The Importance of the College Essay

August 3, 2018

Angst about the “college essay” lives viciously in many college bound juniors and seniors.  I believe this angst exists in such magnitude partly because students and parents don’t accurately understand the function and impact of essays in the college process.  After years of coaching students to produce strong essays, I want to share a few points of clarification that might help reduce the stress associated with this particular piece of the application process.

What’s the point?

First, I want to unpack the reasons why admissions offices ask students to write college essays at all.  For starters, admissions offices ask students to write essays to give them a qualitative (or non-numeric) perspective on the student.  I have heard the essay described as adding a “third dimension” to a student’s “2-dimensional application,” or as “bringing a student’s voice to the application.”  In essence, “hearing” a student’s thoughts on the essay prompts provided allows an admissions office to try to understand more of the student than just the numbers, test scores, and activities provided.

However, another equally-important purpose is for an admissions office to review a sample of the student’s writing.  Yes, this piece of writing may have been proofread or coached a bit by adults, but in general, colleges want to see that a student, when motivated, can produce a piece of writing that demonstrates maturity of thought, precision of grammar and wording, and effectiveness in communication.  I find that many students (and parents) get stuck on finding an essay topic that’s good enough or will wow or impress admissions officers. I would say that, generally, very few essays are memorable to the point that students want them to be, but having a thoughtful, genuine, well-written essay goes a long way to demonstrating that you are college ready, even if your essay isn’t a particularly dynamite topic.

Helping to Make the Right Choice

Essays help students demonstrate their fit for the institution. If a student is wiling to do research and write a supplemental essay demonstrating his or her fit for the institution, this can help a student stand out from other candidates.  In my experience, students spend too little time refining the supplemental essays (which are often as important some places than the primary application essay), and even will send these in with errors or written last-minute, when, in actuality, each opportunity to write should be approached as an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to put thought into what you are writing and execute a college-ready piece of work.

As for potential impact of the essay, the importance of admissions essays can be so, so difficult to determine from the outside.  First, I will acknowledge that the essay is one of the only things left within a student’s control by the time he or she is filling out the application. Grades, test scores, recommendations – these are already established. Often, students funnel all of their anxieties into the essay, and feel that it means everything – which is neither helpful nor accurate.  However, downplaying the essay as unimportant can also be unhelpful – an essay can be an impactful piece of the application in some scenarios.

Breaking It Down

For a student who is applying to a college requiring one main essay or personal statement, where the student is comfortably within the range of the schools mid-50% GPA and test score, and the chances of admission are reasonably high, the essay is unlikely to be the most impactful part of the application. Similarly, if a student is applying to a highly selective college, is well below the average GPA and test scores, and is hoping the essay will put this student in the game for admission, disappointingly, the essay is unlikely to do that in most cases.  Every now and then, a student will have something to say that does change the game, but most of us are inclined to think of ourselves as an exception, when, realistically, we are not.

Another way to say it is that essays are unlikely to change likely outcomes. In cases where other factors point largely toward admission or denial, an essay is important for the purposes of verifying what other facts in the application already show, but no more.  However, in a different scenario, where a student is borderline for admission or scholarships based on quantitative factors, the essay could literally be the differentiating piece of the application. In a competitive admission or scholarship process, essays can be one of the biggest factors at play. In these scenarios, where test scores, GPAs, etc. have gotten a student’s application “in the door,” the essay can be the piece of the application that grabs the attention of admissions officers and helps a student stand out over others with similar qualifications.  In these cases, laborious time working on essays is justified and well-spent.

How important is the essay?

Well, it depends on the colleges you are applying to and how competitive you are for them. How much time you spend going from a strong to an excellent essay should depend on if you are marginal for admission or might be eligible for scholarships at that college and might be reviewed by professors or administration.  The important thing is to be reasonable about understanding how your essay is going to fit into your process of admission, allot your resources of time and energy accordingly, and do your best.

In my experience, most students let the essay hang over them and grow in importance and nastiness, thus exacerbating the angst involved in the process.  Yet, when I sit students down in my office to brainstorm and free-write essay topics, consistently they can produce a rough draft by the end of 3 hours. My best advice is to find a way to set small blocks of time each week and always accomplish something.  Stuck on the essay? Do a 15-minute brainstorming essay. Or, open your Common Application account and complete one section. Still stuck on your main essay topic? Knock out one of the supplemental essays at your top choice school. Spend 15 minutes researching one of your colleges in preparation for a scholarship essay or an interview.

Overall, use common sense and don’t let the essay angst overwhelm you.  Get someone to proofread it, and feel great that you have put your best foot forward. Practice adult skills by demonstrating that you can take the task of applying to college, complete it thoughtfully and on time, and set reasonable expectations for yourself both in the schools you apply to and the applications you complete.

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