How to Write Ivy League Application Essays

While all colleges hope that applicants will demonstrate passion, leadership, initiative, and intelligence in their application essays, the colleges and universities in the Ivy League as well as the Seven Sister schools and other top-tier colleges expect to see evidence of intellectual enthusiasm and curiosity as well. In other words, no matter whether a supplemental prompt asks you to reflect on part of the college’s curriculum (as does Brown’s) or asks you to write a note to a potential roommate (as does Stanford’s), Ivy League and other elite colleges want to know that your intelligence and intellectual curiosity drive you.

Above all, Ivy League supplemental essays must reveal your intellectual vitality

To help you write an admission-winning supplemental essays, we’ve compiled seven essential strategies that will help ensure your success. While reading these, you might want to refer to the supplemental prompts distributed by the Ivy League colleges and a few other top-tier universities that we’ve reproduced below (taken from last year’s Common App). As you review these prompts, please keep in mind that each year some of the Ivy League and other college supplemental prompts change a bit.  Please also note that we have not reproduced the prompts from Cornell University as their supplemental essay prompts are determined by program.

Strategy 1: Arrest the reader’s attention.

Note that we used the word “arrest” not “get” or “grab” or “hook.” Given number of applications admissions officers review, this is important for all applicants, but it’s especially important that you capture or seize the reader’s attention if your applying to the Ivy League. How? Be clever, even be a little audacious.

Here are two of my favorite recent first application essay lines:

  1. “I had never broken into a car before.” Why is this an arresting first line? Because we don’t think of applicants advertising their criminal history in application essays. Readers want to read on.
  2. “In the US, legal adulthood comes at 18, but it is my understanding that adulthood comes through responsibility, tears, laughter, and most of all: parenthood. It is effortless to watch other people’s children grow and flourish, but having my own was a terrifying new world for which I was ill-prepared.” Why are these arresting first sentences? Because we don’t expect applicants to announce that they are bringing two or more (!) to college, these first lines also arrest the reader’s attention.


Strategy 2: Cop a voice.

While every application essay should evidence a strong sense of the applicant’s voice, if you are applying to the Ivy League colleges, it’s especially important that you establish a confident, vivacious writing voice, one that will communicate self-confidence, self-awareness, and intellectual vitality.


Strategy 3: Detail, clarify, and summarize the significance of the specific experience represented in the anecdote.

The student noted above who started his essay with the line about breaking into a car went on to write about his ability to adapt in chaotic circumstances and his recognition that life is neither fair nor predictable. The student who wrote about parenting went on to write about her interest in botany, developed after she was given a carnivorous plant (her children).

Strategy 4: Use a lot of specific detail.

This helps create a vivid picture in the reader’s mind and helps to lend authenticity to the topic and your voice.


Strategy 5: Vary your diction.

The supplemental essays provide admissions officers with a way to evaluate many aspects of your personality, your intellectual interests, and your general writing proficiency. So by all means, write well. Varying your diction also helps keep the reader’s attention.


Strategy 6. Remain humble.

By writing this, we don’t mean don’t brag; after all, part of your goal is to write about yourself in a way that shows how you stand out from your competitors. But you must use all your rhetorical skills to ensure that you do not appear arrogant.


Strategy 7: Consider adding a title.

While titles are not necessary, to some admissions officers they suggest polish. However, at WCP we only recommend that you include a title only if you feel it adds value to your essay.


When determining who is admitted and who isn’t, admissions officers have to take into account many different kinds of information, not all of which concern the applicants themselves. In other words, there are driving considerations pertinent to the university that applicants will never be  aware of. However, a superior essay can show how you outclass your competitors and can optimize your chances of admission, big time.


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Ivy League Supplemental Essay Prompts reproduced from last year’s Common App:

Princeton University supplemental prompt

In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application, please write an essay of about 500 words (no more than 650 words and no fewer than 250 words). Using one of the themes below as a starting point, write about a person, event, or experience that helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approach the world. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application.

  1. Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.

2.“One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.” Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.

  1. “Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.” Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy and chair, Department of Philosophy, Princeton University.
  2. Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation, title and author at the beginning of your essay.

Harvard University supplemental essay prompt

You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics:

  • Unusual circumstances in your life
  • Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities
  • What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
  • An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you
  • How you hope to use your college education
  • A list of books you have read during the past twelve months
  • The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.
  • The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?
  • Each year a substantial number of students admitted to Harvard defer their admission for one year or take time off during college. If you decided in the future to choose either option, what would you like to do?
  • Harvard has long recognized the importance of student body diversity of all kinds. We welcome you to write about distinctive aspects of your background, personal development or the intellectual interests you might bring to your Harvard classmates.

Columbia University supplemental essay prompt

List a few words or phrases that describe your ideal college community. (150 words or less)

List the titles of the required readings from courses during the school year or summer that you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)

List the titles of the books you read for pleasure that you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)

List the titles of the print, electronic publications and websites you read regularly. (150 words or less)

List the titles of the films, concerts, shows, exhibits, lectures and other entertainments you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)

Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why. (300 words or less)

MIT supplemental essay prompt

We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it. (100 words or fewer)

Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why? (100 words or fewer)

At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200-250 words)

Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations? (200-250 words)

Tell us about the most significant challenge you’ve faced or something important that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (200-250 words)

University of Chicago supplemental essay prompt

Choose one of the six extended essay options and upload a one- or two- page response.

  1. In 2015, the city of Melbourne, Australia created a ”tree-mail” service, in which all of the trees in the city received an email address so that residents could report any tree-related issues. As an unexpected result, people began to email their favorite trees sweet and occasionally humorous letters. Imagine this has been expanded to any object (tree or otherwise) in the world, and share with us the letter you’d send to your favorite.

Inspired by Hannah Lu, Class of 2020

  1. You’re on a voyage in the thirteenth century, sailing across the tempestuous seas. What if, suddenly, you fell off the edge of the Earth?

Inspired by Chandani Latey, AB’93

  1. The word floccinaucinihilipilification is the act or habit of describing or regarding something as unimportant or of having no value. It originated in the mid-18th century from the Latin words ”floccu,” ”naucum,” ”nihilum,” and ”pilus” – all words meaning ”of little use.” Coin your own word using parts from any language you choose, tell us its meaning, and describe the plausible (if only to you) scenarios in which it would be most appropriately used.

Inspired by Ben Zhang, Class of 2022

  1. Lost your keys? Alohomora. Noisy roommate? Quietus. Feel the need to shatter windows for some reason? Finestra. Create your own spell, charm, jinx, or other means for magical mayhem. How is it enacted? Is there an incantation? Does it involve a potion or other magical object? If so, what’s in it or what is it? What does it do?

Inspired by Emma Sorkin, Class of 2021

  1. Imagine you’ve struck a deal with the Dean of Admissions himself, Dean Nondorf. It goes as follows: you’re guaranteed admission to the University of Chicago regardless of any circumstances that arise. This bond is grounded on the condition that you’ll obtain a blank, 8.5 x 11 piece of paper, and draw, write, sketch, shade, stencil, paint etc., anything and everything you want on it; your only limitations will be the boundaries of both sides on the single page. Now the catch… your submission, for the rest of your life, will always be the first thing anyone you meet for the first time will see. Whether it’s at a job interview, a blind date, arrival at your first Humanities class, before you even say, “hey,” they’ll already have seen your page, and formulated that first impression. Show us your page. What’s on it, and why? If your piece is largely or exclusively visual, please make sure to share a creator’s accompanying statement of at least 300 words, which we will happily allow to be on its own, separate page. PS: This is a creative thought experiment, so please note: selecting this essay prompt does not guarantee your admission to UChicago, or forgive poor grades, criminal mischief, or any other “circumstances” that “may” “arise.”

Inspired by Amandeep Singh Ahluwalia, Class of 2022

  1. In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun. You can find our past prompts here.

How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

Yale University supplemental essay prompt

What is it about Yale that has led you to apply? (125 words or fewer)

Please respond in no more than 200 characters (approximately 35 words), to each of the following questions:

  1. What inspires you?
  2. Yale’s residential colleges regularly host conversations with guests representing a wide range of experiences and accomplishments. What person, past or present, would you invite to speak? What question would you ask?
  3. You are teaching a Yale course. What is it called?
  4. Most first-year Yale students live in suites of four to six people. What do you hope to add to your suitemates’ experience? What do you hope they will add to yours?

Please choose two of the following topics and respond to each in 250 words or fewer.

  1. Think about an idea or topic that has been intellectually exciting for you. Why are you drawn to it?
  2. Reflect on your engagement with a community to which you belong. How do you feel you have contributed to this community?
  3. Yale students, faculty, and alumni engage issues of local, national, and international importance. Discuss an issue that is significant to you and how your college experience might help you address it.

Stanford University supplemental essay prompt

  • What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50-word limit)
  • How did you spend your last two summers? (50-word limit)
  • What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50-word limit)
  • What five words best describe you?
  • When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50-word limit)
  • Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford. (50-word limit)
  • Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time? (50-word limit).
  • The Stanford community is deeply curious and driven to learn in and out of the classroom. Reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning. (100 to 250 words)
  • Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate – and us – know you better. (100 to 250 words)
  • Tell us about something that is meaningful to you and why. (100 to 250 words)

University of Pennsylvania supplemental essay prompt

How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying. (400-650 words)

Dartmouth University supplemental essay prompt

While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: “It is, Sir…a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to the Class of 2023, what aspects of the College’s program, community or campus environment attract your interest?

Choose one of the following prompts and respond in 250-300 words:

  • “I have no special talent,” Albert Einstein once observed. “I am only passionately curious.” Celebrate your curiosity.
  • The Hawaiian word mo’olelo is often translated as “story” but it can also refer to history, legend, genealogy, and tradition. Use one of these translations to introduce yourself.
  • “You can’t use up creativity,” Maya Angelou mused. “The more you use, the more you have.” Share a creative moment or impulse—in any form—that inspired creativity in your life.
  • In the aftermath of World War II, Dartmouth President John Sloane Dickey, Class of 1929, proclaimed, “The world’s troubles are your troubles…and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” Which of the world’s “troubles” inspires you to act? How might your course of study at Dartmouth prepare you to address it?
  • In The Bingo Palace, author Louise Erdrich, Class of 1976, writes, “…no one gets wise enough to really understand the heart of another, though it is the task of our life to try.” Discuss.
  • Emmy and Grammy winner Donald Glover is a 21st century Renaissance man—an actor, comedian, writer, director, producer, singer, songwriter, rapper, and DJ. And yet the versatile storyteller and performer recently told an interviewer, “The thing I imagine myself being in the future doesn’t exist yet.” Can you relate?

Brown University supplemental essay prompt

Why are you drawn to the area(s) of study you indicated earlier in this application? (You may share with us a skill or concept that you found challenging and rewarding to learn, or any experiences beyond course work that may have broadened your interest.) (250-word limit)

What do you hope to experience at Brown through the Open Curriculum, and what do you hope to contribute to the Brown community? (250-word limit)

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.