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The College Essay: The Secret to Getting Into All the Ivies?

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High school senior Kwasi Enin stands proudly in front of the penants of all eight of the Ivy League schools to which he was accepted — was it his essay that got him in?
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High school senior Kwasi Enin stands proudly in front of the penants of all eight of the Ivy League schools to which he was accepted — was it his essay that got him in?

A few weeks ago, New York high school senior Kwasi Enin got some remarkable news: he was admitted to all eight Ivy League colleges. No one has a clue how this happened at a time when the nation’s most selective colleges are reporting record lows for admissions offers.

But it’s been the talk of the town; Enin has earned a bit more than his 15 minutes of fame in the media as well. Word on the street is that his college essay sealed the deals.

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Since Enin’s college application essay was published online, Wow has been been inundated with calls and emails from friends, high school counselors, teachers and parents, asking what we think of it. Many were not so smitten with the piece.

One college industry professional pulled me aside and said, “Did you read that kid’s essay? It wasn’t written that well. I didn’t like it.”

An English department head from a prestigious private school emailed this to colleagues: “I thought his essay was solid, but not brilliant in terms of writing quality. Maybe my expectations are too high.”

To be fair, our expectations are high as well, and I liked his story very much. But at Wow, we know what to look for. We read essays with an eye toward detail and reflection, searching for the things that intrigue college admissions officers.

I read Enin’s piece looking for something genuine and heartfelt, not empty words or polished prose. I certainly didn’t expect a short story in Raymond Carter’s voice or a sonnet that sounds like Shakespeare. I expected a story written in Enin’s voice.

His story, a simple testament to his love for music, showed who Enin was beyond his grades and test scores, which is key inside the admissions office.  Enin’s story explained how music sparked his “intellectual curiosity.” He also shared why music was so important to him.

He didn’t overwrite it or try to impress others with words pulled from a thesaurus. He wrote about one aspect of his life, and he brought readers inside his world.

Enin’s application essay had a strong theme that answered these two important questions:

What happened? He loved music.

Why does it matter? Music helped him solve problems, become a leader, and learn how to work as part of a team.

At this competitive level, the application essay can certainly help or hurt. If it is outstanding, it will stand out. If it is bad, it can ruin an otherwise promising application. In the piles of essays written by students just as smart and qualified as Enin, I am confident this story helped him stand out.

He answered the prompt. He showed passion for music and life. And it was genuine.

To the critics, I ask: Was his first sentence mesmerizing? No. Could the story have been tightened? Of course. Was it boring or over-edited by someone else? No. Was it a piece of literary prose? Probably not. Was it supposed to be? Not at all.

Now read it again. Did you smile? I did.

Forget what you didn’t like.

What do you like about Enin after reading his story?

You can read his essay here.

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