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Yale Essays: Balancing Key Factors for Your Ivy League Journey

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

Demonstrate how you align with Yale's values

Crafting a compelling application for Yale is all about showcasing your unique voice, experiences, and aspirations through the supplemental essays. But what makes a great essay stand out from a good one? We interviewed students, admissions officers, and faculty to understand three factors that can make or break your Yale application. Follow through this guide to learn what these critical areas are, and how you can avoid common traps by carefully structuring your essays. As a bonus, we apply each critical area to one of Yale’s essay prompts, giving you an example of what an outstanding essay looks like.

Key Takeaways

  • Yale’s admissions criteria are strongly based on its legacy of producing academic, political and business leaders who change the world around them.

  • What makes Yale unique is its conscious choice of building a diverse class, so it is critical that you position yourself as an asset to Yale’s needs.

  • Begin by choosing an authentic topic that nobody else would write about in their essays. This requires eliminating common options and thinking hard about what sets you apart.

  • Once you have chosen a topic, connect it to Yale specifically. A good way to think about this is ‘Why Yale and not Harvard?’. Find a niche that only Yale has to offer.

  • Yale’s supplemental prompts are designed to be open ended, making it easy to go off-topic. Be particularly careful with the prompt on a mentor in your life, ensuring that you talk about yourself predominantly and not the mentor’s biography.

Understanding Yale’s Three Make-or-Break Factors

A university’s admissions criteria are closely aligned to its values and beliefs as an institution. Yale was founded in 1701 as an institution to train ministers and lay leadership for the state of Connecticut – it has since produced five US president, sixty-five Nobel laureates and 263 Rhodes Scholars. These numbers illustrate that leadership is closely embedded in the fabric of the university; to make your application shine, you must showcase how you embody the same values as Yale’s many notable alumni. In this guide, we present three such values that should serve as a starting point for your essays.

1) Authenticity: Let Your True Self Shine

Yale’s Wikipedia page has a list of over 200 notable alumni – from politicians to authors, entrepreneurs to sportspeople. The diversity of their accomplishments is what makes Yale as renowned as it is, and admissions officers constantly look to create as varied a class as possible. This means that your essays must reflect what makes you different from the rest of the applicants, and how you can add a perspective to campus that potentially nobody else can.

Consider Yale’s required prompt:

Yale’s extensive course offerings and vibrant conversations beyond the classroom encourage students to follow their developing intellectual interests wherever they lead. Tell us about your engagement with a topic or idea that excites you. Why are you drawn to it?

Answering this prompt in an impactful manner requires first identifying a topic or idea that is personal to you. This is not something that you can think of in a few minutes – your first 10, perhaps even 50 ideas will likely be ones shared by several applicants. For example, discussing your interest in calculus during math class or programming for the First Robotics Competition (FRC) is something many students may choose to talk about. A simple test you can use to determine if an activity is truly unique or authentic is by asking yourself the question, “Do I know anyone else who has this interest?”. If the answer to that is yes (as it would be for these two example), you are better off considering a different topic.

An essay that we came across that truly exhibited this value was that of a student who had an immense fondness for mechanical watches. He enjoyed watching videos about the topic, had opened a few timepieces himself and was enthralled by the hundreds of tiny gears and springs that make up a wristwatch. His response to this prompt discussed how seeing master watchmakers put these complex mechanisms together by hand showed him that artistic side of modern engineering. He also spoke about his own experience building mechanical devices, and how it gave him a different sort of satisfaction beyond what writing code ever could. Ultimately, this led to his calling for mechanical engineering and the realization that there is artistic beauty to a well-crafted machine.

As a reminder, a topic like this takes hours, if not days to arrive at. A good starting point is to take a blank sheet of paper and jot down all the ideas that come to mind, until you struggle to think of anything else. It is at that point that the ideas you come up with will be authentic and show your true self.

2) Clarity and Coherence: Make Your Voice Heard

Yale’s name goes hand in hand with debate and authorship. This is for good reason – the university selects for students with outstanding clarity in thought and great language skills overall. You must convey these qualities through both the content and style of your Yale essays.

Regarding the former, make sure your supplemental essays are especially well planned. While this advice is applicable to all your college applications, it is especially important for Yale given its prompts are open ended and leave plenty of room for creativity. In our experience, the broad nature of these essays means that it is easy to lose track of their purpose and stray into secondary conversations that hurt rather than help your chances. Consider one of the optional prompts:

Tell us about your relationship with a role model or mentor who has been influential in your life. How has their guidance been instrumental to your growth?

This prompt asks you to discuss a mentor’s role in YOUR life and how they influence YOU. A common error we see is where students spend most of the essay discussing who their mentor is and what their accomplishments are, making the essay less about the student and more about the role model. Remember, college admissions officers are looking to accept you, not your mentor into their university. This makes it very important to clearly connect your mentor’s influence with your personal growth, focusing more on the latter than the former. This is where having a clear plan comes into handy.

Beyond the content of the essay, your style of writing is also important. Ensure that your register is appropriate to the situation – a response that is colloquial (uses slang and loose punctuation) is unlikely to elicit a positive response. Similarly, writing in extremely formal English or choosing unnecessarily difficult vocabulary (e.g. ‘braggadocio’ instead of boastful) may make your essay difficult to read. Choosing vocabulary that is appropriate to the context is critical for clear, coherent essays.

3) Balancing Reflection and Fit: Show Your Potential

Only 2,275 students out of 52,250 applicants to Yale were accepted, but there were likely at least another 5,000 who had equally brilliant activities and academics. What set the accepted students apart from the rejected? The answer, in many cases, is their ‘fit’ with Yale. This makes it critical to use your essays not only as a medium to convey your accomplishments but also to show why your personality matches best with Yale over other equally competitive colleges. One of the Yale prompts where you can show your fit is:

Yale students, faculty, and alumni engage issues of local, national, and international significance. Discuss an issue that is important to you and how your college experience could help you address it.

This prompt specifically asks you to discuss how your college experience can help you improve an issue that is personally important to you. In Yale’s context, the admissions team wants to know what Yale has to offer that is relevant to the issue brought up by you. More subliminally, they also want to test whether the issue you bring up is aligned with Yale’s values. In simple words, you must demonstrate BOTH why you matter to Yale, and why Yale matters to you.

A great (although admittedly difficult) way to approach this prompt is to compare Yale with another equally esteemed institution like Harvard or Stanford. Now, research and find something Yale has to offer that Harvard or Stanford don’t. This is tricky and it may take a while before you find something tangible. Your best bet would be to dive deep into the programs and opportunities offered by these schools to find subtle differences that might otherwise go unnoticed.

One astute student noted that the law school at Yale produced an overwhelming number of legal theorists, while other prominent law schools (like Harvard) tended to produce practicing lawyers. As someone interested in public policy and diplomacy, this student’s essay discussed how he considered Yale his best bet to develop a theoretical understanding of law that could lead to highly targeted policy initiatives. He also connected his experience writing about labor with publications put out by Yale professors that demonstrated his alignment with the university’s research output.

Once you discover a niche that sets Yale apart, writing about it should not be too difficult. Make sure to balance talking about your high school experience with Yale’s distinguishing factors, and you should be on track to write a winning essay.

Putting It All Together

You made it! The hard part is over – you now know the three key factors that set great Yale essays apart from good ones. As you plan your Yale essays, start by choosing an authentic topic that only you could talk about. Mind you, this is easier said than done so be prepared to spend a few hours brainstorming ideas. Once you have a concept in mind, find a way to connect it with Yale’s unique position – research on the internet or speak to a Yale alumnus to find a niche that sets it apart from other top colleges like Harvard and Stanford. Make sure that your essay demonstrates that you will leverage this niche during your time at college. And finally, plan your essays before you start writing them, prioritizing clarity and

structure over fancy vocabulary.

Most importantly, have fun in the process and bring out your truest self!

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