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How to Get into an Ivy League Institution

Three Common Application Essays that worked for Stamford High Students

May 3, 2017

Well juniors (and/or super eager college-crazed underclassmen), this is certainly not the first time –and certainly not the last– you’ll be hearing that it’s that time of year. Now, while it’s not quite time to completely grow up, the coming weeks and months require you to at least think about it. Luckily, you won’t have to worry about beginning the thought process solo because every adult you’ll encounter will pelt you with approximately 42 million ideas of their own. Even better, this will occur at every given moment! They will eagerly interrogate you about everything from the specifics of your standardized test scores, to your compiled list of prospective colleges, to your essay topic for the Common Application.

While all of these topics are ever-so-important, (and to adults, interesting *gag*) oftentimes, the essay requirement in particular stands out as the most daunting to students. How does one stand out? What topics are considered too cliche? Are you trying too hard to sound unique? At the end of the day, only you can decide on the image you want to portray to admissions officers. If you’re experiencing writer’s block, have a read through a few essays that worked. Some might even say these essays did more than just “work,” because the three Stamford High students featured below will be attending Ivy League institutions this fall.


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Daniel Altamura – University of Pennsylvania

Accepted to: University of Pennsylvania (The Wharton School), Georgetown University, Boston College, University of Virginia, Emory University, University of Connecticut, Wake Forest University and Villanova University

Essay Question: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Step 1: Create the blueprint.

Three years ago, I would have never believed that a once-passing thought to build a haunted house would soon evolve into a reality, creating the most successful fundraiser Stamford High School has ever seen. This was a process that began many years ago, starting first in a friend’s garage at its inception, then migrating to my family’s basement the next, and finally landing within my very own high school. I would be tasked with orchestrating the event from start to finish, and the responsibilities increased with each year. Whether it was designing the blueprint or convincing my parents that a haunted house would soon takeover my family’s basement, there was no escape—I was all in.

Step 2: Create the layout by constructing and organizing the metal tents and draping black plastic on top.

As the planning progressed each year, I understood the commitment necessary and the numerous obstacles that would be in my way before I could fulfill my vision of the haunted house. This project quickly became an important part of my schedule and one I had to balance with my academics and other extracurricular activities. With each successful year, I gained valuable experience and knowledge that would be useful and beneficial to the haunted house in the future. I had deadlines to accomplish certain initiatives, beginning with the completion of construction, and moving towards creating and distributing numerous flyers as the weeks before Halloween drew closer. I was not afraid to elicit help from adults in order to acquire construction materials, lighting, music, or anything else that would be a vital part of the haunted house experience. However, the greatest challenges came in making decisions using cost-benefit analysis in order to achieve the highest possible return on our investment.  We didn’t want to sacrifice fun for money and that meant scavenging for odds and ends without changing specific themes that were important to the overall experience of the haunted house. I envisioned a truly authentic experience and promised to deliver on that.

Step 3: Begin decorating each individually-themed room.

Every spider or skeleton hanging on the wall brought with it a sense of gratification, and little by little, each decoration was coming together to produce the final product.  The inclusion of administration and teachers as volunteer actors only helped increase school spirit which brought extremely high expectations for the upcoming haunted house. Seeing the line of hundreds of excited students, friends, and teachers twisting through the hallway only further cemented the event’s success in its first year. The hard work and dedication ended up paying off, but the preparations for the following year were already in the works. Hopefully, I can continue to spearhead the development of the annual haunted house fundraiser; but whether under my control or the leadership of other classes that will follow in our footsteps, the haunted house will continue to thrive. Being able to turn what was an individual idea into a major fundraiser for the Class of 2017 was one of the most beneficial decisions made for the prosperity of the haunted house and the community as a whole. Over the course of three years, the introduction and evolution of the haunted house caused me to take initiative, make decisions, and fulfill a personal ambition.

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Mariel Barocas – Yale University

Accepted to: Yale University (Yale College)


Essay Question: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

  Even after eight months of rigorous preparation, Giovanni and the other instructors at the Lewis School of Driving failed to teach me the most difficult part of being a student driver: carefully procuring the soundtrack of your sacred time in the car.

Immediately I turned to the music playlists saved on my now obsolete iPhone 5s. However, I was disappointed in the more unrefined selection of music 11 year-old-Mariel had actually paid for, not to mention the poor sound quality resulting from the questionable $7.00 cassette-to-aux cord converter I snagged off of Amazon (my 2007 Toyota Avalon was even more behind the times than my music playlists were).  

Dissatisfied with Kidz Bop remixes and Hannah Montana’s greatest hits, I followed the advice of the most qualified media connoisseur I knew, my journalism advisor Mr. Jonathan Ringel. He ushered me to the radio station 93.9—FM—which was a relief considering I was reluctant to experiment with the dreaded AM channels, designated only as a dull filler for real adults on their absent-minded drives to work. I was struck by the stark difference between the whiny pop music I had grown accustomed to, and the riveting interviews and news stories featured on NPR. In an effort to best capitalize on this newly discovered resource, I quickly incorporated NPR into my daily driving routine.

Every morning I am greeted by the familiar voices of Steve Inskeep, Renée Montagne and David Greene. The silky tenor of Soterios Johnson’s voice used to accompany the team as a gentle wake up on my morning commute to school. But I blinked away tears, along with hundreds of thousands of other listeners, the day Soterios left Morning Edition after a five-year residency on the show in order to reunite with his husband on the West Coast. The day Soterios gave his final sign off was the day I realized I was emotionally invested in a relationship with the National Public Radio.

NPR is there when I wake up, and it’s there again to provide comfort after a rigorous day of school. I especially look forward to Terry Gross’ sharp-witted interviews to serve as my after school pick-me-up as opposed to the more conventional iced coffee many of my other peers indulge in. One memorable afternoon, I hopped into the car, threw my backpack in the passenger seat, and thrust my key into the ignition. I did not expect to hear Dave Davies’ voice announcing that he would be filling in for Terry while she was in Washington D.C. receiving The National Humanities Medal—at the White House. Like a proud daughter and pupil, I gasped and instinctively slapped my hand to my mouth, directly disobeying Giovanni’s demand that I keep my grip at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel.

Thanks to the words of my friends Terry, Steve, Renee, Dave, and Diane, I have more to say than ever. There isn’t a political argument that I engage in without a citation of vital evidence I borrowed from NPR; nor is there a hilarious rambling I share with my friends without throwing in a quirky tidbit plucked from 93.9 FM. However, following each additional sound bite comes the acknowledgment: “as they said on NPR.” While revealing my obsession with NPR may seem to destroy my standing among my peers as a “hip young teen,” I prefer to divulge my secret in an effort to promote NPR to all I encounter. And, on those treasured occasions when my counterpart is also a listener, we are able to shed the formalities of conversation and jump immediately into our favorite Terry Gross interviews, or reminisce about the best tales we heard from Moth Radio Hour.

I know now that Hannah Montana has nothing on NPR.

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Ismael De Los Santos – Cornell University

Accepted to: Cornell University (College of Engineering), University of Illinois, Purdue University and Villanova University


Essay Question: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

A crucial part of my personal development has been molded by the unique experiences I had as a scout.  My appreciation and love of nature is largely attributed to my last 11 years as a Boy Scout.  That coupled with living in Connecticut, with its towering trees and countless winding streams that form a delicate scenery not abundant in many places.  Love of nature is however only one of the many things I can thank Boy Scouts for.    

What was always so unique about the Boy Scout program was their approach. The Boy Scout program gives boys a sense of independence and responsibility that is rarely instilled in children that age. As a young scout of 6, I knew the importance of keeping my uniform tidy and clean. What could have been perceived as just a tan uniform by others meant much more to us.   It was an honor to be a scout, each badge and pin on our uniform a symbolism for perseverance, hard work and determination.    At precisely 7:30 every Thursday night, boys went from the guidance of their parents to the guidance of their peers.  Although it was always clear what was expected from us, they never held our hands.  We were always given enough freedom to promote personal development, leadership, and accountability.

Junior year I was elected to the position of Assistant Patrol Leader, second to the Senior Patrol Leader. In serving this role, I was required to step in for the Senior Patrol Leader in his absence. My first opportunity to serve as the Patrol Leader was during a brisk camping trip towards the end of October. The days had become shorter and the darkness had already blanketed the area by the time of our arrival. I hopped out of my car and gathered around the rest of my troop, about 20 for this trip. The goal of the first night was to move all our gear from the parking lot to our campsite a half mile away. My Scoutmaster walked over to me and asked “So how do you plan on going about this?” My reply was “I’m not sure yet.” My Scoutmaster did not seem troubled by my answer and nonchalantly replied, “Well I don’t know either; get it done” and walked off to meet with other leaders for the next couple of hours. 

I met with some of the other senior boys and came up with a plan.  The strategy was to leave half the group at the campsite to set up and have the other group transport the gear from the cars. The plan was structurally sound but the execution wasn’t as great. By the end of the night, the tents were all set up but there was still some gear strewn across the campsite. I walked over to my Scoutmaster to report what I perceived as an apparent failure, but he replied by saying “Good Job. There were some issues but great work getting the younger boys to bed on time.” While the small mess scattered across the campsite would need to be addressed in the morning, I was proud to have not only come up with a plan to accomplish the goal but also proving to the troop that they could count on me.   I slept very soundly that night.  

The Boy Scout Program instilled in me much more than a love of nature.  By asserting independence, responsibility, honesty, courage they were invaluable in molding the person I am today. I was always held to high moral standards and expected to always honor the Boy Scout code through my actions.  The Boy Scout program believed in me, which helped me to believe in myself.   I learned that I could only get as far as the effort I gave, and that life lesson is one that I’ll continue to apply in all endeavors. 


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1 Comment

One Response to “How to Get into an Ivy League Institution”

  1. Mr. Manka on May 3rd, 2017 2:29 pm

    Congratultions to all of our soon to be graduates! All of your hard work, determination, grit and commitment to excellence has paid off!! Job well done!



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