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Do Essays Really Matter

Read actual questions from students about the application essay and see answers and advice from college planning and admissions experts

How much of an impact can admissions essays actually make? - Susi

Probably a bigger impact than you imagine. If you are overqualified and applying to a school with a high acceptance rate, then maybe not. However, if you are like most students where you are applying to competitive schools, then your essays will make a significant difference in the number and quality of acceptance offers that you receive.

Especially for students who fall just short of a school’s admissions requirements, the essay can be your way to help the school understand why you belong in their program and how you can make a meaningful contribution. If you show passion and enthusiasm, then you can tip the scales in your favor. However, you’ll need to craft an essay that is stellar in every dimension: content, organization, tone, and writing that is free from errors.

Would it be appropriate to write a quality essay and then send copies of that same one to every college, or should I create unique essays for each college? - Amy

Each essay should be tailored to the prompt. However, schools often have similar prompts that will allow you to use the main body of your essay, or at least a few paragraphs, across multiple applications. The main pitfall we see in this situation is when applicants are trying to apply to too many schools in the hopes that casting a wide net will ensure acceptance from at least one school. Admissions officers know a generic essay when they see one, so be sure that your essays always reflect strong interest in that particular school.

I am pretty much in love with the admissions essay I wrote, but the limit is 500 words and mine is almost 600. Do you think that having an essay that is 80 words or so too long would count against me, even if it's good? - Laura

Look at the prompt again. Many schools will ask you to write an essay of ‘about’ a particular length. In that case, they’re telling you that they want you to generally stay within those bounds, but it’s not a hard rule. If the prompt gives a specific word length, then 10% over is typically okay, but remember that you’re sending a tacit message to the admissions officers that you can’t follow their guidelines. You might want to have another person look at your essay and ask what could be trimmed without losing any meaning from the essay.

For my college essay, I was thinking of writing about how a medical condition I have has affected me. But at the same time, I don't want to sound like I am trying to get sympathy from the college admissions officers. How do college admissions people feel about these types of essays? - Lisa 

That largely depends on your attitude within the essay. From the way you phrased the question, it seems that you aren’t looking to play on the admissions officers heartstrings. Overcoming a challenging medical condition can foster resilience and a more mature outlook on life. These are qualities that, in our experience, all colleges are seeking in their applicants. One potential pitfall in writing about medical conditions is making the admissions officers wonder if your medical condition will interfere with your potential for success. Therefore, be clear that either 1) you are in full recovery or 2) you know how to manage your condition. Let them see how the situation has built character and a strong sense of personal responsibility.

What do the admission office try to learn from the college essay? What kind of person you are or experiences you have gone through that has made you a better person? - Monowara

Both. In your admissions essays, write about pivotal experiences in your life. They want to see the ability to think critically about situations you have encountered and how those situations affected who you are as well as your approach to life. Show the admissions officers that you will grow from the college experience and leave college better prepared not only for a career but also to become a contributing member of society. 

What should the topic be in my essay? Would I describe my past academic achievements, sports, clubs, etc.? Or would I describe what I want to achieve throughout my four years of college and my career aspirations thereafter? - Susan

We encourage applicants to develop a mindset that they are creating a personal statement rather than an essay to the admissions committees. This should set a tone of sharing what you consider to be the most important interests you have, experiences that influence your interests or academic interests and goals for college. You do not want to write what amounts to a summary of your activities and accomplishments which you will list in other parts of the application. The best starting point to the personal statement is to decide what key personal features or characteristics you want a group of strangers to know about you. Then choose an event, a circumstance, or an activity that enables you to develop these features into a coherent story. Be relaxed, be honest, and be energetic in your writing.

What do the admission office try to learn from the college essay? What kind of person you are or experiences you have gone through that has made you a better person? - Monowara

This is a very good question that almost all students ask when it comes time to write their college applications. In a very real sense, the admissions committee wants to gain insight into the individual behind the objective information (grades, courses, test scores, GPA). What does this mean? They want to know what experiences you have had or the circumstances in which you have grown up that have shaped your values, your beliefs, your view of the world, your dreams and ambitions for your future, your commitment to hard work, and a genuine desire to learn and to live with others of different backgrounds and beliefs. So, you should write about any experiences that have influenced the factors listed above. The admissions committees are also going to learn about you from the thoughtfulness and the quality of your writing.

I heard that you can write your application essay as a poem if you're really good at poetry or not even make the essay an essay at all. Is this true? - india

Yes, you can be creative in your approach to the application. A poem is a logical way to go. Doing something very different entails some amount of risk. Some colleges do offer a "my space" section, with which you are encouraged to do anything you want, including photos, artwork, film, writing. However, for the main essay, colleges want an essay, meaning an example of your writing. Could you do it in iambic pentameter? Sure. But, don't just draw a picture.

 

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We’re often asked by families how much weight the college essay carries in the admissions process, many of whom are wondering if a great essay can help a student overcome application weaknesses like grades or test scores that fall below the average for a particular college.

The answer certainly depends on the college. While there’s no specific weighting of essays in the college admissions process, you can understand their role if you think of the application and the essay as two distinct parts of the evaluation, serving different roles.

The application is where an admissions officer decides if you are qualified for admission. What classes did you take? What were your grades? What were your test scores? What were your activities? What honors or awards did you receive? What did your teachers say about you in their letters of recommendation? Could you be academically and socially successful on campus, the kind of student who will make an impact during your four years on campus?

If the answers to those questions work in your favor and there is plenty of room for students like you on campus, then the essay is less important. Put another way, if the committee doesn’t need to turn away qualified applicants, then the essay is not as important.

But the more selective the college, the more qualified students there will be in the pool, and often without enough space to accommodate them. In fact, the most selective colleges may receive two or three times the number of applications from high school valedictorians than they could ever admit. In cases where there are too many qualified applicants and not enough spots, admissions officers have to make distinctions about students that go beyond those qualities listed on an application.

Do I like you? Do I think students will like you? Do I think you have an interesting perspective to bring to campus? Will students and faculty feel like their experience benefits from having you in the classroom, in the dorm, in the clubs, and in the campus organizations?

Those distinctions are best answered by honest, revealing essays that help admissions officers get to know you.

An effective college essay helps an admissions officer get to know you in ways that an application cannot. It makes them like you and picture you on campus. And most importantly, it gives them a reason to choose you as one of those students that they will bring to committee to make a case for admission.

Essays rarely change an admissions officer’s mind if your qualifications aren’t up to the college’s standards. When essays do sway the vote in those cases, it’s usually because they reveal a significant hardship or other life circumstance that explains the inconsistencies. If you had such a situation that affected you, that might be worth sharing in your essay and an admissions committee will consider it. But please be careful. Most essays that attempt to explain away deficiencies, often by manufacturing hardship that wasn’t actually there (“My friend’s parents divorced and it affected me, which is why my grades dropped sophomore year,”) just serve to highlight the areas of an application that a student was trying to explain away.

More commonly, a great essay takes you from being just another kid among many with great qualifications and moves you to an applicant an admissions officer will lobby for. They’ll share your story and their vision for why they believe you deserve a spot on campus. And at the more selective colleges, that’s about the best you can reasonably hope for in this process—one person who’s convinced, who will make an effort to convince the rest of the committee.

So yes, the essays are important. The colleges read them and often use them to drive decisions that couldn’t be made with just grades and test scores alone. So give your essays the time and attention they deserve, but also, have reasonable expectations about how much even the best essay can accomplish. The best way to do that is to apply to plenty of schools where your chances of admission are strong rather than playing the “reach school” lottery and applying to a dozen schools where your chances aren’t as encouraging.

If you pair good college choices with good applications and essays, you’re likely to be happy with your results.

Filed Under: College essays