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Don’t let influencers influence your college essays

Don’t let influencers influence your college essays

This post is part of Prompt's Ultimate College Essay Help Guide. Below you'll learn more about Step 1 in the process: understanding what college admissions officers are looking for.

There is a meme you know. A guy, no, a “bro,” glances behind him to ogle a beautiful woman who just walked by. The cheesy punchline comes from his girlfriend, gasping at him, horrified.

You are that bro. The TikTok star whose successful Harvard admissions essay has gone viral is … yes, indeed, it’s that beautiful woman. And, uh-oh, I think you just might have pissed off your girlfriend — she is none other than your chances of writing a college essay that gets you in.

When writing your college essay, ignore the flowery writing and metaphors you see in viral essays.

Let’s rephrase this in non-meme terms: 

copying an admission essay that ranks high on Google’s search page will produce an essay that ranks low with college admission officers.

We’re college essay coaches and we’ve seen this problem one too many times. This article is about saving you from the influencers.

Case study: “This Girl's Harvard University Admissions Essay Is Going Viral”;Metaphors in colleges essays are like chopped parsley on pasta — utterly marginal;Influencers rarely know what they did right in their essays;3 ways a viral essay on TikTok can lead you astray;Influencers want followers, not to help their followers’ admissions chances;Don’t get distracted by a metaphorical beautiful woman on the street
Case study: “This Girl's Harvard University Admissions Essay Is Going Viral”;Metaphors in colleges essays are like chopped parsley on pasta — utterly marginal;Influencers rarely know what they did right in their essays;3 ways a viral essay on TikTok can lead you astray;Influencers want followers, not to help their followers’ admissions chances;Don’t get distracted by a metaphorical beautiful woman on the street

Case study: “This Girl's Harvard University Admissions Essay Is Going Viral”

Buzzfeed had a great story recently. All about this girl who’s Harvard essay went viral on TikTok. Actually, it wasn’t her essay. It was just the first two paragraphs of her essay (that turns out to be important to our point). Her essay does have a killer intro:

“I hate the letter 'S.' Of the 164,777 words with 'S,' I only grapple with one. To condemn an entire letter because of its use .0006 percent of the time sounds statistically absurd, but that one case changed 100 percent of my life. I used to have two parents, but now I have one, and the 'S' in 'parents' isn't going anywhere.”

This is an excellent intro. 

The problem is that, right now, you think the reason she wrote a strong essay is because she came up with this clever, profound, creative metaphor — the letter “S.” Brilliant! You might even think that her coming up with this metaphor is what got her into Harvard.

That’s the thing. No and no.

Essays have the potential to 10x your chances of college admission. So we can’t let influencers lead us astray when it comes to this all-important aspect of your application. 

Metaphors in colleges essays are like chopped parsley on pasta — utterly marginal 

There’s something about writing college application essays that brings out the poet in people — they strive not just for metaphors, but also clever analogies, literary devices, and overly descriptive passages.  

Brilliant metaphors, and other flowery language, cleverly weaved into your college essays are like fresh chopped parsley on a pasta dish. Is the parsley a nice touch? Yes. Does it add an element of striking visual color? Yes. When you think about how much you liked the pasta dish, does the parsley factor in … at all? No. At best, it ranks minimally. But if the pasta was great, it’s not because of the parsley. 

More important: if the pasta dish is bad, no amount of parsley — no matter how fresh and peppery — is going to save that pasta dish. A great metaphor will not save a bad essay. 

Influencers rarely know what they did right in their essays

What made This Girl’s essay great wasn’t the S metaphor — although, yes, she does weave it nicely throughout the entire essay. Rather, it’s the less flashy parts that stand out and help this essay do its job. 

Colleges aren’t looking for creativity or great metaphors or even great writing skills in essays. Instead, they’re looking for the five traits that show you’ve got what it takes to succeed in college and beyond. 

However, unless you’ve spent considerable time interviewing admissions officers, dissecting admissions data and reading books on admissions, you’re unlikely to understand what’s working.

For This Girl, it so happens that an admissions official has written what they liked about the essay. Was it the “S” metaphor? No. 

True, the “S” metaphor gets a positive mention: “she utilizes wit and a framing device using the letter ‘S’ to share a profoundly personal journey.” But it’s extremely brief. Even in this one sentence, the focus is on the “profoundly personal journey.”

The Harvard reviewer talks about “the adjustments she has had to make” in the wake of her parent’s death. They also talk about how “satisfying” it is to see her “discover[ ] things that she has become passionate about.” The essay also has a sense of “realism and maturity.”

In Prompt parlance, this reviewer is talking about at least three of the five traits:

  • Drive or grit — here, despite the enormous setback of losing a parent, this applicant is demonstrating that she has the drive to turn pain into something useful and positive. The type of trait that leads to success. 
  • Initiative — here, the essay makes clear that it’s the applicant herself who has taken the initiative to improve her situation by keeping busy instead of letting herself wallow excessively. She comes off as the type of person who won’t accept the status quo, but will work energetically to improve it. Colleges like that. 
  • Intellectual Curiosity — by discussing her passions, the applicant indicates that she’s an interesting person who is curious about and engaged with the world. Although she leaves the details of her passion vague (as we’ll explore below), that curiosity is still something colleges love. 

The question you should ask yourself is whether you would have noticed the winning components that undergirded the essay on your own? Or would you have gotten distracted by the parsley on top? That is, the “S” metaphor that isn’t necessary to the essay’s success. Or perhaps by the tragic subject matter itself (the parent’s death)? 

3 ways a viral essay on TikTok can lead you astray

Here are 3 serious way in which the “S” essay might lead someone on TikTok astray:

  1. Getting distracted by the metaphor, they try for their own. But these kinds of metaphors are extremely difficult to pull off. Instead of telling a compelling, but simple story about their potential to succeed, the student gets bogged down in an unnecessarily complicated metaphor that doesn’t work. Their chances of admission plummet.
  1. They get distracted by the pathos of the parent’s death. As the Harvard reviewer notes, it’s a “common pitfall … to take a tragic event and effuse it with too much pathos [because it] fails to reveal much about the author’s own personality.” Going for tragic subject matter usually results in a worse personal statement. 
  1. They think this essay is perfect. It’s good, but it’s not perfect. The Harvard reviewer says as much: “this essay could have been strengthened further by giving the reader a sense of what those passions might be, as we’re left to speculate based on the activities she had mentioned.”

That’s a huge point. We do not know why this student got admitted. Chances are, she has much more than just this essay going for her — she probably has great grades and test scores, and we know from her essay she has great extracurriculars. 

What we do know, however, is that her essay left out some great material. If she’d given just a little more detail on the passions she developed as she worked through her grief, this essay would have said more about her intellectual curiosity (as well as probably her initiative and drive). And that’s where she might have seen an even higher score on her essay.

It didn’t matter for This Girl in the end: she got in. But it might matter for you.

Influencers want followers, not to help their followers’ admissions chances

Oh wow. Here is This Girl listing almost all of’s biggest pet peeves in one (inadvertent) monstrosity of a TikTok video:

  • This Girl: Don’t simply state what you’ve accomplished, pretty it up with a metaphor. 
  • state your accomplishments clearly and simply; leave the metaphors alone unless you’re beyond skilled.
  • This Girl: Read other essays online, it will jog your memory for literary devices. 
  • avoid other essays because you’ll be distracted by the literary device, and not realize it’s all about your potential and the 5 traits. 
  • Also Please don’t think that you need to use a literary device to write a great essay that gets you into selective colleges. Because you don’t. (But you do need excellent content.)

Or take this guy. This guy’s TikTok video says he spoke to an admissions officer, who told him some of the best essays they read involved clever metaphors (The Office, Coca-Cola). While he does warn at the end that “some metaphorical essays fall flat,” is there room for confusion here?

Influencers on TikTok and beyond aren’t interested in increasing your admission chances. They don’t track how the students who follow their advice do. Influencers are interested in one thing and one thing (pretty much) only: getting more followers.

Don’t get distracted by a metaphorical beautiful woman on the street

To summarize, don’t get distracted! You’ve got a beautiful girlfriend (metaphorically). That girlfriend is your experiences, your potential to succeed, and your traits that prove that potential. Those are the things that will bring you happiness (ie: boost your chances of college admission). 

For more advice on college admissions, check out:

Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller graduated from MIT with a Bachelors of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Management Science with a concentration in Operations Research. He has worked in business consulting with McKinsey, founded two businesses, and written a book. He started Prompt with two fellow MIT people, Jordan and John, to make people better writers. Their premise was simple: give everyone access to on-demand feedback on their writing from subject-knowledgeable Writing Coaches. Years later, Prompt is the largest provider of feedback on admissions essays in the world. Come and join us on our journey by emailing