Why are College Admission Essays so Important?

I view the admissions essays as one of the most important parts of the application. Of course your grades and activities matter too, but especially when you get to more competitive schools and candidates, nearly everyone looks pretty good on paper. How do you stand out from the rest? Or conversely, say your grades haven’t been the strongest or you haven’t been as involved. How can you show them who you are beyond that?

For me, the answer has always come down to the Personal Statement — the main essay of the Common Application or Coalition Application that will go out to all the colleges where you apply. When I was working as an admissions officer, I could read anywhere from five to sixty applications a day. While I noted grades and cared about the test scores, at the end of the day, I didn’t hold in my mind that A- in Calculus — what I remembered was the story about blossoming passion for environmental science or overcoming the hardship of an important loss. I remembered the story that students told me, the way they depicted themselves beyond the quantitative into who they are as a person. It was my way of getting to know them without the luxury of a face-to-face conversation.

The most exciting part of the essays, I think, is that you get to tell your story in your voice about something, really anything, in the world that is important to you. It is highly personalizable and open for you to present your narrative. You have a great deal of agency in how you introduce yourself to the admissions officers.

Because it can leave a lasting impression on your reader, it’s important to approach the essays with care and intention.

Whatever topic you choose reveals a lot about you. It can showcase your passions, values, character traits, curiosities, and more. Your personality can even come through with the style and tone of the piece.

When done with intention, you can choose a topic that you are passionate about for one reason or another and that also heightens other elements at work within the application. View it as the exclamation point at the end of a sentence! All else has fallen nicely into place: your transcript from previous years is set, you’ve organized your activities, your test scores are collected, your letter of recommendation writers said nice things about you — the essay puts emphasis on what these other elements are building toward!

I’ll use my own admissions essays and application as an example. I was applying to college as an English major; throughout high school I participated in the school newspaper, literary magazine, and theatre; I took additional classes in writing; and I was at the top of my class when I graduated. When it came time to write the essay, it felt only natural to write about what I was most passionate about — writing. I discussed how my love of writing developed early from my love of reading. Even though I didn’t talk about the school newspaper or my ACT writing score, after the admissions officers read through those elements, they saw my deep connection and commitment to what I wanted to study. It was made even clearer by my intended major.

This is just my personal example, just one approach among thousands of approaches. What I think is most important is that the personal essay is a unique and thoughtful representation of what makes you you. Ultimately, admissions officers want to get to know who will be joining the campus community, not only if they have the smarts. They are holistically crafting their future classes.

Of course, in addition to the informative aspect of the essay, it is ultimately also a writing sample. Admissions officers want to see that you have taken the time to develop and polish a well-crafted essay. You should have a command of grammar and mechanics, as well as showcase the ability to structure, organize, and embellish a well-crafted essay. In the short space of 650 words, they get a sense of your strength as a writer, which can also translate into how ready an applicant might be for collegiate-level study. An essay like those should never be written overnight and turned in the next day. Expect at least a couple drafts to allow it to come to its fully edited and ready glory.

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