Sam is an incredible pro bono success story. When he reached out to me, I knew he would go far on his own. I read the initial version of his draft and was blown away by his story about growing up with a unique international heritage.
I often get asked if writing about your heritage is too cliche, and my answer is always this: it’s not the topic that makes a story cliche, but the way in which you write about it. Sam’s essay was lyrical and nuanced: it definitely stood out. When we started working on his supplemental essays, it was clear writing was not his only strong suit: he also had very impressive and strong research experience. I’m not surprised he was admitted early action.
The main thing we worked on together was making sure his unique heritage’s challenges made sense to someone who’s never lived his experience. Otherwise, you run the risk of confusing your reader. You have to treat your essay like a journalist would treat an article they’re writing: make sure every reference to a ritual or other unique personal experience is thoroughly explained for the general public.
After we finished our edits and he heard back from Harvard, he wrote, “Hello Ms. Shuster, I'm writing this email to let you know that I got into Harvard EA! Thank you so much for your help and guidance throughout the process with the essays these past weeks. Without your help, I don't think I would've ever gotten here. I know I've said this a lot, but I feel like the essays have gotten so far, all with your invaluable help.” So I asked him to write something about working together for my website and he made me tear up with what he sent me below (yes, I’m a sap!):
”Through countless e-mails, Yelena helped me take the abstract ideas that were in my head and put them on a sheet of paper. And Yelena helped me through the complex challenge of putting my lived experience into a format that other people could understand. Yelena also helped me by bringing me a new perspective for my essays. As someone writing an essay about myself, there were a lot of details that I assumed that a person who was reading the essay would know. However, Yelena helped me include more details in the essays to make the writing tighter. Within the timeframe of several weeks, my essay went from a somewhat forgettable story to a memorable and impactful snapshot into my life as a person and a student. Without Yelena's help and support throughout the process, I am sure that I would have never been accepted to Harvard University." -Sam, Accepted to Harvard