Of the nearly 900 colleges that invite first-year applicants to apply using the Common Application, many—but not all—require that you include a written essay responding to one of seven prompts. For the schools that make it optional or do not require the essay at all, the Common App gives applicants the choice to include or leave it out when submitting the application. With so many schools using the same prompts, it’s natural for curious applicants to ask: how important is the Common App essay?
The answer can depend on everything from the school itself, to the competitiveness of the applicant pool, to the applicant’s qualifications, background, and choice of story. But a school that requires an essay (Common App or no Common App) is telling you it’s important enough to ask every applicant to submit one. A school that doesn’t require an essay at all is sending you a very different message. And the schools that make it optional will happily read an essay you send them, but the weight it will carry will depend on those other factors.
From there, it’s helpful to think of the application and the essay as two distinct parts of the evaluation, serving different roles.
Related: Tackling the Common App Personal Essay
The application is where an admissions officer decides if you are qualified for admission. What classes did you take? What were your grades and (for schools that still use them) test scores? What were your activities? What honors or awards did you receive? What did your teachers say about you in their letters of recommendation? Could you be academically and socially successful, the kind of student who will make an impact during your four years on campus?
If the answers to those questions work in your favor and there is plenty of room for students like you, then the essay might be less important. Qualifications alone can carry more weight when a committee doesn’t need to turn away qualified applicants.
But the more selective colleges have plenty of applicants who deserve to be admitted and not nearly enough room to admit all of them. Some schools are so competitive they can’t even admit every high school valedictorian who applies. These readers need to make distinctions about students that go beyond what they can gather from an application. And that’s where the essay comes into play.
Do I like you? Do I think students will like you? Do I think you have an interesting perspective to bring to campus? Will students and faculty feel like their experience benefits from having you in the classroom, in the dorm, in clubs, and in campus organizations? Has your upbringing or culture or family influenced you in a way that might add an important perspective to the campus community?
Those distinctions are best answered by honest, revealing essays that help admissions officers get to know you in ways that the application cannot. It helps them picture you on campus as part of a student community. And most importantly, it gives them a reason to bring your application to the committee to make a case for admission.
Related: How to Start a Personal Statement Essay
A good college essay can change you from just another applicant among many to one an admissions officer will lobby for. And at the more selective colleges, that’s about the best you can reasonably hope for in this process—one person who’s convinced and will now make a pitch to admit you to the rest of the committee.
Essays rarely change an admissions officer’s mind if your qualifications aren’t up to the college’s standards. When essays do sway the vote in those cases, it’s usually because they reveal a significant hardship or other life circumstance that explains the inconsistencies. If you had such a circumstance, an essay can be a perfect place to share it. Just don’t exaggerate or outright manufacture the hardship to make excuses for weaknesses.
So yes, the essays are important. The colleges rely on them to help drive decisions that couldn’t be made by transcripts and resumes alone. So give your essays the time and attention they deserve. Great college essays don’t discriminate on the basis of grades or test scores—everyone has an equal chance to tell a good story. But keep reasonable expectations about how much even the best essay can accomplish. Apply to plenty of schools where your chances of admission are strong. Don’t play the admissions lottery by applying to a long list of schools who deny more students than they admit.
If you pair good college choices with good applications and essays, you’re likely to be happy with your results.
A version of this article appeared previously on Kevin’s blog.
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