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How Important is the College Essay?
You know it is 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 answer is that it depends on a number of factors. 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.
Huge public schools, such as state flagship universities, tend to have more applicants that private schools, as well as limited resources with which to evaluate candidates. Competitive state schools, such as UC Berkeley and University of Michigan, tend to screen candidates on the basis of GPA and test scores first before reviewing extracurricular activities and essays. If you are a “borderline” candidate, with a 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 are too far below average, since, first and foremost, the primary bases for evaluation are the quantitative aspects of your application.
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 his or her 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.
The importance of your essay also depends on you personally as a candidate. For students who otherwise present strong profiles, with a high GPAs, competitive test scores, and stellar extracurricular activities, your essay is unlikely to have a big impact on your overall application, because you have already demonstrated your ability to succeed. However, you should still aim to write a strong essay. If anything, it will only complement the talent you have already conveyed with the rest of your profile—and it never hurts to impress the admissions committee. Under no circumstances should you ever “blow off” your college essay. Even if your grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities are enough to make 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.
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 or Language Arts tutoring 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 the life sciences or math, and your intended major follows the same suit, admissions committees may provide a little more leeway and judge your essay 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 understand that your talents lie elsewhere.
For students who have less competitive academic profiles, presenting a particularly impressive essay may tip the balance in your favor. This is more likely to happen with smaller schools that can take the time to go over your entire application more comprehensively, because, as mentioned earlier, large schools may not have the resources or funding to devote as much attention to every applicant. Additionally, while a strong essay may help borderline candidates, it won’t be enough to make up for an otherwise weak profile.
That said, students who know they may have weaker GPAs or test scores than other applicants at a particular school may want to take the time to craft a truly outstanding essay. Starting particularly early, coming up with a thoughtful idea, writing several drafts, self-editing, and soliciting feedback may help you create essay that will give you that extra edge as an applicant. If you have a unique story to tell, tell it. Perhaps you have a particular talent, skill, or life experience that will set you apart from other applicants. Whatever that attribute may be, writing about it in an eloquent and inspiring way may be enough to sway admissions committees’ minds on candidates who might otherwise be denied admission to a particular school.
Additionally, students who have faced extraordinary adversity or life circumstances may be able to turn their experiences into a powerful essay. You can use your essay to speak about how your particular situation has influenced you and made you the person you are today or the person you hope to become. Colleges may look favorably on applicants who are willing to speak candidly about their experiences and explain how their individual experiences have shaped their lives. Essays that reveal unique adversity or life circumstances can also help explain gaps in the students’ applications. For instance, if you have struggled academically because of a family crisis or haven’t had access to the same resources financially or otherwise as other students, you can use your essay as an opportunity to explain how you dealt with your setbacks, especially if you persevered in spite of obstacles and overcame difficult situations.
It goes without saying that under no circumstances should you lie about particular life experiences or challenges in your essay—or anywhere else in your college application—to gain an edge in the admissions process. Aside from the fact that doing so is ethically wrong—and it is—there may be serious consequences should colleges find out that you haven’t presented yourself accurately. Your high school may be duty-bound to report inaccuracies and other application violations to the colleges to which you have applied if they find out that you’ve misrepresented yourself, too. Colleges may also revoke admission if they find out after you have been accepted.
Try not to worry too much about the things that have or haven’t happened to you as you try to come up with an essay topic. If you have had a particularly inspiring life experience and think you can write a good essay about it, go for it. But if you’re worrying that you haven’t had anything dramatic or life-changing, don’t be concerned. Your essay is more about how you express your experiences than what actually happen to you. Experiences that may seem mundane, such as a book that inspired you or a friendship that helped you grow, can often make for powerful essays. Try brainstorming a bit and see what happens. The way you write your essay and how you deliver it matters more than what actually happened.
Just as with all the components of your college applications, your essay does matter. But keeping in mind to what degree it will affect your individual likelihood of acceptance, and how various colleges will look at it in the admissions process, can help you decide how much attention you should give it and on which part of the application your energy is best spent.
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