As early decision deadlines are quickly approaching, I spend the majority of my time helping students develop their college application essays. While my last blog post explained what admissions officers are looking for in the college essay, this post focuses on why application essays are in fact so important.
I asked my Barnard classmate Sarah Steinmann, Assistant Director of List College Admissions, why the essay is such a crucial piece of the college application. Sarah made three key statements that I want to unpack for my students and parents. “Unpack” is a word that I use with my students all the time. I tell them that one cannot simply “drop” a quote into an essay without explaining the content, even if it seems obvious to the writer. Students, if you ever do not understand what I mean when I ask you to “unpack” a statement or paragraph, refer to this blog post!
“The essay is one of the only pieces of the college application where the student has a chance to show his or her personality.”
Two heavily weighed parts of the college application, grades and test-scores, give a limited, two-dimensional view of the applicant. It is your essays and recommendation letters from teachers and guidance counselors that truly showcase your voice and character. The essay is a good opportunity to show personality because you can actively participate in crafting the admission committee’s perception of you. After all, who can describe yourself better than you? We all know ourselves better than anyone else.
“The essay is the one part of the application that the student has 110% control over at this moment in time.”
At the time of your senior year, not much can be changed regarding the admissions committee’s perception of you. Your grades from the last three years are set in stone. Hopefully you have already taken the SAT or ACT at least once, and may still be preparing to take it one more time. Additionally, meaningful involvement in extracurricular activities has already been established, as it is rare for you to be appointed or elected to a position of leadership in a club if you have not been involved in the past. Therefore, the essay is the only opportunity you have to impress the admissions committee without having to exclusively rely on the past three years of high school.
“An excellent essay reveals the character of the applicant and entices an admissions counselor to advocate for the applicant in committee meetings.”
In the admissions committee meetings, you want your counselor to advocate for your acceptance. College admissions aside, one of the best ways to get a person to become your advocate is to get the person to become emotionally invested in you. What better way to get someone emotionally invested in you than to tell them a meaningful story or life experience that reflects your personal values and qualities?
Michael Motto, Former Admissions Officer at Yale University and Co-Founder of Apply High, says in the Apply High blog, “I saw hundreds of applicants who had top grades and top test scores but did not make the most of their application essay, leaving me to wonder, ‘What more is there to this student?’ That is not a question you want your admissions officer to be asking by the time he puts down your file!” Motto’s statement has significant implications for the way in which a strong essay can differentiate you from other applicants with similar credentials.
The college application essay also gives admissions officers insight on whether or not you are a good fit for the school and what you will add to the freshman class. The better grades and test scores you have, the more important the essay is to your admission decision. Due to how competitive the college application process has become, there are an overwhelming amount of highly qualified students and limited ways to differentiate one from the other. Using the essay as a way to show what makes you unique as an individual is a great place to start!