You know that it’s important for your college application to have a high GPA, good standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities. But what about an essay? How important is this to your overall academic profile? The answer is that it depends on a number of factors. An essay is always important, but how it affects your overall application depends on the school you are applying to, as well as your individual profile.
Factors that Affect the Influence of College Essays
Huge public schools, such as public universities, tend to have more applicants than private schools, as well as limited resources for evaluating candidates. Competitive public schools such as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan typically select candidates based on their GPA and test grades before checking for extracurricular activities and essays.
If you are a “borderline” candidate with good, but less competitive grades and test scores, a strong essay may encourage you to participate in the enrollment. However, your essay is unlikely to compensate for grades and test results that are too far below average, because, first of all, the primary basis for the assessment is the quantitative aspects of your application.
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In contrast, smaller colleges, especially liberal arts schools, tend to take a more holistic approach to evaluate candidates, since these colleges tend to be more self-selective and receive fewer applications. Therefore, they can devote more time and resources to each individual application.
Top private schools, such as Ivies and similar colleges, also prefer to take a holistic approach when evaluating students, in order to understand the candidate and his or her experience in general. In higher education institutions, many of the candidates are already excellent students who have star grades, test results and extracurricular activities, so essays provide an additional way to differentiate candidates and understand their full profiles and personalities.
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The importance of college education essay also depends on you personally as a candidate. For a student who otherwise represents a strong profile, with a high average mark, competitive test scores, and stellar extracurricular activities, the essay is unlikely to have a big impact on your overall application, because you have already demonstrated your ability to succeed. However, you should still strive to write a strong essay. In any case, this will only complement the talent that you have already transferred with the rest of your profile – and it will never hurt to impress the admissions committee.
Under no circumstances should you “blow away” your college essay. Even if your grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities are enough to make you the best candidate for competitive colleges, your college essay always matters. In fact, your essay may ultimately hurt the application for a candidate who would otherwise prove strong if written in haste or poorly thought out.
Factoring in your specific interests, talents, and intended profession makes the importance of the essay even more nuanced. If you intend to study in the humanities, such as journalism, creative writing, or English, and in your application list extracurricular activities focused on writing, such as a school newspaper or language lessons, your essay should reflect your talent and chosen specialty. If colleges see that you are focused on writing and have a poorly written or uninspired essay, they will be confused – and may wonder how well you understand your strengths.
For students with less competitive academic profiles, presenting a particularly impressive essay can change the balance in your favor. Most likely, this will happen with small schools, which may take time to more fully examine the entire application, since, as mentioned earlier, large schools may not have the resources or funding to devote so much attention to each applicant. In addition, although a strong essay can help borderline candidates, this will not be enough to fill up a weak profile.
However, students who know that they may have weaker grades or test scores than other applicants in a particular school may want to find time to write a truly outstanding essay. Starting from the earliest stage, coming up with a thoughtful idea, writing several drafts, self-editing and receiving feedback, you can create an essay that will give you an additional advantage as a candidate.
The Power of Storytelling
If you have a unique story to tell, tell it. You may have special talents, skills, or life experiences that set you apart from other candidates. Whatever this attribute may be, writing an eloquent and inspiring text may be sufficient to influence the opinion of the selection committee on candidates who might otherwise be denied admission to a particular school.
In addition, students who have encountered extreme difficulties or life circumstances can turn their experience into a powerful essay. You can use your essay to talk about how your particular situation influenced you and made you who you are today or the person you hope to become. Colleges can favorably apply to applicants who want to openly talk about their experiences and explain how their individual experiences have affected their lives.
College essays that reveal unique adverse or life circumstances can also help explain student application gaps. For example, if you had difficulty learning because of a family crisis or didn’t have access to the same resources financially or in other ways as other students, you can use your essay as an opportunity to explain how you deal with failures, especially if you survived despite obstacles and overcame difficult situations.
It goes without saying that under no circumstances should you lie about particular life experiences or challenges in your essay (or anywhere else in your college application) to gain an edge in the admissions process. Aside from the fact that doing so is ethically wrong — and it is — there may be serious consequences should colleges find out that you haven’t presented yourself accurately.
Your college essay is more about how you express your experiences than what actually happened to you. Experiences that may seem mundane, such as a book that inspired you or a friendship that helped you grow, can often make for powerful essays. Try brainstorming a bit and see what happens. The way you write your essay and how you deliver it matters more than what actually occurred.
Just as with all the components of your applications, your college essay does matter. But, given the extent to which this will affect your individual probability of acceptance (and how various colleges will look at it in the admission process), you can decide how much attention you should pay to this and what part of the application your energy is best spent.
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