Luke Kenworthy, 17, was nervous on Ivy Day — the last Thursday in March, when all eight schools drop their admissions decisions.
He had already received a rejection from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was waitlisted by the University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon University, and was deferred at Harvard University after applying early.
“I legitimately was convinced I wasn’t going to get into any Ivy League schools,” Kenworthy told Business Insider.
But his incredulity turned to shock and then excitement as he opened his decision letters and found that he’d been accepted nearly all of them — Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania. He also received a waitlist spot from Yale.
The Ivy League is notoriously hard to get into, as the hundreds of thousands of other applicants to the eight elite schools are well aware. At Harvard, only 5.2% of the nearly 40,000 applicants were accepted this year.
These schools look for the right mix of academic achievement and extracurricular activities. The Mercer Island High School senior has taken all of the advanced placement courses available at his Seattle-area school, and favours his physics and comparative governement AP coursework. He also is heavily involved in student government and has taken mission trips to Serbia, Turkey, and Guatemala.
For Kenworthy, nailing his admissions essay was also important. After he was deferred from early action at Harvard, he felt compelled to change his essay topic. He worked with a tutor at CollegeVine, a junior biomedical engineering major at Duke University, to improve his essay.
He chose to write about a deeply personal childhood experience which shaped the person he is today.
“To write an essay like that was a little bit weird for me, but also was very important to me too,” Kenworthy said. “The events that happened in my life very much shaped who I am,” he continued.
Kenworthy graciously shared his Common Application admissions essay with Business Insider, which we’ve reprinted verbatim below.
“The soft thumping of my dad’s heart provided a small degree of solace as I cried with my head on his chest. I was in fifth grade. He had just told me that my mum, having been attacked by her boyfriend, was in the hospital. I remember being surprised with myself, surprised that I would be sad after all she had done. This was the same person who, when I was eight, threw a drunken party at our house for teens younger than I am now. This was the same person who would disappear after spending nights at the bar, the person who went to jail for trying to strangle my dad in an inebriated stupor. She had not been a part of my life for over a year since my dad received sole custody; I thought I had closure, that I was ready to move on. Yet, hot tears still ran down my cheek as I imagined her swollen face and the bruises on her arms.
“I had always been shy as a kid and the absence of my mum exacerbated this problem as I tried to unhealthily suppress my insecurities and fill her absence with others’ approval. In sixth grade, I constantly sought the attention of a group of kids who, in turn, bullied me. Consequently, when I switched schools going into seventh grade, I was shy and timid, afraid to engage with new people. I pictured myself near the bottom of a rigid social hierarchy. The next year, I started to branch out more, but inside, I remained obsessed with how others perceived me.
“Entering high school, I would spend hours at a time thinking about my insecurity and talking through memories of my mum with my dad. During this time, I would always remember how I had stared numbly into the ripples of my dad’s shirt as a fifth grader. I could never forget that feeling of helplessness, but with repeated reflection, I began to understand this moment in a different way. Given her circumstances — raised by an abusive, alcoholic father and a neglectful mother; involved in several dysfunctional relationships with controlling men; drinking to numb the injustices of life, but then realising it was too late to stop — I have no way of knowing if my life would be any different from hers.
“For the first time, I began to understand an idea that has since granted me freedom: I cannot walk in my mum’s shoes, and thus, no one else can truly walk in mine. The way others perceive me is inherently inaccurate, so I do not need to concern myself with what others think. This realisation provided me the freedom to become untethered from the approval of others, finally at ease with myself.
“I started to open up. Throughout high school, I began talking to others about ideas that fascinated me, like space travel and philosophy, rather than frantically searching for common ground. I quit football, realising that I largely participated for the status it brought me, and joined cross country, because I genuinely enjoy running. I started holding the door open for my classmates almost every morning, greeting them as they arrived at school, hoping to brighten their day. I became engaged in my role on student council, which paid off when I was elected student body president. Even then, it wasn’t the role itself that I found meaningful, but the way I could use it to help others. The basis of my friendships shifted from validation seeking to mutual, genuine respect.
“As I listened to my dad’s heartbeat that night, my mind filled with anger and sorrow. However, in hindsight, I am thankful for the lessons I learned from my mother; the pain I felt was a necessary step in the process of becoming the person I am today, someone who is unafraid to express himself.”
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