Monday, April 18, 2016

Essay that Led to a Student's Acceptance into 5 Ivy League Schools: An Expert's Analysis

Some of you may have already read about the college application essay by Brittany Stinson that led to her acceptance to five Ivy League schools (University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Yale, Dartmouth, and Cornell) and Stanford (which is more difficult to get into than even some of the Ivy Leagues).  I am here to tell her story from an expert point of view.  I am here to help you extract from Stinson’s essay what you can learn for your own college applications and grad school applications.  Because I had worked for professors who served on admissions committees at UC Berkeley and UCSF Medical School, I am probably in a better position than most to analyze Stinson’s essay for you.  I am in a better position than most also because I currently teach/tutor students in writing essays and papers.  Almost as impressive as Brittany Stinson, my students have been admitted to competitive schools and programs such as the business program in Columbia University, a doctoral program, a physical therapy program, and many nursing programs.

Brittany Stinson's essay in its entirety is posted at the end of this article, with her permission.

In Stinson’s essay, she wrote about her affinity to Costco ever since she was a child.  Although she was writing about Costco, she was not promoting excessive consumerism or “affuenza”.  That would not be appealing to admissions officers.  Instead, Stinson alluded to how her need for intellectual exploration is linked to her tendency to explore the material items in the humongous world that is Costco.  “Perusing the aisles gave me time to ponder…  Was cultured yogurt any more well-mannered than its uncultured counterpart?  Costco gave birth to my unfettered curiosity...,” wrote Stinson with humor.  “I sampled calculus, cross country running, scientific research… With cart in hand, I do what scares me; I absorb the warehouse that is the world.  Whether it be through attempting aerial yoga, learning how to chart blackbody radiation using astronomical software,…”

Although I am not psychic, I could just sense some students thinking, “I too will do what Brittany Stinson did.  I too will write about Costco.”  My first advice to you is: Don’t do that!  Also, don’t write about Walmart, Safeway, Target, or another superstore, because most likely, this is not who you are.  Don’t play copycat.  It won’t work as it will be obvious in your writing that you are not being sincere.

Instead of mindlessly imitating, you need to understand Stinson’s approach as she explained,  “The essay is really where it’s important to show your personality and what gets you going.  I knew that an essay about Costco would certainly be memorable -- whether the admissions officers liked it or not.”  Costco truly gets Stinson going.  It is clear in her essay that she really has an affinity to Costco and this genuine characteristic (although quirky for an admissions essay) stands out to the admissions officers.  It’s apparent to readers that it’s not fake.  (Why would a student write about a place that’s risky and odd to put in an admissions essay if it’s fake?)

It may seem risky to write about Costco, but it’s really not that risky when it is part of her true individuality, or who she is.  I want to re-emphasize Stinson’s words when she said “whether the admissions officers liked it or not.”  It’s as if she’s saying, That’s me.  If they don’t like it, then that’s not the school for me and that’s fine with me.

One of my students, Danni, who last year was admitted to a doctoral program in veterinary medicine took the same individualistic approach as Stinson.  (By the way, medical schools and veterinary schools are very difficult to get into.)  I’ve tutored and mentored Danni for years and I know her quite well.  In helping her with her admissions essays, I guided her to explore why she was interested in veterinary medicine.  Pretty much, she wants to become a vet because of her love for animals and people.  She wants to serve people and treat their pets.  This passion was strongly influenced by her relationship with God, His love, and how He served people and healed many (such as through His Son and the prophets).  This, coupled with her love for animals, is truly what drives Danni on her career path to serve pet owners and to heal animals.  However, she initially hesitated to include this in her essay because it is common knowledge to not include “religion” in school applications and job applications.  But I changed her mind and guided her to include this.   

Because Danni’s faith in God is truly what drives her to vet school, I advised her to include this in her essay (consistent with Brittany Stinson’s point of view of staying true to herself).   As I explained to Danni, DVM (Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine) schools should be admitting students who have a genuine desire to serve pet owners and animals, and if a school does not like her divine source of motivation to serve, then that’s not the school for her.

Apparently, Danni’s candid writing of her motivation and who she is (relevant to her academic and career path in veterinary medicine) was well received and it got her into a DVM program and Danni is now in her first year in vet school, well on her way to becoming an animal doctor.

It is important to note that both Brittany Stinson and Danni have high G.P.A.s among other meritorious accomplishments.  Brittany Stinson has a 4.0 GPA, is the Vice President of the Science Honors Society, and is the President of the National Honors Society at her school.  In both cases of Brittany Stinson and my student Danni, their stellar essays greatly boosted their chances for admissions.  But the essay alone cannot get you into competitive schools if it is not accompanied by other important factors (such as good G.P.A. and test scores).  However, a poorly or unwisely written essay can significantly lower your chances, even if you have excellent test scores, a high G.P.A., and impressive extracurriculars.)

There is also another pointer that my students as well as Stinson understand; Do not take the common approach of - I will write anything that would get me in.  Don’t just write anything to get in, because the admissions officers can sense this from your essay.  Many students write with this approach, which is partly why many students do not stand out and many do not get into the highly competitive schools.

You really have to mentally (and spiritually) explore the real you before you write this essay. (Those students who have done such mental contemplation for years, long before the college application process, have an advantage when it comes to the personal statement in school applications.  However, it is not too late to start now.)  When I help students with these essays, we usually start with this type of introspective and self-historical prewriting (or brainstorming) on scrap paper.  (If you need help with this, feel free to contact me at

Brittany Stinson was mentally clear on who she is and was sure of her individual strengths in her personality while writing her essay.  “I just did something that was me,” she said.  “I knew I was capable of weaving humor into the essay, and I knew that with kids that have similar extracurriculars and scores, you need to stand out when it comes to the essay.”

Brittany Stinson's Essay (with her permission):

Prompt 1: 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.

Managing to break free from my mother’s grasp, I charged. With arms flailing and chubby legs fluttering beneath me, I was the ferocious two­ year old rampaging through Costco on a Saturday morning. My mother’s eyes widened in horror as I jettisoned my churro; the cinnamon­sugar rocket gracefully sliced its way through the air while I continued my spree. I sprinted through the aisles, looking up in awe at the massive bulk products that towered over me. Overcome with wonder, I wanted to touch and taste, to stick my head into industrial­sized freezers, to explore every crevice. I was a conquistador, but rather than searching the land for El Dorado, I scoured aisles for free samples. Before inevitably being whisked away into a shopping cart, I scaled a mountain of plush toys and surveyed the expanse that lay before me: the kingdom of Costco.

Notorious for its oversized portions and dollar ­fifty hot dog combo, Costco is the apex of consumerism. From the days spent being toted around in a shopping cart to when I was finally tall enough to reach lofty sample trays, Costco has endured a steady presence throughout my life. As a veteran Costco shopper, I navigate the aisles of foodstuffs, thrusting the majority of my weight upon a generously filled shopping cart whose enormity juxtaposes my small frame. Over time, I’ve developed a habit of observing fellow patrons tote their carts piled with frozen burritos, cheese puffs, tubs of ice cream, and weight­ loss supplements. Perusing the aisles gave me time to ponder. Who needs three pounds of sour cream? Was cultured yogurt any more well­ mannered than its uncultured counterpart? Costco gave birth to my unfettered curiosity.

While enjoying an obligatory hot dog, I did not find myself thinking about the ‘all beef’ goodness that Costco boasted. I instead considered finitudes and infinitudes, unimagined uses for tubs of sour cream, the projectile motion of said tub when launched from an eighty foot shelf or maybe when pushed from a speedy cart by a scrawny seventeen year old. I contemplated the philosophical: If there exists a thirty­ three ounce jar of Nutella, do we really have free will? I experienced a harsh physics lesson while observing a shopper who had no evident familiarity of inertia's workings. With a cart filled to overflowing, she made her way towards the sloped exit, continuing to push and push while steadily losing control until the cart escaped her and went crashing into a concrete column, 52” plasma screen TV and all. Purchasing the yuletide hickory smoked ham inevitably led to a conversation between my father and me about Andrew Jackson’s controversiality. There was no questioning Old Hickory’s dedication; he was steadfast in his beliefs and pursuits – qualities I am compelled to admire, yet his morals were crooked. We both found the ham to be more likeable–and tender.

I adopted my exploratory skills, fine tuned by Costco, towards my intellectual endeavors. Just as I sampled buffalo­ chicken dip or chocolate truffles, I probed the realms of history, dance and biology, all in pursuit of the ideal cart–one overflowing with theoretical situations and notions both silly and serious. I sampled calculus, cross­country running, scientific research, all of which are now household favorites. With cart in hand, I do what scares me; I absorb the warehouse that is the world. Whether it be through attempting aerial yoga, learning how to chart blackbody radiation using astronomical software, or dancing in front of hundreds of people, I am compelled to try any activity that interests me in the slightest.

My intense desire to know, to explore beyond the bounds of rational thought; this is what defines me. Costco fuels my insatiability and cultivates curiosity within me at a cellular level. Encoded to immerse myself in the unknown, I find it difficult to complacently accept the “what”; I want to hunt for the “whys” and dissect the “hows”. In essence, I subsist on discovery.

To start to (or further) contemplate about your life and yourself, feel free to get some guidance from -

For CATW  or writing practice prompts, feel free to go to -