Why College Essays Matter and How to Make Yours Stick Out

May 28, 2022
By AdmissionSight

Why College Essays Matter and How to Make Yours Stick Out

As you submit your college applications, you may start to wonder, “why do college essays matter?” This question makes sense when you think about all the application materials high school students have to submit. From completing an application and compiling a resume to getting letters of recommendation and high school transcripts, the list of items is long and even longer for certain schools and even different programs at the same school.

For example, in addition to all the regular application materials, USC requires students to respond to four additional essay prompts beyond the standard prompts on the Common App. Other schools require a personal statement or a statement of purpose, an autobiographical statement, or a diversity statement. These additional essays increase both the writing requirement and the importance of the essay to your overall application.

How Important are college essays?

When applying for highly competitive schools, as many as 20 academically-excellent students might be vying for the same spot you are applying for. That means that admissions officers absolutely need the essays to truly assess whether each applicant will be an appropriate fit for the school. The essay is your primary opportunity to express yourself, share your unique life experiences, and give them a glimpse into your paradigms and perspectives.

Writing an essay on a notebook.

Based on the admissions review process at the top 250 schools in the US, the essay accounts for one-fourth of your overall application score or rating. Other parts of the application account for more, like extracurriculars making up almost one-third, or less, your grades and transcript account for 20 percent, your test scores making up 15 percent, and your letters of recommendation and interviews contributing to the final 10 percent.

These percentage breakdowns make it clear that your essays are worth more than both your grades, your test scores, your letters of recommendation, and your interviews. Only extracurricular involvement accounts for more in the total rating of your application for admission. You don’t have to ask why do college essays matter. They are clearly just as important as the leadership roles and activities outside of academics you participate in, but even more important than your GPA and test scores.

How do you make yourself stand out in colleges?

As you write and revise your essays, you will undoubtedly want to know what you can do or how you can make yourself stand out to colleges. Your essays are one of the primary ways to do this. Any student can earn a high GPA or study for a high test score. Earning leadership roles while impressive is something other students are capable of as well.

Students listening to a professor in a room.

But, the experiences you have, the opinions and perspectives that have been shaped as a result, are what you truly bring to colleges that is unlike any other student. Other high schoolers may have had your experiences of overcoming a difficult childhood or living with an inherited disease, but how you have dealt with those life experiences is unique only to you.

Your college essays are one of the ways you can also think about how you can make your essay more personal. Thinking about how and why your essays matter is a good way to approach the prompts you’ll need to respond to for each school. Despite common practices, there are four other factors that impact why your college essays matter: school size and type, your academic profile, your desired major, and whether test scores are optional.

1. School size and type.

Larger public schools tend to receive more student applications for admissions than private schools. At the same time, they may also have fewer admission officers available to review the increased number of applications.

As a result, large public schools tend to use screening methods for candidates to whittle their numbers down during subsequent rounds. The screen methods may include using minimum GPA and test scores in the first round, extracurricular activities and transcripts in the second round, and then more closely reviewing the essays of students in the third and final round.

Even if everything else is strong, your offer of admission may come down to how strong your essay is compared to other students in the third round of the application review. But, on the other hand, having a strong transcript with strong test scores and an impressive leadership record, then a less than stellar essay may or may not detract depending on how strongly the essay weighs for each admissions officer.

At more selective private schools, the essay would be considered holistically in the first round along with all the other application materials. More selective schools likely receive more highly-qualified applicants with equally impressive academic and extracurricular involvement, so using the essay as a sort of tie-breaker becomes a way to narrow the final group of admitted students down to the available slots.

On the opposite end, smaller schools, like liberal arts or science colleges, may receive fewer applications, so they can spend more time and resources evaluating each individual application. That means that the essay can be more closely scrutinized during every round of the application review process as an indicator of a student’s potential to succeed at the college.

Students answering a test in a room.

Top-ranking private schools like the Ivy Leagues, and the public and “hidden” Ivies also utilize a holistic approach, despite the number of applications they receive. Their admissions process evaluates the entirety of the students’ background and characteristics for students who are already the cream of the crop. Essays become one more way to differentiate the students from each other and add an added layer of information beyond what’s in the rest of their application. There isn’t a GPA high enough to overcome a poor or substandard essay in these cases.

2. The value of your academic profile.

If you know you are a student who is not as competitive, applying to a reach school, and not bringing the highest grades and test scores, then having a strong essay becomes imperative to even be noticed among more qualified applications. But, do not think that writing a good essay can overcome poor grades or low test scores that are way below the average of the admitted class. Highly selective schools may admit students with lower than the average but this is rare enough to be something you should not expect or depend on.

But, for students who submit an impressive student profile with the typical high GPA, high test scores, and highly involved activities list, the essay may have a much smaller impact when compared to the overall application being of outstanding quality. This is a student who has already proven their ability to be successful. But, this type of student should still endeavour to submit an impressive essay that is worthy of being admitted into their highly-selective dream college.

It would be a terrible mistake to downplay the college essay, even for students with excellent profiles. The college essay always matters, especially for top candidates applying to competitive schools. You could even end up having the opposite effect of a poorly-written essay negatively impacting what would otherwise have been an application worthy of admission.

3. Your desired major.

Depending on the major to which you are applying, you’ll need to incorporate your personal interests, skills, talents, and achievements. Based on your desired major, the essay will become more or less important. For example, if you are applying to a writing major, like creative writing, English, or journalism, then your essay would need to reflect your interest and skills in writing.

Admissions officers would naturally expect you to be creative with writing and have a strong grasp of using language to express your voice and showcase your personality. It might be disappointing and result in rejection to find that a student applying for a writing major would submit a hastily written, unedited, or uninspired college essay.

Female student smiling at her laptop while working.

On the other hand, students applying for math or engineering majors may receive some leeway when it comes to the writing of their college essays as their major depends less on writing. STEM majors may be judged less harshly on writing errors by admissions officers but even still, these students should have their essays reviewed by others to help overcome their weaknesses.

4. Test scores optional

As more and more schools give students the option to omit standardized test scores, the college essay becomes more important and matters more. The 15 percent of your application’s rating that comes from the test score is automatically eliminated when you opt-out of submitting test scores.

That means that every other piece of the application is worth more, though the increase may not be spread evenly among all parts. It’s possible that all 15 percent will go toward the essay, thus making it the most important part of your application. Or, it could be divided between extracurriculars, essays, and transcripts. Regardless, not having test scores with your application will naturally increase how much attention is paid to your college essay.

How do I make my college essay stand out?

When you work with our college admissions experts at AdmissionSight, you’ll likely be asking questions like, “How do I make my college essay stand out?,” and “How do I make my college essay more personal?” We can help you answer these questions.

Do:

Write using a realistic style and tone that is your own and not what you think admissions officers want to hear. Use diction that’s appropriate for the situation, and that comes from the real you and your real personality.

Don’t:

Don’t submit an English essay. You can use the writing skills that you’ve learned throughout high school, but remember that a college essay is different from a typical five-paragraph essay. You have more freedom and creativity to write however you feel. Don’t stick to the introduction-thesis-body paragraphs-conclusion formula, as this is not what admissions officers are looking for.

Do:

Use your own life for specific details and particular stories. Describe stories of overcoming challenges or implementing a change with concrete examples that incorporate sensory details. You want the admissions officers to feel as though they have gone through the experience. Entice them in a way that helps to give them a reprieve and a reward from thousands of other applications they’ll have to review.

Don’t:

Don’t lie, misinform, or plagiarize. Many schools use an automatic anti-plagiarism program that catches plagiarism quickly. This is a guaranteed way to have your application rejected. Copying someone else’s essay and presenting it as your own is unethical and basically, an academic infraction that would prevent you from achieving your academic dreams.

Stay away from doing anything dishonest. It would be better to submit a less-than-perfect college essay that you wrote yourself than to submit one that you copied from the internet or had someone else write for you.

Do:

Think carefully about whether you need to reference or include your Covid-19 experiences to explain any related academic, financial, or medical issues you’ve had to deal with. However, keep in mind that many students will take on this topic as well. It can very easily become repetitive and overdone for admissions officers who have to read so many of these essays.

Try to make sure that you balance talking about the pandemic with discussing other aspects of your life that are relevant, so that that experience doesn’t completely take over your essay.

Don’t:

Don’t use your college essays to simply regurgitate what you have included on your resume. The admissions officers will have access to your resume when reviewing your essays. They do not need you to repeat those details. Instead, discuss the less obvious events that explain what’s listed on your resumes, such as the work and effort you put in to become editor of your school newspaper or captain of your football team.

Do:

Demonstrate your interest in the school through your own research into the college, its history, the programs and majors it offers, and its student life. Use your essay to explain why you are a good fit for the school based on your research into the parts that are most relevant to you, such as their religious traditions or their offering of a unique and rare major that few other schools have.

Don’t:

Don’t be too arrogant or a braggart. If you write that you’re the fastest runner in your school, then you should be prepared to discuss why you have the 10th fastest time compared to other runners in your last competitive race.

Do:

Take some time away from your essay after you’ve written your first draft. You’ll want to give yourself enough time to go through several drafts of revising and editing. The time away will help to come back with more critical eyes and help you decide if you need to show the essay to someone else, like your college counselor or your college admissions expert.

Don’t:

Don’t write your essay about other people. You may be tempted to write about your parents as role models or your grandparents as inspiration, but this would be the wrong strategy to take. Your college essay may feature details about your family or other people in your life, but it should always circle back to you, how the relationship impacts you and pushes you to achieve more. The college essay is a great time to build confidence and demonstrate your self-esteem.

Do:

Make sure you actually answer all parts of the questions contained within the prompts. Check that you are answering the right question that you intended and that you haven’t accidentally combined elements from the other prompts. You’ll want to directly address the prompt throughout your essay.

Don’t:

Don’t procrastinate. You might think you have more time than you do, and before you know it, the deadline has arrived. Avoid waiting until the last minute to start your essays. You’ll want to give yourself a few days to a couple of weeks, depending on your writing speed and how quickly editors get back to you.

You’ll need plenty of time to reflect on feedback you receive, incorporate new revisions, and complete a final reading before submitting. You’ll also want to avoid the potential for application websites crashing, which has happened to the Common App website when too many students were trying to submit their applications on the deadline.

Do: 

Be vulnerable and introspective. Admissions officers see enough students that are arrogant and pompous. Aim to be a student who has a healthy but humble appreciation for their own talents and skills, but who is ready to learn more and become a contributing member of a college community. These are the students admissions officers clamor to admit.

Don’t:

Don’t be repetitive. If you’ve already discussed your academic experiences in one essay, pick a different topic for other essays. Your goal is to illustrate who you are beyond the transcript, beyond the test scores, and beyond your surface-level background information.

Do: 

Proofread and check for spelling errors one final time before submitting. You can even try reading your essays out loud to listen for errors. Admissions officers can excuse one or two typos but an essay that is riddled with mistakes shows poor execution and does not bode well for your application.

Essay Writing with AdmissionSight

Most students need direction and guidance in getting started writing their college essays. We can help you discover why college essays matter and what to do about them for your own applications. Contact AdmissionSight today to be paired with your personal college admissions expert.

 

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