Essays That Got Into Yale

Carolina Williams, of Brentwood, Tennessee, said it was “surreal” when she found out in March she was accepted at Yale University.

Even more bewildering for the high school student was when a few weeks later, Williams received notes from the Ivy League university's admissions team that singled out an application essay she wrote about her love for Papa John’s pizza.

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“It really tickled me that they specifically commented on that one because there were a ton of essays,” Williams, who wrote nearly 10 essays for her Yale application alone, told ABC News. “I think it stood out because it was just very genuine and reflective of me and it was kind of taking a risk, I guess.”

Williams wrote about ordering Papa John’s pizza in reply to a 200-words or less essay prompt to write about what you love to do.

“I love to order pizza from Papa John’s so much. I do it like once a week,” she said. “That was my first thought when I saw that prompt.”

Putting aside worries her essay topic would seem “silly,” Williams wrote about how ordering from the pizza chain gave her independence as a child and was used as both a source of consolation and celebration as she grew up.

"As a fellow lover of pizza, I laughed out loud (then ordered pizza) after reading your application," read one note to Williams from Yale's admissions team, while another read, "I laughed so hard on your pizza essay. I kept thinking that you are the kind of person that I would love to be best friends with."

The night Williams was accepted to Yale, she celebrated by ordering a Papa John's pizza.

“That’s why I liked getting the responses to [my essay] so much because it made me realize that they genuinely wanted me,” Williams said of the personalized responses from Yale “I wasn’t trying to write something that I thought they would enjoy.”

Yale has an admittance rate of just 6.7 percent, according to its website. Even though Williams, the first in her family to go to college, was thrilled to be admitted to the Ivy League school, she instead plans to attend Auburn University in the fall.

“I chose Auburn because I love the South and I love the whole school spirit there,” said Williams, who will attend the university’s honors college and plans to major in business. “Yale is a great school but Auburn just felt like home to me.”

The Alabama-based university also has another advantage over Yale for Williams.

“The good thing about Auburn is they have a Papa John’s in their student center on campus so I’ll be there all the time,” she said.

Williams will also be able to feast on some free pizza as a college student. Papa John’s gave her a few gift cards after Williams shared her story on Twitter.

Williams said her experience offers a lesson for future students applying to colleges.

“Just write about what’s reflective of you and then if they want you they’ll accept you and know that they want you personally,” she said. “Try to be creative and think outside the box but just do what comes naturally too.”

The life of an admissions officer can be a fascinating one. I spend a lot of time traveling to faraway places to meet students from around the world, voting in committee to help determine each next college class, but I am perhaps most privileged to have a unique glimpse into the personal lives of hundreds of 17 year olds each year via my absolute favorite art form: the college essay. After 5 years I have read thousands of these 650-word windows into the minds of high school students, and can assure you that the college essay comes in many flavors: good, bad, eloquent, conversational, sarcastic, insightful, deep, shallow, hilarious, painful, delightful, disturbing, and so on.

For any high school senior working on their college applications, the essay can seem like a daunting task. For Yale, you’ll even have to write more than one. I hope you see this not as a burden or a hoop you must jump through, but an opportunity: to reflect on your past few years and look ahead to college. The skills of reflection, self-expression, and cogent writing are all ones that will serve you well in college (in fact, they will be critical), so consider this practice. You do not have to be the world’s most eloquent wordsmith to write a successful college essay; the best essays we read are those where the genuine voice of a high school student (that’s you!) comes through loud and clear and we really get a sense of who you are.

When I talk to prospective Yalies about the application process, I am often asked what my favorite essay topic is. I assure you there is no such thing. The quality of a college essay has little to do with topic, and everything to do with reflection and voice. I truly believe I could read 100 essays about the same topic, each of them completely unique and in their own ways excellent and entrancing (or not). There are certainly amusing trends that emerge over time: in the past few years, I’ve seen an uptick in essays reflecting on life lessons learned from Uber drivers. I’m told that 10 years ago, essays explaining what Hogwarts House one belongs in were abundant. I wouldn’t dare say that there are any essay topics you should shy away from, because I’m certain that a great college essay could be written about nearly anything. And it doesn’t matter if we’ve read about it before – only you can write about you.

I do have favorite essays that I can remember, but they have no particular topic in common. Instead, they are the ones where at the end I have a grasp on what it might be like to have a conversation with the writer, to be in the same room as them. This is what we mean when we talk about voice. Revise and edit, but be sure not to lose the sense of individuality that only you can put into words. Have someone proofread, but don’t get too much help. My colleagues and I can tell when an essay is written more by a parent or, dare I even say it, a college consultant than by a student – and I can promise you that those pieces are not very good.

While your grades and test scores will speak for themselves and your teachers and counselor will write on your behalf, the essays are your opportunity to really take control of your application. Every required bit of writing should be considered precious real estate on your applications; think about what you want us to know about you, and do your best to work that information into the space allotted. It is through these essays that your admissions officer revels in your successes, shares in your disappointments, gets to know – forgive the cliché – the real you. So get writing. We can’t wait to hear from you.

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