, and thoughtful.

Throughout this essay, however you do it, you should be demonstrating who you really are authentic. You should be reflective and show how thoughtful you can be. You should be giving the voice or granting a window into your soul so that the person who's reading the rest of the application can feel like now they have the context. Now they have exactly what they need to make sense of the rest of the application. They could pick you out now from a group of teenagers and kind of figure out who you are.

Okay, so to be honest, we could actually do, again, an entire series of podcasts around kind of the missed opportunities in personal essays. The best essays ever, we could do a number of different things that would fill a number of podcasts. This is an introduction, and it is my attempt to get through to you that actually beginning your personal essay should start in 8th grade, 8th grade, 9th grade, 10th grade, definitely no later than 10th grade. Go to tilc dot to forward slash essay. And let me know that you are ready for the journal. I'll send it to you in an email as you live your life. All of the tips that I've just given you on this podcast. Are there any in this written document?

They're there in a way that is helpful to you. And there's a list that allows you to just kind of, as you experience those moments, you can keep track of the key details. And then later on, when you are super busy, right before your senior year or the beginning of the senior year, it's time to actually put pen to paper and put this essay together. You don't have to do the hardest part. The hardest part is already completed. You've already accumulated a list of moments that really demonstrated change and growth in you. And because you have those moments written down in a list on a document ready to go, you save yourself tens of hours, right? At the time when you need time more than anything else. If you're listening to this in 8th grade or 9th grade or before, trust me that when you get to that stage, you will be much busier than you are now. And you'll be so grateful that the hardest part of the personal statement is already finished.

Go to tilc dot to forward slash essay. It's 100 % Free, with no obligation. There's nothing to it. Just let me know if you want it. I will EMAIL it to you. And you can begin keeping track of these moments. If you're already a senior and you're listening to this, wanting to figure out how to improve your essay, just go through the tips that I gave you. You want to be authentic. You want to be reflective. You want to demonstrate thought and fullness; pick just a moment, don't generalize, like a moment that represents real personal growth and tell that story in an engaging fashion so that you leave your reader feeling like they understand you and they understand how to interpret the rest of your application.

As you probably know, if you've been listening to my podcast for some time, I have an online training called the Ivy League Challenge that empowers you to get admitted to the college of your dreams. The way we do that is we move through three phases. The first phase is self-awareness. So much of what we're talking about right now is natural and easy once you've identified your core values and your, strengths and your interests, and you take courageous action to align your daily activities with those core values.

In phase two of the Ivy League Challenge, we move into the impact project, and we take those core values of yours. And we help you decide on one of the nine different types of impact projects that really impress admissions officers so that you can start solving a problem within your community that violates one of your core values. It's great evidence that you don't just talk about what you care about. You don't just talk about your values. You live them at a high level.

In phase three of the Ivy League Challenge, I teach my students how to apply everything that we've done so that they can submit a successful application to the admissions committee, the college of their dreams. I would love to have you in the Ivy League Challenge as well. But you don't need to take the entire course to take advantage of this Free resource. Let me know if you want it, and I'll shoot it over to your EMAIL. Just go to tilc dot to forward slash essay, do this for you, and also reach out to those who are your younger siblings and friends and grades 89 and 10, and help them get that head start that will set them up for success.