The Importance of the College Essay Grows

The essay has always been an important factor in the admissions process: this year its import reached an even higher level.

This observation is a product of the sheer number of applicants plying their qualifications for spots in the most selective schools. The number of applications is staggering. If we just focus on the 10 most selective colleges in the US, the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford, they admit annually about 27,000 students, while they receive over 305,000 applications. To compound the competitive nature of the admissions process, 8,127 admits were given during the early round, with most of them being Early Decision, taking those admission spaces off the table.

Consequently, for regular decision across these 10 campuses there were 297,000 applicants seeking the remaining 19,000 spots, for a collective admissions rate of 6.4%. Now consider the top 10% of candidates from this application pool, the highly competitive 29,700 students. Let’s filter them through the NACAC  (National Association of College Admissions Counselors) top 5 factors affecting admissions: 1. grades in college prep courses, 2. strength of curriculum; 3. standardized test scores; 4. grades across all courses; 5. Essays

 It can almost be taken for granted that this top 10% has high grades in college prep courses, come from programs with strong curriculum, did well on the ACT or SAT, and have solid grades across all their courses. The key differentiator among the top five factors is the essays. These essays must almost perfectly capture the key elements of who you are. This is usually best done within a narrative essay where your actions create character. You’ll need to edit, proofread, revise, get second opinions and make these essays as flawless as possible, 

At the University of California the importance of the personal statement is equally critical. The University of California has few means of appraising a candidate: GPA, test scores, activity and academic honor lists, and the personal statements. Then consider just how many applications the UC System must review. Freshman applications numbered over 500,000. At UCLA alone the number was over 85,000 for the fall 2014 class. Assuming the UCLA admissions office is reading all these over four months, seven days a week, to finish they’ll have to read over 700 applications a day, every day, for the entire four month period. Be merciful. Don’t bore them.  

Think long and hard about a topic that will uniquely present who you are. You want to come off the screen in three dimensions. Steer clear of what the crowd writes about. One admissions officer recently bemoaned having to read one more essay about building or repairing a school, house, or park in a foreign country, or creating a micro-finance project with goat herders in Nepal. Also do not write about a personal tragedy unless you have an uncanny sense of how to present it in a positive form. Some students seek to treat the essay as a personal therapy session. Trust this is not the forum to discuss suicides, divorces, feelings of insecurity, or calamities. Think of the essay as if it were your chance to sit down with the admissions officer and unveil yourself.

The essays must be personal and revealing, giving a sense of the true, honest you. You need to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Nothing good is produced when you play it safe. The essay demands risk, adventure and bold, stark honesty,

A set of essays that worked with the Johns Hopkins admissions office begin with the following first sentences: “A blue seventh place athletic ribbon hangs from my mantel.”; “One fundamental rule of reincarnation is that you do not know your past life.”; “I was born in the wrong century.”; “Two years ago, I was a spy.” Do any sound bold or adventurous?

Start early, start now, and revise until they’re burnished. They reflect who you are and every word is under your control.