Every year, as summer vacations wind down, rising seniors hit that rite of passage: college essay season.

All across the country, sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds struggle to find the 650 words that capture their unique identity and personality and help them stand out from tens of thousands of competing college applicants.

The Washington Post recently reflected on the magnitude of the college essay:

The admissions essay is make-it-or-break-it for your average high school senior. They have to be unique but poignant, smart but not smart-alecky. Kids have to sell themselves without sounding selfish or arrogant. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of other kids are doing the same exact thing at the same exact time, all trying to stand out.

Unsurprisingly, this task, which would flummox most adults, can reduce even the most level-headed high school student to a state of high panic. In fact, I’ve heard a student say that he was “lucky” to be the victim of a cruel act of racism because it gave him something unique to write about.

Really, how important is the college application essay?

Too many students waste the real opportunity they have here. Many just aren’t even sure how much weight the essay “really” carries in the admissions process.

There are six elements that factor into private college admissions.

In order of importance, they are:

  1. GPA
  2. Standardized test scores (SAT or ACT)
  3. Extracurricular activities
  4. Personal essay
  5. Recommendations
  6. Interview

Note that the college essay is the fourth most important factor, coming right after a student’s academic profile and extracurricular activities.

Students cannot afford to drop the ball on writing a great college application essay

Students hoping to be competitive at the most selective schools—schools such as the Ivies and Stanford—cannot afford to drop the ball on any one of these six factors.

While a spectacular essay alone cannot make up for a lackluster transcript or an indifferent extracurricular record, it can be the factor that selects between two students with similar academic statistics and comparable levels of extracurricular accomplishment.

Remember, the vast majority of students who gain entrance into a school like Stanford have uniformly high, practically perfect levels of academic accomplishment. A former admissions reader at Stanford revealed:

“When reading applications, we did use one acronym in particular—SP (“standard positive”), which indicated that the student was solid and had an overall positive application, but unfortunately was just standard.” This means that applicants to the most selective schools will need to “consider how [they’ll] stand out in the pile. [They] don’t want to be just “standard”. [They] want to be different, memorable, and (to use another Stanford admissions term) angular.”

One former Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth admitted the essay can reveal much about a student’s personality and fit for the university.

If I read an admissions essay, and the student came off as arrogant, entitled, mean, selfish, or, on the flip side, funny, charming, generous, witty, I wrote that exact trait in my notes. It’s not enough just to be smart at top schools. Students must also show that they’ll be good classmates and community builders.


So, is the college application essay (really that) important?

Yes. Absolutely. Without a doubt.

It is that important, especially for private colleges. In fact, in the last analysis, the college essay can be the factor that gets one candidate in and keeps another out.



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