Do College Essays Make A Difference

When I worked in selective admission, I would look for essays that had ‘a local habitation and a name’ (a phrase I have stolen from Shakespeare). I wanted to hear and see and touch and smell and feel the world you are in. Details that show, and, by end, tell too. If I felt I found a rare voice I would fight like hell to get that student in. But there are not many who can do this. I say this from personal and professional experience. I write quite a lot and most of it is ok or occasionally even better than ok, but only rarely do I hit a vein that does, in a small space, what I want it to—move the reader in some way.

Essays that are poorly written can doom a person who is virtually perfect in most other ways. It usually does not work the other way around. A great essay won’t overcome gaps in the numbers, or if it does, there is usually something else going on—some sort of special category for admission.

If you search my blog under “essay” and “selective admission” admission you will find many more comments on this topic. If you search under “essay test” you will find many examples of essays that were submitted to highly selective schools. And if you search under “McEssay” you will find links to an article I wrote on admission essays for US News.

About the Author: 

Parke Muth served for twenty-eight years in the Office of Admission at the University of Virginia, has spoken far and wide on college essays, and blogs at: www.onlyconnectparke.blogspot.com.

He was originally asked to answer this question on the website Quora.com.

Read actual questions from students about the application essay and see answers and advice from college planning and admissions experts

How much of an impact can admissions essays actually make? - Susi

Probably a bigger impact than you imagine. If you are overqualified and applying to a school with a high acceptance rate, then maybe not. However, if you are like most students where you are applying to competitive schools, then your essays will make a significant difference in the number and quality of acceptance offers that you receive.

Especially for students who fall just short of a school’s admissions requirements, the essay can be your way to help the school understand why you belong in their program and how you can make a meaningful contribution. If you show passion and enthusiasm, then you can tip the scales in your favor. However, you’ll need to craft an essay that is stellar in every dimension: content, organization, tone, and writing that is free from errors.

Would it be appropriate to write a quality essay and then send copies of that same one to every college, or should I create unique essays for each college? - Amy

Each essay should be tailored to the prompt. However, schools often have similar prompts that will allow you to use the main body of your essay, or at least a few paragraphs, across multiple applications. The main pitfall we see in this situation is when applicants are trying to apply to too many schools in the hopes that casting a wide net will ensure acceptance from at least one school. Admissions officers know a generic essay when they see one, so be sure that your essays always reflect strong interest in that particular school.

I am pretty much in love with the admissions essay I wrote, but the limit is 500 words and mine is almost 600. Do you think that having an essay that is 80 words or so too long would count against me, even if it's good? - Laura

Look at the prompt again. Many schools will ask you to write an essay of ‘about’ a particular length. In that case, they’re telling you that they want you to generally stay within those bounds, but it’s not a hard rule. If the prompt gives a specific word length, then 10% over is typically okay, but remember that you’re sending a tacit message to the admissions officers that you can’t follow their guidelines. You might want to have another person look at your essay and ask what could be trimmed without losing any meaning from the essay.

For my college essay, I was thinking of writing about how a medical condition I have has affected me. But at the same time, I don't want to sound like I am trying to get sympathy from the college admissions officers. How do college admissions people feel about these types of essays? - Lisa 

That largely depends on your attitude within the essay. From the way you phrased the question, it seems that you aren’t looking to play on the admissions officers heartstrings. Overcoming a challenging medical condition can foster resilience and a more mature outlook on life. These are qualities that, in our experience, all colleges are seeking in their applicants. One potential pitfall in writing about medical conditions is making the admissions officers wonder if your medical condition will interfere with your potential for success. Therefore, be clear that either 1) you are in full recovery or 2) you know how to manage your condition. Let them see how the situation has built character and a strong sense of personal responsibility.

What do the admission office try to learn from the college essay? What kind of person you are or experiences you have gone through that has made you a better person? - Monowara

Both. In your admissions essays, write about pivotal experiences in your life. They want to see the ability to think critically about situations you have encountered and how those situations affected who you are as well as your approach to life. Show the admissions officers that you will grow from the college experience and leave college better prepared not only for a career but also to become a contributing member of society. 

What should the topic be in my essay? Would I describe my past academic achievements, sports, clubs, etc.? Or would I describe what I want to achieve throughout my four years of college and my career aspirations thereafter? - Susan

We encourage applicants to develop a mindset that they are creating a personal statement rather than an essay to the admissions committees. This should set a tone of sharing what you consider to be the most important interests you have, experiences that influence your interests or academic interests and goals for college. You do not want to write what amounts to a summary of your activities and accomplishments which you will list in other parts of the application. The best starting point to the personal statement is to decide what key personal features or characteristics you want a group of strangers to know about you. Then choose an event, a circumstance, or an activity that enables you to develop these features into a coherent story. Be relaxed, be honest, and be energetic in your writing.

What do the admission office try to learn from the college essay? What kind of person you are or experiences you have gone through that has made you a better person? - Monowara

This is a very good question that almost all students ask when it comes time to write their college applications. In a very real sense, the admissions committee wants to gain insight into the individual behind the objective information (grades, courses, test scores, GPA). What does this mean? They want to know what experiences you have had or the circumstances in which you have grown up that have shaped your values, your beliefs, your view of the world, your dreams and ambitions for your future, your commitment to hard work, and a genuine desire to learn and to live with others of different backgrounds and beliefs. So, you should write about any experiences that have influenced the factors listed above. The admissions committees are also going to learn about you from the thoughtfulness and the quality of your writing.

I heard that you can write your application essay as a poem if you're really good at poetry or not even make the essay an essay at all. Is this true? - india

Yes, you can be creative in your approach to the application. A poem is a logical way to go. Doing something very different entails some amount of risk. Some colleges do offer a "my space" section, with which you are encouraged to do anything you want, including photos, artwork, film, writing. However, for the main essay, colleges want an essay, meaning an example of your writing. Could you do it in iambic pentameter? Sure. But, don't just draw a picture.

 

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