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50 Successful Harvard Application Essays: What Worked For Them Can Help You Get Into the College of Your Choice, Third Edition, Staff of the Harvard Crimson, St. Martin's Griffin, 2010, 208 pages, $14.99.

The college application essay is the most nerve-wracking writing assignment most 17-year-olds have ever faced. Generally, students have about 500 words to set themselves apart and convey personal qualities not readily apparent in grade point averages, SAT scores, and lists of extracurricular activities. This book offers a straightforward learn-by-example approach that can help any applicant write the lucid, compelling, and persuasive essay needed to gain acceptance to competitive colleges.

The book begins with some general tips on how best to communicate what admissions officers are looking for, including: "Show your readers through anecdotes, colorful details, or self-reflection how you've grown, how you've overcome a certain loss, or how you've mastered a personal weakness."

The most helpful aspect of the book, however, is a compilation of essays written by students who were ultimately accepted to the nation's top-ranked school. Editors of Harvard's student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, provide commentary on each essay's strengths and weaknesses, and offer advice on how it might be improved.

Both creative and conventional approaches are illustrated in the example essays. The samples also demonstrate that writers need not worry if they don't have a heroic or dramatic event to draw from, because even the mundane stuff of everyday life can elegantly showcase personality or character qualities and win over admissions officers. For example, one young woman explains how her art teacher broadened her perception of beauty with a simple rusted pot. A young man's response to a well-intended, but hurtful comment from his father displays the teen's growing maturity and sense of self.

Some of the essays take risks that might be considered gimmicky: one composition is a humorous take on the torturous process of writing his essay. The Harvard Crimson editors explain why these examples work, while warning readers of the pitfalls of such an approach.

Nervous college applicants will gain both topic ideas and increased confidence from reading essays that vary widely in subject, style, and even quality of writing. Readers will see that there really isn't a formula for the perfect college essay; a compelling composition is one that reveals the applicant as a thoughtful person with inspirations and passions that they claim as their own.

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