Guest Post: The Importance of the College Essay

By: Dr. Nicole Cook, Founder, HorizonsEd College Counseling

Note: Edison Prep will be hosting an occasional guest post from college counselors, financial counselors, and the like to add to the breadth and depth of our blog. Dr. Cook’s guest post has the honor of being the first one!

Angst about the “college essay” is deep-seated in many college-bound juniors and seniors.  I believe this angst exists in such magnitude partly because students and parents don’t accurately understand the function and impact of essays in the college process.  After years of coaching students to produce strong essays, I want to share a few points of clarification that might help reduce the stress associated with this particular piece of the application process.

First, I want to unpack the reasons why admissions offices ask students to write college essays at all.  For starters, admissions offices ask students to write essays to give them a qualitative (or non-numeric) perspective on the student.  I have heard the essay described as adding a “third dimension” to a student’s “flat, two-dimensional application,” or as “bringing a student’s voice to the application.”  In essence, “hearing” a student’s thoughts on the essay prompts provided allows an admissions office to try to understand more of the student than just the numbers, test scores, and activities provided.

However, another equally-important purpose is for an admissions office to review a sample of the student’s writing.  Yes, this piece of writing may have been proofread or coached a bit by adults, but in general, colleges want to see that a student, when motivated, can produce a piece of writing that demonstrates maturity of thought, precision of grammar and wording, and effectiveness in communication.  I find that many students (and parents) get stuck on finding an essay topic that’s good enough or will wow or impress admissions officers.  I would say that, generally, very few essays are memorable to the point that students want them to be, but having a thoughtful, genuine, well-written essay goes a long way to demonstrating that you are college ready, even if your essay isn’t about a particularly dynamite topic.

Finally, essays help students demonstrate their fit for the institution. If a student is willing to do research and write a supplemental essay demonstrating his or her fit for the institution, this can help a student stand out from other candidates.  In my experience, students spend too little time refining the supplemental essays (which are often as important at some colleges as the primary application essay), and even will send supplemental questions in with errors due to being written at the last minute. In actuality, each opportunity to write should be approached as an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to put thought into what you are writing and execute a college-ready piece of work.

As for the potential impact of the essay, the importance of admissions essays can be very difficult to determine from the outside.  First, I will acknowledge that the essay is one of the only things left within a student’s control by the time he or she is filling out the application. Grades, test scores, recommendations – these are already established. Often, students funnel all of their anxieties into the essay, and feel that it means everything – which is neither helpful nor accurate.  However, downplaying the essay as unimportant can also be unhelpful; an essay can serve as an impactful piece of the application in some scenarios.

Let’s break it down this way.  For a student who is applying to a college requiring one main essay or personal statement, where the student is comfortably within the range of the schools mid-50% GPA and test scores, and the chances of admission are reasonably high, the essay is unlikely to be the most impactful part of the application.

Edison Prep