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50 Successful Harvard Application Essays
What Worked for Them Can Help You Get Into the College of Your Choice
By The Harvard Crimson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 The Harvard Crimson
All rights reserved.
"The Handyman's Special"
By Timothy Josiah Morris Pertz, who attended a medium-sized private school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
I made my first trip to Costa Rica when I was fifteen. I spent a summer living with a Costa Rican family in the capital city of San José and studying at a language school. I was eager to absorb as much of the culture as I possibly could, and so for dinner on my first night in the country I stuffed myself with the most popular traditional dish, gallo pinto, or rice and beans.
The next morning I woke up early and walked a few blocks to the Costa Rican Language and Dance Academy. I was placed in a class, and for the rest of the morning I studied Spanish verbs and phrases. We broke for lunch at noon, and as the school emptied out I stayed behind in class to finish up a grammar exercise. I hadn't eaten breakfast and was hungry for some more gallo pinto, but just as I was walking out the door to go to lunch I felt nature call.
I remembered seeing the women's bathroom as I came in, but I didn't see one for the men. I wandered the halls. I saw no men's bathroom. I became desperate. Still no men's bathroom. I looked left, then right, swallowed my pride and slipped into the ladies' room.
It was only meant for one person, but wasn't at all small. It had several beautiful antique fixtures, such as a claw-foot porcelain bathtub (with a pile of rusty hangers in it) and an old toilet with a gold-plated handle.
I sat down and did what I had forgotten one generally does after eating lots of beans. I finished up (remembering to throw the toilet paper in the wastebasket, as is done in Costa Rica to keep the pipes from clogging) and pulled the gold-plated handle. Nothing happened. Huh, that's funny. Tried again. Nothing. Sh*t.
For years my father worked as a maintenance man at a summer camp, and had a great deal of experience with plumbing. I, however, had been sheltered from the world of waste removal and had been too concerned with the high pursuit of academia to learn my father's art. It took being stuck in the ladies' bathroom of a strange school in a foreign country with a full, broken toilet to make me realize the error of my ways.
There was no one around; I could have just slipped back out and no one would have known I was the culprit. But I knew I would dishonor my father if I walked away (it wouldn't reflect too well on me as a person either), so I decided I would try my best to deal with the situation.
For the first time in my life, I opened up the cover at the back of the toilet. I studied the mechanism for a minute and realized that there needed to be something that would connect the handle to the plug that drains the water. I looked around the room, grabbed a hanger from the bathtub, twisted it into a straight piece of wire, attached one end to the stopper and one to the handle, and flushed. I heard the swishing sound of success as the contents of the toilet disappeared into never-never land.
That day I learned what my father already knew, that life calls for an understanding not only of lofty topics, but of more practical matters as well. Most importantly, I learned not to run away from sticky situations, but to deal with them with grace, persistence, and a sense of humor. This was the first in a series of realizations about the importance of public service at the most down-and-dirty levels, the beginning of a personal transformation that would lead to my returning to Costa Rica the next summer to revive a recycling program in the Monteverde Cloud Forest.
But that was a ways in the future. For the moment, I needed to eat and get back to class. With newfound confidence and sense of purpose, I ran to the restaurant across the street and gobbled down a big plate of beans.
Pertz chooses a particularly sticky subject that quite easily could have left him knee-deep in, well, his own shit. But despite the sensitive topic and the masculine tendency to revert to childish bathroom humor, he manages to string together a cohesive narrative that evokes the sympathy of the reader — it is, after all, a situation most of us have experienced, and far fewer have written about — while providing a modicum of insight into the applicant.
The essay itself is strongest when describing Pertz's aggrandized triumph in the stall. Embracing the "show, don't tell" philosophy, the scene, crafted to read almost as though drafted for a television sitcom, plays out anticlimactically, as he triumphs over his own ignorance of the mundane. The writing is simple and flows naturally. No need to interject SAT words to describe basic human functions we are all familiar with. Using the word "sh*t," a word not likely found in many personal statements, requires a calculated risk. Here, it works on two levels, conveying the mess he's facing and his feelings about it. Though it presumably didn't, this lack of formality could have backfired with the wrong reader, and is rarely a chance worth taking, though if you've chosen such an off-the-wall topic, you might as well just push the envelope a little bit further.
While the essay overcomes those potential stumbling points, it is certainly uneven, and the introduction and conclusion both lack the anecdote's intrigue. The first sentence is far from gripping and fails to hint at the nature of the story to follow. A more shocking opening would have captured a reader's attention, rather than preparing him or her for a middle-school vacation recap. The paragraphs following the story's resolution are particularly heavy-handed, and fall back on cliché; and overused fluff. The reference to Pertz's return to Costa Rica to kickstart a recycling program seems forced, a transparent effort to mention his community service project here. The concluding paragraph is solid, however, colorfully hinting at the lessons learned without resorting to a clumsy "moral of the story" comment.
— Timothy J. McGinn
"Schofield-Bodt Reigns for a Year"
By Daniel Schofield-Bodt, who attended a large public high school in Shelton, Connecticut.
The following essay was submitted as a scanned document intended to look like a newspaper layout, with two text columns wrapped around a central photo.
Monarchies may be a thing of the past, but in Bridgeport, Connecticut, they are alive and well in the form of the Barnum Festival's Royal Family. Coronated last April, the current king and Harvard hopeful, Daniel Schofield-Bodt has until this April to finish out his reign.
The Barnum Festival is a 55-year old tradition in the Greater Bridgeport Area initiated by the entertainer P.T. Barnum to instill community service and spirit. Each year, students in over 20 area schools compete for the titles of Barnum King, Queen, Prince and Princess. Together they work as good-will ambassadors for the festival.
Thirty-four students competed for the crowns in a demanding selection process. The first step was an interview in which community leaders held private sessions with each nominee.
"The first question they asked was 'tell us about yourself,'" Schofield-Bodt recalled. "I didn't know where to begin, but I took a deep breath and had a great interview."
Of course, there were some unexpected surprises.
"The best part of my interview came when the judges asked if it was true that I could juggle. I could tell they didn't really believe me, and they asked me to juggle the fruit that was on the table. So here I was in this boardroom, juggling fruit and doing tricks."
Candidates also took part in social events from a dance to a formal reception. Nominees mingled with judges and fellow candidates and were judged on social skills.
Winners were announced at the final event, a coronation ball, last April. Schofield-Bodt was crowned king and was joined by a queen, prince, and princess.
Together this group of students was inseparable, and attended over 20 events together over the summer of 2002 as the festival kicked into high gear.
"I have to say I was shocked at everything that went on," SchofieldBodt said. "The whole thing was a much bigger production than I ever could have imagined. The whole city of Bridgeport was swept up in the spirit of the festival, and I got to go along on the magic ride."
The royal family concurred that the best perk was the motorcade.
"Everywhere we went we were escorted by cops," Schofield-Bodt explained. "After the fireworks at Seaside Park, the traffic was backed up for miles. The cops put their sirens on, took us on the wrong side of the road, and then led us onto the highway through the traffic jam back home. It was great."
The city of Bridgeport embraced these youths as the festival progressed.
"Of course, there were some people who would boo our motorcade, but most people whooped and cheered as we sat on top of convertibles waving. I remember at McDonalds on time our cashier got so excited that I was the Barnum Festival King and I got a free meal. This is easily the coolest thing I have ever done in high school." Thing became ever more interesting for Schofield-Bodt when he had surgery right in the middle of the festival.
"I had to have jaw surgery in the middle of June, and that was just a few weeks before the most important events. The doctors told me I wouldn't be able to get back into action because they had to put 14 screws and two metal plates in my mouth to hold everything together, but I knew I could make it back," he said.
After two weeks of a fluids-only diet, Schofield-Bodt was back in action with a brand new smile as the royal family attended the Jenny Lind Musical concert where two talented opera singers ended their Swedish and American tours with the Barnum Festival.
Two days later, Schofield-Bodt and company won best float in the Great Street Parade, the second largest parade in New England.
While the festival itself is over, Schofield-Bodt's reign will not close until next April. During the fall, Schofield-Bodt was juggling a full course load, making college decisions, and playing varsity soccer while participating in Barnum events such as the Wine Stomp and a Polo Match.
"I never want this carpet ride to end," said Schofield-Bodt. "It's been so awesome."
And to think the judges doubted that this young man could juggle....
Schofield-Bodt's essay appeals immediately to Crimson editors not only because it is written in the style of a newspaper article, but also because it makes a distinct and memorable first impression. Using third-person narrative techniques, Schofield-Bodt takes a unique approach in his essay describing his "reign" as Barnum king. The structure of the article is well done; Schofield-Bodt focuses the article on the Barnum Festival competition, and works in personal details around this central event. Taking us on a virtual trip over his junior spring and senior fall, Schofield-Bodt masterfully weaves together details and anecdotes about his juggling ability, his "royal motorcade," and his jaw surgery into the festival narrative. The choice of genre — a newspaper article — is a risky one, but Schofield-Bodt pulls it off well.
In carefully crafting a story with ups and downs, Schofield-Bodt avoids the risk of writing about oneself in the third-person: coming off as overly proud, or even arrogant. Instead, Schofield-Bodt uses the objective nature of a newspaper article to set a humble tone, writing in the style of a hometown paper. The juggling anecdote adds a nice touch, because it is an unusual talent and because Schofield-Bodt connects it with the last line of his essay.
The two things that Schofield-Bodt could have improved upon were proofreading and the formatting of the essay itself. Always proofread more than once yourself and enlist friends and family to proofread as well. As for the format, the essay was submitted as a scanned document with text wrapped around a central photo and a border down the sides, as well as some additional graphics. Watch out for making something too messy or complicated if you are thinking of doing something creative with the format. This particular essay is very strong, but its graphics take away a bit of its sophistication. If you are going to do something creative with design, stick with something simple and professional.
— Erica K. Jalli
"To Freeze a Moment"
By Katya Rosenblatt, who attended a public high school in Belmont, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston.
I rarely take pictures, and I no longer keep a regular diary. Garnering memories is a risky pastime.
Some years ago, writing in my journal used to be a customary activity. I would return from school and dedicate the expected half hour to diligently documenting the day's events, feelings, and impressions in my little blue leather-bound volume. I did not really need to vent my emotions by way of words, but I gained a certain satisfaction from seeing my experiences forever engraved on paper. After all, isn't sculpting memories a way of immortalizing the past?
When I was thirteen years old, I went hiking in Bryce Canyon, well-equipped with pens, journal, and camera. During the trip, I was obsessed with chronicling every occurrence, name and place I encountered. I felt proud to be spending my time productively, dutifully preserving for posterity a detailed account of my travels. On my last night there, I wandered out of my tent, diary in hand. The sky was illuminated by the glare of the moon, and the walls of the canyon looked menacing behind their veil of shadows. I instinctively reached for my pen ...
At that point, I understood that nothing I wrote could ever parallel or replace the few seconds I allowed myself to experience the ineffable beauty of my surroundings. All I remembered of the previous few days were the dull characterizations I had set down in my journal. The sentences I had so tenderly molded sounded stale and bland. By stepping aside and constantly putting my adventures in perspective, I forgot to actually live them.
Now, I only write in my diary when I need to jot down a special thought or feeling. I still love to record ideas and quotations that strike me in books, or observations that are particularly meaningful. I take pictures, but not very often — only of objects I find irresistibly fascinating. I'm no longer infatuated with having something to remember when I grow old. I realize that life will simply pass me by if I stay behind the camera, too preoccupied with preserving the present so as to live it in the future.
I don't want to wake up one day and have nothing but a pile of pictures and notes. Maybe I won't have as many exact representations of people and places, maybe I'll forget certain facts, but at least the experiences will always remain inside me. I don't live to make memories — I just live, and the memories form themselves.
Excerpted from 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by The Harvard Crimson. Copyright © 2005 The Harvard Crimson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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