How Important is the College Essay?
You know it’s important to have a high GPA, strong standardized tests scores, and extracurricular activities for your college application. But what about the essay? Just how much does it really matter to your overall academic profile?
The essay is always important, but just how much it will influence your overall application varies by the school to which you are applying, as well as your individual profile. We’ll break it down further in this post.
How Important is the College Essay?
At the top 250 schools, your essays generally account for 25% of your overall application. This is only slightly behind the 30% for extracurriculars. Essays are actually ahead of the 20% for grades and coursework, 15% for test scores, and 10% for recommendations and interviews.
You might be surprised to learn that essays are that important, but keep in mind that at top schools, there are at least 4 academically-qualified candidates for every open spot. To truly assess an applicant’s fit with the school, admissions officers need the essays. Essays are your one opportunity to share your voice, your unique experiences, and your perspective.
Factors that Impact the Importance of College Essays
While there is a general breakdown as to how important essays are, their actual influence will vary based on several factors:
1. School size and type.
Huge public schools tend to have more applicants than private schools, as well as limited resources with which to evaluate candidates. State schools tend to screen candidates first using GPA and test scores, before reviewing extracurricular activities and essays. At these schools, essays matter less if you have particularly strong academics. The more selective the school, however, the more important essays are. For instance, essays likely matter more at UC Berkeley and the University of Michigan compared to the University of Nebraska or University of Arizona. This is because more selective schools often have more qualified applicants, so essays are used kind of as a tie-breaker.
In contrast, smaller colleges, especially liberal arts schools, tend to take a more holistic approach to evaluating candidates, since these colleges tend to be more self-selective and receive fewer applications. Therefore, they can devote more time and resources to each individual application.
Top private schools like the Ivies and similar-tier colleges also prefer to use a holistic approach when evaluating students, seeking to understand the candidate and their background as a whole. At top-tier colleges, many of the candidates are already excellent students who have stellar grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities, so essays provide an additional way to differentiate candidates and understand their entire profiles and personalities. As a result, essays are extremely important at these schools, even for those with stellar academics.
2. The strength of your profile.
If you are a “borderline” candidate, with good but less-competitive grades and test scores, a strong essay could push you into the admitted pool. However, your essay is unlikely to compensate for grades and test scores that are too far below average, since academics are the primary basis of evaluation.
For the student who otherwise presents an outstanding profile, with a high GPA, competitive test scores, and stellar extracurricular activities, the essay may have a smaller impact on your overall application, because you have already demonstrated your ability to succeed. However, you should still aim to write a strong essay, especially if your dream colleges are highly-selective.
Under no circumstances should you ever “blow off” your college essay. Even if the rest of your profile makes you a top candidate for competitive colleges, your essay always matters. In fact, your essay could end up hurting an application for an otherwise strong candidate if it appears hastily written or not well thought-out.
3. Your intended major.
Factoring in your particular interests, talents, and intended major makes the importance of the essay even more nuanced. If you intend to study a humanities subject such as Journalism, Creative Writing, or English, and list writing-oriented extracurricular activities (such as your school newspaper) on your application, your essay needs to reflect your talent and chosen major. If colleges see that your focus is writing and receive a poorly-written or uninspired essay, they will be confused — and may wonder how well you understand your own strengths.
On the other hand, if your focus is clearly on a subject in which writing personally and creatively is not as essential, such as STEM, admissions committees may provide a little more leeway and judge your essay a little less harshly. You still need to present a well-written and carefully-considered essay, of course. If you know writing is somewhat of a weakness, have teachers, guidance counselors, friends, and family members read it and offer feedback. However, colleges will generally understand that your talents lie elsewhere.
Essays are an extremely important part of the college admissions process. While certain factors may impact the relative influence of essays, you should always put in your best effort.
If you’re looking for more help on how to write a strong essay, check out these posts:
Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.