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How This Bad College Essay Got Me Accepted To Dartmouth College

Okay, it's not terrible. But it's certainly not great.

If you want to ensure your essay is a winner, you absolutely must read successful essays from selective universities and understand what worked and what didn't. That analysis is what we're doing today, on my very own essay!

To be honest, I'm embarrassed to post it. When I wrote it, I had yet to learn how to write. In my younger self's defense, I believe this is a somewhat early draft of the essay.

Below the essay, I will break it down. What's good and what's bad. You can skip to that section if you prefer, but I do recommend reading the essay itself.

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The drumming pounded in my head, reverberated through my soul and the Lakota songs echoed in my consciousness, day after day. I had been to the Sundance in years past, but this time, I was part of the ceremony. My responsibility, which was to take care of the sacred pipes belonging to the Sundancers, was something I took seriously. The spirits had told the medicine man that we should pray for the children of the world. The sacred pipes were full of these prayers, along with more: for elder grandmothers, diabetic fathers and alcoholic brothers. The Sundancers are warriors and when they danced in the hot sun, without food and water for four days, I was overwhelmed by their noble strength, their dedication to help others and their deep spiritual faith in their ceremonies. After careful consideration, I accepted the invitation to join in the Sundance for the last day. There was only one reason to participate and that was to pray in the most sincere, focused way possible. Joined by over one hundred like-minded men, all pushing their strength and endurance to the limits, I felt like part of a community of support which I had never before felt. In my heart, I knew that our prayers and connection to the spirit world would have a beneficial effect on the Earth, the people of the world, and my family.
The Lakota people have my respect for the way they have preserved their sacred ways and upheld their community spirit. The things I have learned on the reservation, I may never have learned in mainstream America. For example I learned how to distance myself from the materialistic tendencies of society, how to truly care for other people by trying harder to understand their culture and background, and the understanding that we are all part of one being, all related and that our individual actions have an effect on everyone else.
At a time in my life when I expect my assumptions to be challenged, I understand the value of learning the ways of different people. Diversity is something I look forward to experiencing more at college, where students of many cultures gather. I anticipate participating in discussions of religion, politics and laws with students and teachers from around the world, both in the classroom and outside of it. The Native American elders taught me some valuable lessons about their culture and I hope to gain a larger understanding of other nationalities’ cultures when I meet new people at college. I believe that in a globalizing world, I will need a good understanding of people’s cultures so that I can effectively communicate.
I feel a responsibility to myself to say the things that should and need to be said and I want to use film as a way to express myself. I believe that being exposed to foreign cultures has been the most valuable thing I have done to learn about the world and formulate my own beliefs. I would like to pass on this opportunity to my audience by showing the nature of different people and countries in my films. I will showcase all the diversity that I encounter at college.


Okay, did you get through it?

Take a moment and think of what works and what doesn't. Here are some questions you could ask about your own essay, and I'd like you to answer about mine:

  1. What are three words you'd use to describe me?

  2. What are my core values?

  3. What's my worldview?

  4. What would I bring to campus?

  5. Am I possibly a jerk? (Some essays can feel cocky and pretentious -- let's avoid that!).

  6. What challenges have I faced and how did I overcome them? Were they challenges that mattered (on a scale of 1-10)?

  7. After the first line, how badly do you want to keep reading (on a scale of 1-10)?

  8. What are the cliches? Or what are the moments that didn't make complete sense? Or grammar issues?

Here's what works about the essay:

  • It starts off with a first line that makes you ask a question. What is going on? Is he as some sacred ceremony? That sounds interesting; I want to keep reading!

  • I clearly researched Dartmouth and saw its connection to the Native American community and its core value of diversity. I showed that I share the same values and connections.

  • I showed how my worldview shifted after having a profound experience. This shows my personal growth and ability to reflect.

  • I focussed on a story from my life that isn't already on my resume. I was able to talk about what matters to me and how I experienced the world. When I said I would be a part of diverse conversations on campus, the admissions officers likely believed me because I showed them this experience and reflected on its impact. I think this essay showed (remember "show, don't tell") that I would participate on campus, which is a plus.

  • I think the essay highlights my sense of adventure. This is in addition to the passion for diversity and openness that is more explicitly stated in the essay. Therefore, a few core values come through, which is important.

  • This is not just another service trip essay where a (usually white) student has a profound experience in a new or exotic location. Those essays usually feel marginally racist with a white savior complex. At best, they tend to be boring and cliche. However, in this essay, it's clear that I spent time with this Native American tribe every year of my life, and being asked to participate in the Sundance was a big deal. I was not there to help them -- rather, I was there to learn, grow, and participate, which are things any college wants its students to do.

What is not working:

  • To start off being nitpicky, there are some sentences that are just terrible:

  1. "For example I learned how to distance myself from the materialistic tendencies of society, " -- this is vague. Using an example here wouldn't even take up more space, but it would explain what I actually mean and how I was impacted. Was I previously very materialistic? Does that mean I collected Gucci items and then donated them all? It's not clear. Besides, nothing else in the essay is about materialism, so I'm not sure how this point fits in. I also forgot that I need a comma. I must have skipped that class in high school because I don't have very many commas in the entire essay. Certainly not any Oxford commas.

  2. "how to truly care for other people by trying harder to understand their culture and background, and" -- this accidentally implies I didn't care for other people previously. We don't want to say anything like that!

  3. "the understanding that we are all part of one being, all related and that our individual actions have an effect on everyone else." -- this sentence is not in parallel structure. The others in the list begin with "how to," so it feels wrong to begin this sentence completely differently.

  4. "I feel a responsibility to myself to say the things that should and need to be said" -- this sentence comes later in the essay. I have no idea what it means. It feels strangely cryptic. I'm sure this never made the cut. Again, it has nothing to do with the rest of the essay, even if it were intelligible.

  • This essay focuses a bit too much on my experience at the Sundance, and not enough on the specific ways it impacted me. When I finally get to the impact, it's sadly not specific at all.

  • I kept much of the language general and vague. I could have used a couple of specific moments to illustrate what I was trying to say rather than talk around it. Did I start a new cultural awareness club at my high school or initiate an exchange program with a high school on the Lakota reservation? What are some specific ways this Sundance changed me?

  • I repeated several points, making the essay feel like I was rambling. I could have simply said it right the first time and moved on to my next point.

  • The topic of filmmaking feels shoehorned in at the end. Does it have anything to do with the trip to the Lakota reservation? Was I filming there?

  • I could have used better transitions throughout to guide the reader through this story. As of now, without the guide, the reader is stumbling through, hitting every sentence on the way down.

  • I could have used some more paragraph breaks and a grammar lesson. The best strategy would have been a new outline to see all the points I wanted to make, all the specific moments, and the core values they illustrate. And most importantly, the connective tissue linking it all together with beautiful and clear transitions.

The good news is that I was accepted!

My SAT and ACT scores were well above average nationally, but well under Dartmouth's average. From my experience interviewing Dartmouth students and seeing who is accepted and who is rejected, I believe I know what won me acceptance:

I was a committed elite gymnast, ranked 1st nationally in one event at the level just below the Olympics. And to make time for training, I homeschooled several subjects to be able to spend 5 hours in the gym each day. Despite the scheduling challenge, I took AP classes and got straight As. This balancing act demonstrated my ability to follow a passion to its highest level, make the required sacrifices, and still manage my time professionally.

I didn't have a dozen different activities -- only one. But I showed how passionate and driven I was with gymnastics and I didn't let that activity compromise my education. I think the admissions officers saw someone who stood a chance at finding success at Dartmouth and beyond, given what they saw in my application.

... Did this extracurricular experience have anything to do with my essay? Not explicitly. But it certainly complements my narrative of being inquisitive, passionate about diversity, and eager to contribute to a college campus. The essay reveals a new dimension to my character and personality that they would never have gotten from my resume.


I hope you can take some of these lessons and apply them to your own application!

After helping dozens of students apply and gain admission to Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Wharton, USC, and many more schools, I've finally cracked the code on what makes applications stand out. And the best part is that, like me, you don't even need the best SAT score!

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