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How Much Do Essays Really Matter?

When I questioned admissions officers from Vanderbilt, Denison, Richmond, Miami, Delaware, Marist, and Gettysburg Colleges on how much--or how little attention--essays get in admissions decisions at a virtual breakout panel at the Independent Education Consultants Association Conference, we discussed the value of the Common Application essay, college-specific “Why Us?” and community/diversity supplements. While there’s a general consensus that the essay will not be the single factor that leads to admission, strong essays, written by humans, not AI, absolutely matter. 

The “most-competitive” colleges value essays somewhat below rigor, GPA, and (sometimes) standardized test scores; they are at least on par with extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, and other factors. 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 within the school. All “Why Us?” supplemental essays should be written thoughtfully, regardless of how competitive admissions is. Since the Supreme Court Decision on Affirmative Action, many colleges are adding supplements on community and inclusion to gauge how well students engage with others in diverse environments. 

Admissions officers 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. Students never have to write a boring or contrived essay once they understand the essay’s purpose and the best way to approach it.

Finally, students who are applying to college test-optionally or with scores that do not represent their true ability should focus on writing essays that truly enhance their applications. As admission grows less predictable, I encourage students to use everything in their power to craft essays that reveal the positive character traits that colleges seek to enhance their communities.


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