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Want to know what it takes to get into a top college?

Everyone is familiar with the basic formula: great grades, excellent test scores, advanced classes, an impressive extracurricular resume as well as a demonstration of leadership, initiative, commitment to community, and intellectual rigor. Of course, central to the admissions packet are those amazingly interesting essays.

But what does this all mean specifically? How do you ace this formula in your own, unique, powerful way? Herein lies the mystery, and the challenge!

To help solve the mystery, I will be posting a series of blogs from my treasure trove of brilliant student stories. Perhaps this will inspire you to take up the challenge and soar! Let me begin with Jonathan….


One day in late September, I received an email from Grace, Jonathan’s mom, stating that she had heard about me and was wondering if I could help her son, but they were very far away from California. Would I work remotely?

Two days later, I met Grace and Jonathan over Skype. The next day, we were partners!

Jonathan is an extremely high-achieving math-science student attending a private school in Ohio. He has a near perfect 2400, took 4 SAT IIs, and 8 APs. His un-weighted GPA was just shy of a 4.0. Jonathan’s extracurriculars were outstanding.

Most distinctive was his two-year summer internship at the Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, where he worked on verifying a hypothesis regarding the inhibition of breast cancer cells. Even more exciting to me was the fact that Jonathan landed this internship purely on his own initiative; he had studied possible labs for research opportunities and simply wrote principle researchers explaining his desire to assist in the biomedical field. In doing so, he displayed maturity and ambition. Impressive.

Jonathan was also quite well-rounded. He loved to paint and showed me some very thoughtfully made pieces exploring themes of the human condition. He is also culturally and politically aware. Jonathan has depth to him. Also impressive.

Together we applied to Yale (Engineering, EA), Carnegie Mellon (Computer Science), OSU, Duke (Engineering), and Case Western. There were also a number of scholarship essays.

The Problem

Jonathan was a bit of a tricky case, however, because he was not yet sure exactly sure of his professional path. On the one hand, his involvement in biomedical research was leading him in the direction of BME. Yet he was also extremely accomplished in computer science and had mastered two AP computer science courses. Jonathan was also trying to decide whether he wanted to pursue a premed track and become a doctor. He also likes business. So many interests!

My challenge as a strategist was to decide which angle of Jonathan’s profile was most appropriate for each school’s application. For Yale and Duke, we focused on his research at OSU; for CMU we highlighted his computational skills and experience; for some scholarship essays, we wrote about his aspiration to become a doctor.

In the end, Jonathan was accepted to all of his chosen schools, with the exception of Yale (although he made it through EA with a deferral). Jonathan was also awarded the Michelson-Morley Scholarship at Case Western ($25,000), as well as the Morrill Scholarship at OSU (full tuition). Finally, Jonathan was a finalist for Case Western’s Pre-Professional Scholars Program (BS/MD).

He has decided to attend CMU to study computer science.

His College Essay

Of course, the key to the admissions process is essay writing. During that first Skype meeting, Jonathan showed me a draft of his Common Application essay. It began with his alter ego, Nahtanoj (“Jonathan” spelled backwards), an artsy, intellectual guy with a sort of love-hate relationship to his main personality, Jonathan, the math-science nerd. A great idea!

The narrative voice had a 20th-century, American male novelist feel to it; there was exciting potential to develop this voice. But the draft was too general and a little egotistical. So we got to work on creating a (more humble) literary essay exploring Jonathan’s multifaceted identity, incorporating key details from pop culture, academia, and his personal identity.

This essay was successful not only because it was very nice to read, contained rich content, and was extremely witty, but also because it revealed how self-aware and thoughtful Jonathan is. The essay displayed the kind of character admissions officers look for.

For a supplemental essay asking the applicant to share something that would not be evident elsewhere in the application, Jonathan chose to write about how much he loves to lift weights. Boring topic, right? Well, not when you insert reflections on being a skinny Asian American kid amid a sea of larger, Caucasian boys, the friendships he made throughout the three and half years in the weight room, and what it means to be a “real man.”

This essay displayed a keen awareness of cultural and gender identity, something also attractive to admissions officers, who appreciate reflection about one’s community. In other essays, we talked substantially about Jonathan’s research and computer programming, depending on the prompt. Every essay displayed thoughtfulness, creativity, and intellectual rigor.

The Process

When I first met Jonathan, he was a bit shy and awkward. It did not take us long, however, to form an important bond that allowed him to share his world with me. During our long discussions, I was able to dig into details, as well as push Jonathan to think more deeply about an issue and define his thoughts and feelings more precisely.

The essay writing process is an intense activity. Through it, students must confront themselves––see themselves––from a new, more mature light. Jonathan faced this challenge brilliantly in more ways than one. Because his admissions portfolio demonstrated maturity, growth, and wisdom, Jonathan had a tough time deciding among a wealth of choices.

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About the Author: Amy Morgenstern

Dr. Amy Morgenstern, affectionately known as Dr. M, is the founder and CEO of Blue Stars Admissions Consulting. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and an MFA in contemporary art. A former professor of philosophy, honors program associate director, and assistant to the director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Dr. M brings a wealth of academic and multicultural experience to her practice.

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