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I recently helped a high school sophomore with his application to Cornell’s Precollege Studies program. As he wrote and I edited, I had a gut feeling that his application had what I call the “Ivy League Sparkle”. There was something special about it, something that set him apart from other students his age. He turned in his application and was admitted the next day.

Now, of course it’s impossible to know if a student will gain acceptance to an Ivy League school or program: it’s fiercely competitive and there are many unseen factors at play. But the more I’ve thought about how to define that sparkle, the more I’ve realized that all of my students who gain acceptance to prestigious universities have a few elements in common.

Their writing is authentic.  It centers on events that truly happened, legitimately frustrating obstacles, and experiences that changed the way they perceive the world. When my students decide on their topic, they almost always confess that they feel embarrassed to write about it. That’s usually a good sign because it means they’re digging deep. Of course I don’t want them to write about anything that’s too difficult, but choosing an aspect of life with true meaning shows admissions officers their maturity and experience.

Their writing feels human, not academic. I joke with my students that home-run essays rarely begin with, “AP Chemistry is my favorite subject because…” Successful essays utilize the literary techniques that great journalists, authors, and poets use: essays of this caliber would not always receive an A in class because they are creative and take risks. A good hook, clear examples and analysis, and a bit of flair help essays grab attention. A person with struggles and quirks jumps off the page; a flawless robot does not.

Their writing is entirely free of grammatical and spelling errors. This is important. Top-tier schools need to know that their students have complete mastery of the English language because the literature they expect students to read and understand is difficult. Perfection is an unattainable goal in most areas of life, but in the realm of college essays it is vital and I insist upon it.