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3 Creative Personal Statement Examples for Harvard (or other top University)

In my 20+ years of teaching and my 8+ years advising on personal statements, I’ve found 3 college bound essays inspiring.  Normally, I don’t share these until we start working together as tutor and student, but I’ve decided to divulge this for the first time for the many who need it and can’t afford the tuition.

This first essay was my first find when looking for:

Examples for Students to Emulate for 1 Page Personal Statements

The “Zebra” Essay (college personal statement) – #1 Top Creative Example

There comes a time in every man’s life when he must answer a character-defining question: If you could have a super power, what would it be? This hypothetical subject has been debated among underage heroes for centuries; it has been heard on playgrounds, in tree houses, and under manholes all over the planet. Its answers come as varied as transliterated spellings of “Hanukkah.”

There are a few timeless responses: flight, invisibility, pyrokinesis, and mind control are oft-mentioned favorites. Man has longed to possess these four since the Stone Age to tackle his most fundamental problems—moving, hunting, keeping warm, and reproducing, respectively. Luckily, these powers still come in handy for our present-day needs, such as rescuing damsels from the tops of tall buildings, sneaking past bouncers at no-goodniks’ exclusive clubs, breaking into evildoers’ ice-palace lairs, and infiltrating enemy brains to prevent the release of kittens with laser eyes upon our helpless country.

But my ideal super power is something far more unexpected and subtle in its, well, superness, than the usual examples. If I could have a super power, I would choose the ability to turn into a zebra.

Now you may be thinking, “What do zebras have that a lion or a gorilla or a great white shark doesn’t?” If this were based on raw power alone, I concede that the zebra would not have been my first choice. But I’m no teeth-and-muscle purist: The reason I’d choose zebras isn’t for their incredible stamina, or their vicious bites and fatal kicks, or their binocularlike vision and incredible hearing, or their clever form of camouflage, or the way they zigzag to escape from predators, or even their excellent parenting. I’d choose zebras for a certain element called style that is simply lacking in other animals.

When a zebra glides into a room, all creatures present stop what they’re doing, be they human, giraffe, or even fellow zebra. The lion may be king of the jungle, but the zebra is its soul. The mere sight of a zebra has led some to preposterous ends: Equids of all types mate with zebras to get that telltale “z” in their child’s name, producing endless combinations of zebroids—zorses, zonies, zeebrasses, and even zeedonks are recorded in Darwin’s raunchiest annals. Lord Rothschild was known to ride a zebra-drawn carriage through London to boost his reputation as a noble eccentric. It is a well-regarded opinion among music historians that zebras were the driving force behind jazz.

While the last claim may not be true, the zebra has such silent singularity that it stands out in any list of mammals. This quiet uniqueness reminds me of myself in some ways—it’s nary a peculiar day to see me in a public space wearing a black sock on one foot and a white on the other, or a pirate hat on my head, or a plush snake in my shirt pocket, or a cape around my neck. I suppose it’s my desire to stand out, to zigzag like the zebra instead of bolting straight ahead, that so attracts me to that noble animal.

So the next time there are wrongs to right and you need a fantastic alter ego to change into, don’t opt for the same old superfast, superstrong Human 2.0 we’ll probably evolve into soon enough anyway: Turn into someone stripier than ordinary. Who said justice wasn’t black and white?

How the writing would wow admissions

Personal Statement Critique

The “zebra” essay was used as a model in English classes and was passed around the school as an example of an outstanding essay. It is very creative and well written. The opening is clever and encourages the reader to continue reading. Posing a question and answering it is a good strategy. The writer uses very descriptive words and great visual imagery, as well as actual details about a zebra. The reader gets a very good idea that the writer is a colorful, independent, and zany individual. It is enjoyable to read, and in addition to writing, it is clear that the student also enjoys animals, science, and history. There is a 17-year-old voice present, although the student is a sophisticated writer. The reader comes away with a sense that the writer is very talented with a potentially very bright future.

Although doing so only briefly, the writer does relate the zebra to himself. Other essays may be more direct about the student’s career interests. It is very clear that we have learned something new about the student, and that he is a passionate and creative writer. Without any doubt, he did the job he needed to do!

Supposedly, the following piece got Brittany Stinson into 5 of the 8 Ivies.  On top of that, this clever articulation of who she is and answering the prompt:

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.

…got her into Stanford as well, which was almost annually, the hardest University in the US to get into.

The Costco Essay: Top Example #2 of Incredibly Creative Personal Statements

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 cinnamon­ sugar 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 weight­loss supplements. Perusing the aisles gave me time to ponder. Who needs three pounds of sour cream? Was cultured yogurt any more well­mannered 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 thirty­three 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, cross­ country 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.”

The quality of writing, the underlying theme and tone were several reasons why it impressed college admissions officials in the most challenging programs on earth.  What other reasons do you think impressed them?  

Top Example #3 of Creative a Personal Statement

This next example was posted on our blog almost 2 years ago.  It was an incredible find in the book “50 Successful Harvard Application Essays.”  Frankly, it was the last one in the entire book that supposedly has “analysis by the staff of the HARVARD CRIMSON,” the top school’s student newspaper.  Basically, you have supposedly “top writers” of the “top school” in the nation here.  So, if they are providing feedback, it supposedly has credence.

Here’s the essay post:

Dandelion Dreams Personal Statement 

These essays were writing samples helping students draft essays for the:

2022-2023 Common App Essay Prompts

Below is the full set of Common App essay prompts for 2022-2023.

  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.

  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

About Author: 

Brandon Na, Personal Statement/College Essay Specialist with over 20+ years of teaching & 8+ years of personal statement coaching.  Past writing students have garnered acceptance to Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell, Northwestern, Duke University, UPenn, Dartmouth, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Rice, Johns Hopkins, University of San Diego, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University College London, Imperial College, Parsons and the ArtCenter College of Design along with The Top 10 Boarding Schools.

Disclaimer & Note:

The book warned that these essays are for reference only.  Supposedly, these were “edited by the staff of the Harvard Crimson and gives readers the most inspiring approaches, both conventional and creative, that won over admissions officers at Harvard University, the nation’s top-ranked college.” It is highly recommended you do not use these for your own applications.  Using them would be considered plagiarism and could be grounds for punishment.

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