Will an Essay that Worked At Harvard Help at Other Colleges?

Question: This question may seem weird but for example, is it true that an application essay that got accepted by Harvard means a small college for example Phoenix, Toledo… would accept that essay?

An essay that passes muster at Harvard should be good enough for any college or university … at least in theory. But there are several points to keep in mind which prevent “The Dean” from providing a straight “Yes” or “No” response to your question:

  1. Essay evaluation is a subjective process. Each essay is read by at least two admission officials and often by several, and they don’t always agree. When I worked at Smith College, I would sometimes review an essay that a colleague had called “Great,” and I hated it … or vice versa. So even if an official at a hyper-competitive place like Harvard loved an essay, it doesn’t necessarily mean that an admission officer at a different college will be equally impressed. Luck can play a big role, and thus–depending on whose desk your application folder lands–your essay might be well regarded … or not.

  1. You must be sure that you answer the college’s question. Harvard uses “The Common Application.”  This gives each applicant five essay questions (called “prompts”) to choose among.  Applicants can use the exact same essay whenever they apply to any of the Common Application member institutions. But non-member colleges usually have their own, different prompts. Students find that they can often (but not always) “recycle” a Common Application essay and submit it to non-member schools … sometimes with a little bit of revision and sometimes exactly as is. But no matter how strong your essay is, and even if it impressed the pickiest of Harvard’s adjudicators, you cannot send it to another college if it doesn’t answer that college’s essay question.

  1. It isn’t always the essay. Let’s say that your cousin applies to Harvard and gets in.  You may assume that his essay helped. Well, maybe it did but maybe it didn’t. Perhaps your cousin had other traits (such as unique talents, an atypical background, or a hard-luck story to tell) that allowed the admission committee to overlook a pretty ho-hum (or even downright awful) essay.  Lots of factors go into admission verdicts, and the essay is only one of them. So even a top-notch place like Harvard will take some applicants whose essays made the admission folks shout “Ugh!” and not “Hooray!”

  1. Essay plagiarism can lead to rejection. Granted, the college application process is convoluted and unnecessarily demanding, so it can be tempting for teenagers to cut corners. If your think that your aforementioned cousin’s essay got him into Harvard, you might also think that it can’t hurt for you to submit the same essay to a far less selective school … one to which your cousin did not apply … figuring that it’s sure to be a home run there. And sometimes that gambit, albeit unethical, does indeed succeed. However, when admission officials believe that an essay is too good (i.e., the quality of the writing doesn’t mesh with the candidate’s test scores, grades, or English-speaking skills), the application will get a closer look … and through a critical lens. And a student who is suspected of cheating may not be admitted at all,even to a college where he or she is otherwise highly qualified.

Bottom line: Whether you’re applying to the most celebrated universities on the planet or to far more obscure ones, do the best job you can on your essay, and make sure that your writing addresses the prompt and that the voice is your own.