Analyzing JFK's Successful Harvard Essay


Ananth Veluvali @ Stanford University

Analyzing JFK's Successful Harvard Essay

The Prompt: Why do you wish to come to Harvard?

JFK's response: The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better background and a better liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a "Harvard man" is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain.

JFK's Harvard essay

Our Thoughts on JFK's Essay

What he accomplishes

  • He outlines his desire for a liberal education and identifies Harvard as the school in the best position to provide this service.

  • He flatters Harvard and separates it by claiming that it's not "just another college".

  • He expresses his long-held intention to attend Harvard.

  • He brings up his legacy status.

Where his essay falls short

  • While the writing is technically solid, this essay lacks a compelling story.

  • He never specifically identifies Harvard’s unique qualities, nor does he explain why those unique qualities would be a good match for him.

  • His family ties and desire to attend (which is really the heart of his application essay) are irrelevant; the admissions committee is uninterested in what its applicant wants. It’s far more interested in how an applicant might fit in and what that applicant might offer the college. JFK fails to consider both his fit and his potential contributions to Harvard.

Concluding thoughts

It’s quite clear that applying to college in the 1930s was quite different. JFK’s essay today likely wouldn’t slide at a less-selective state institution – and definitely wouldn’t be accepted at an enviable institution like Harvard.

This isn’t a reflection of JFK’s talents—clearly, he is a deeply intelligent man—but it does show how much applying to college has changed over the past few decades.



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