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How important is the college application essay?


Some particularly generous Barnes & Noble coupons had me perusing their shelves recently and I happened upon the “College Planning” section. A whole section with its own label and everything. And there, nestled among the Princeton Review and Fiske’s Guide and test prep workbooks, was book after book about writing the essay required in most colleges’ application for admission. That’s right, whole books about writing an essay capped at 650 words.

As I scanned the spines and saw the essay books, one after the other, shelf after shelf, I took a step back. I tried to count them all, and since a list of my strengths and virtues includes neither math nor patience, I guesstimated that 40-50% of the books were about writing the college essay. I said out loud, “My goodness, calm down people.”

It’s not that the essay isn’t important, it’s just not as important as the available advice would lead you to believe. But I get it, the essay is an easy thing to teach to anxious high school students looking for help getting in to a good school. At least it’s easier to teach then, say, the whole complex college search like I do. 

So does the essay even matter?

Yes. It matters. Not as much as the collective achievement of your years in high school as evidenced in your transcript, or the score you receive on a comprehensive test like the SAT or ACT, but it does matter. 

Why does it matter?

I read thousands of these things during my time in college admissions. In almost every application, the essay didn’t stand out, and that was good. Why? Because essays stand out for one of two reasons; they connect with the admissions counselor in a personal way, or they raise a red flag. You have no control over whether or not the admissions counselor will identify with something in your essay, or perhaps find it funny (whether you intend it or not) so that’s just dumb luck. What you want your essay to do is fit comfortably in with the rest of your application. If the quality seems out of line with your English grades or your recommendations, then the reader will ask why.

So what makes for a good essay?

Be honest. Be open. Write what’s true for you, not what you think the college wants to hear. 

What should I NOT do in my essay?

Unfortunately the essay prompts, no matter how they’re tweaked, often lead students to write about the same small set of experiences. Tearing your ACL, serving food at a soup kitchen, or losing a grandparent are impactful experiences in everyone’s life. Don’t write about the first thing that comes to mind. Give yourself time. Make lists of possible subjects and really think them out. Talk to your parents about it. Toss around ideas with your friends. Give it a few days. 

Then there’s politics. I know there’s a narrative in our country that says college are bastions of ultra-liberal ideas, but that’s a stereotype. The vast majority of college students and staff are just regular people, working hard and trying to make the best of their life. So if you choose to write about a political issue, know that the admissions counselor who reads it could be conservative or liberal or libertarian or a democratic socialist or…you get the idea. Try as we might to be professional at all times, we’re still human beings. If you need to write about your involvement with a political movement, use a tone and context that doesn’t assume the reader is in agreement. 

Can you sum this all up for me?

  1. The essay matters, but not too much.
  2. Give yourself time to consider what you’ll write. 
  3. Give yourself time to write.
  4. Ask someone else, anyone else, to read it and respond. 
  5. Edit, submit, and don’t worry about it again.

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Jen ParticaComment