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Do Essays Really Matter? What I Learned from a Panel of Admissions Officers

I asked admissions officers from Vanderbilt, Denison, the Universities of Richmond, Miami, Delaware, and Marist and Gettysburg Colleges on how much--or how little attention--essays receive in admissions decisions at a virtual breakout panel at the Independent Education Consultants Association Conference in July. We discussed the value of the Common Application essay, college-specific “Why Us?” and diversity supplements, as well as the optional COVID-19 essay, at length. While there’s a general consensus that the essay will not be the single factor that leads to admission, strong essays absolutely matter.

A general rule: colleges deemed “most competitive” (most unpredictable) value essays as much as rigor, GPA, standardized test scores, extracurriculars, and other factors. That means the main, or Common App/Coalition essay, as well as supplements. For highly selective programs within a university, such as the Ross Business School at the University of Michigan, specific supplements are read carefully by a team of admissions professionals. But for all universities, the Why Us? supplemental essays should be written thoughtfully, regardless of how competitive admissions is. This year, many colleges are adding new supplements on community and inclusion to gauge how well students engage with others, especially in diverse environments.

I try to help students and families relax about the obsession with writing essays about unusual topics. The admissions officers concur. They claim to read every essay with positive intentions to admit rather than deny. That being said, a generic essay, or one that’s trying too hard to be different, doesn’t help a student’s application. The shame of this is that no student ever has to write a boring or contrived essay once he or she understands the essay’s purpose and how to approach it.

Another topic admissions officers agree upon is the COVID-19 essay. This extra optional prompt was designed for students who experienced genuine hardship rather than those coping with virtual classes and the common compromises we all had to make during the quarantine. They told us that the COVID essay can get old fast if there are thousands of them to read.

Finally, students who are applying to college test-optionally or with scores that do not represent their true ability should certainly focus on adding essays that truly enhance their applications. In this unpredictable year when applicants have less control, they should use everything in their power to craft essays that reveal the positive character traits that colleges want to add to their communities.

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