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Papa John's, Costco, and the Myths Behind Viral College Essays

Last year, Business Insider published the college essay of a student who was admitted to five Ivy League colleges and Stanford. The essay was about the young woman's frequent visits to her local Costco. As soon as the essay went viral, minds were blown. Could an essay about walking the aisles of Costco be the secret to getting into Stanford or is there more to it?

Recently, another national publication shared a successful student's "essay." This time, The Washington Post published a short piece by a young woman who wrote about her love of Papa John's pizza. Yale University admitted her. The admissions officer who read her application wrote the young woman a congratulatory note complimenting her vignette about getting her favorite pizza delivered to her home. Needless to say, families are utterly confused about what it takes to get admitted to these ultra-selective colleges. 

Is Papa John's pizza the new secret to getting admitted?

I shared the Papa John's essay story on my Facebook pages for Sara Harberson and Admissions Revolution. Why? Because I wanted to make sure NO OTHER STUDENT EVER wrote a college essay about this popular national chain. And my commentary on the post suggested just that. The fact is that this 196-word short response on the Yale University supplement wasn't even a full-blown essay. It was a small component of the student's overall application. Did it likely contribute to her coming across as relatable? Sure. But I bet there were a whole lot of other reasons why she was admitted.

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This is the tough piece about an "essay" going viral. Families don't see the entire application. What a former admissions dean like myself gathered from the multiple articles written about the young woman admitted to Yale is that she had two very important "tags" in her application that almost certainly played an even larger role in her acceptance.

For example, this young woman is a first generation college student. Yale and all the other ultra-competitive colleges are actively trying to increase the number of first generation college students in their incoming class. This is part of their diversity efforts. For decades, these colleges admitted and enrolled students who, for the most part, came from educated backgrounds. Recruitment efforts at elite colleges over the past 20+ years have been focused on making sure their student bodies include a growing number of students whose parents never went to college. 

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Additionally, the young woman hails from Tennessee. Geography is a very important piece of the application process. Elite colleges not only want to brag that all 50 states are represented in each incoming class, but that there is a sizable percentage of students from each state. Tennessee is typically an under-represented state for most elite colleges. While it's not as unusual as a student coming from Hawaii or Alaska, being from Tennessee can tip the scale for an East Coast school like Yale.

That is a big reason that an admissions officer like the one at Yale would have pulled out all the stops. As we learn from the article, the Yale admissions officer got detailed with the congratulatory note. I used to do this too when I worked for another Ivy League college. It was a way to show the student that not only was her application read, but that it stood out. The reason for this is because these students have a lower likelihood of accepting the offer of admission and enrolling as they usually have many offers to consider. Needless to say, I am not surprised this young woman turned down Yale to attend a closer-to-home option like Auburn University.

The lessons of the "Papa John's Pizza Essay" are multi-faceted:

  1. It wasn't even an essay. It was only 196 words from a detailed and complex application. 
  2. There were a lot of other reasons this young woman was admitted to Yale. Being a first generation college student and coming from an under-represented state most likely contributed to her getting admitted. 
  3. Just because the admissions officer referenced the Papa John's pizza story doesn't mean it was the highlight of the application. 
  4. Once a student writes an essay that goes viral, it's done. No one can ever successfully write a similar essay like it.

So, take these viral essays with a grain of salt. If they seem simple or plain silly, there are usually other reasons why the student was admitted. 

Be thoughtful when writing essays and short responses. Be authentic. And most of all, be yourself. If that's not enough for a specific college then look to other colleges that will value the person you are.