Students prepare for applying to selective colleges by taking rigorous courses, participating in extracurricular activities, studying for standardized tests, and more. All of this preparation, however, can distract attention from one of the most notorious sections of the college application: the essays.
The essay is both the most and the least visible part of the competitive admissions process. Everyone knows that the essay is critical, but few actually get to see what “successful” essays look like. Some online resources, like The College Board, post examples of college application essays, but they often lack the necessary context for a reader to truly assess how accurately that essay conveys a student’s personality and interests.
When choosing a topic for an essay, students need to consider what the essay prompt is asking, the universities to which they’re applying, their goals, and, ultimately, what the essay says about them as a student and as a person.
Why the Essay Matters
Before you can choose a compelling essay topic, you first need to understand why there’s an essay in the first place. When evaluating college applications, most colleges use a “reading rubric” to evaluate the different components of each application. Aside from the “hard factors,” like grades, GPA, and test scores, colleges also look at the “soft factors,” such as extracurriculars, recommendation letters, demonstrated interests, and essays. The point of evaluating all these factors is to enable colleges to holistically build a well-rounded class of specialists. The essay (or essays) is a great way to learn more about an applicant, her motivations, life experiences, and how she can contribute to the campus community.
According to NACAC, 83 percent of colleges assign some level of importance to the application essay, and it’s usually the most important “soft factor” that colleges consider. The essay is important because it gives students the chance to showcase their writing and tell the college something new. It also allows admissions officers to learn more about students and gain insight into their experiences that other parts of the application do not provide. Just like any other admissions factor, a stellar essay isn’t going to guarantee admission, but students do need to craft compelling and thoughtful essays in order to avoid the “no” pile.
Related: How a Great College Essay Can Make You Stand Out
Types of Essays
Let’s talk about the different types of essays that a college may require applicants to submit. Over 500 colleges and universities use the Common Application, which has one required essay, called the personal statement. There are five new prompts to choose from, and this essay can be used for multiple colleges.
Related: Why I Love the New Common Application Essay Prompts
Beyond the Common Application essay, many colleges also have supplements that ask additional, university-specific questions which applicants must respond to with shorter-form essays. While topics vary from supplement to supplement, there are a few standard essay formats that many colleges use:
This is the most common essay and is used for the main Common Application essay. In this essay, the applicant talks about a meaningful life experience that helped shape who she is today. The book “Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College” has a great section on the personal statement and how students can craft effective essays.
“Why This College?” Essay
Many colleges, including Columbia University and Duke University, use the supplement to ask applicants to explain why they have chosen to apply to this particular college. In this essay, students need to be detailed and offer specific examples for wanting to attend this school. Not only does it help students reiterate their passions, it also serves as a gauge for demonstrated interest and a vehicle for students to better articulate how they will contribute to the campus environment.
In this essay, students write about an extracurricular activity or community service project that was especially meaningful to them. This essay was previously on the standard Common Application, but was removed starting in the 2014–15 application season. Instead, some colleges, like Georgetown University, choose to include a variation of this essay among their supplements by asking students to discuss an activity and its significance to their life or course of study. In this essay, students should choose an activity they’re most passionate about and include details about how they expect to continue this activity at the particular college.
Related: Using Your High School Internship as Inspiration for Your College Essay
In an effort to challenge students to think creatively, some colleges include short, “quick take” prompts that require only a few words or sentences for the response. Some examples include University of Southern California’s “What’s the greatest invention of all time?” and University of Maryland’s sentence completion prompts like “My favorite thing about last Wednesday…”
What NOT to Write About
In order to stand out, it’s important to realize that there are a number of essay topics that are cliché and overused. Avoid writing about things like scoring the winning goal, topics of public consciousness like natural disasters, or something that happened to you in middle school. Also, avoid gimmicks like writing in a different language, presenting your essay as a poem, or anything else that is stylistically “out of the box.” Your focus should be on the message rather than the presentation.
It’s also important to avoid inappropriate or uncomfortable topics. Some students choose to write about things like sex or romantic relationships in order to stand out; yet, these topics fail to add substance or depth to an application. There’s a fine line between interesting and trite — don’t stand out for the wrong reasons.
Successful Essay Topics
A successful essay will reveal something about you that the admissions reader may not have already known, and will show how you interact with family and friends and demonstrate your beliefs or explore your passions. This doesn’t mean you have to regurgitate your resume — in fact, you definitely shouldn’t.
For example, a student whose number one extracurricular activity is swimming should not write an essay about “the big meet.” Instead, she could explore a more personal topic, such as something she is learning in class that conflicts with her religious beliefs. She can discuss the intersection of religion and education in her life and how she reconciled the differences — or didn’t.
A great essay also provides readers with a vivid picture. When crafting an essay, think of it as offering admissions readers a window into a certain event or story. Focus on the most meaningful moments, not the irrelevant background details.
For example, a student once wrote an essay about feeling out of place culturally during an internship. Instead of giving a general description of the internship and his conflicts, he opened the essay with a vivid description of what he saw when he first arrived, and used this scene to frame the feelings of alienation he underwent — giving the reader a striking image of his experience in great detail.
Remember, your college application essay is about you. There’s a lot of pressure to be “unique” and “interesting,” but at the end of the day, the key to standing out is to just be yourself. Admissions officers can tell when students are embellishing or being insincere in their essays, so it’s best to keep it simple and tell a story about you and the person you are today. In the end, with careful planning, research, and a thoughtful essay, you’ll get into the best-fit college for you!
For further guidance and examples, check out Noodle's collection of expert advice about college essays.
You know it is important to have a high GPA, strong standardized tests scores, and extracurricular activities for your college application. But what about the essay? Just how much does it really matter to your overall academic profile? The answer is that it depends on a number of factors. The essay is always important, but just how much it will influence your overall application varies by the school to which you are applying, as well as your individual profile.
Looking for more advice on college essay writing? Check out our blog post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2017-2018.
Factors that Affect the Influence of College Essays
Huge public schools, such as state flagship universities, tend to have more applicants that private schools, as well as limited resources with which to evaluate candidates. Competitive state schools, such as UC Berkeley and the University of Michigan, tend to screen candidates on the basis of GPA and test scores first before reviewing extracurricular activities and essays.
If you are a “borderline” candidate, with a good but less-competitive grades and test scores, a strong essay could push you into the admitted pool. However, your essay is unlikely to compensate for grades and test scores that are too far below average, since, first and foremost, the primary bases for evaluation are the quantitative aspects of your application.
In contrast, smaller colleges, especially liberal arts schools, tend to take a more holistic approach to evaluating 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 like the Ivies and similar-tier colleges also prefer to use a holistic approach when evaluating students, seeking to understand the candidate and his or her background as a whole. At top-tier colleges, many of the candidates are already excellent students who have stellar grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities, so essays provide an additional way to differentiate candidates and understand their entire profiles and personalities.
The importance of your essay also depends on you personally as a candidate. For the student who otherwise presents a strong profile, with a high GPA, 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 aim to write a strong essay. If anything, it will only complement the talent you have already conveyed with the rest of your profile — and it never hurts to impress the admissions committee.
Under no circumstances should you ever “blow off” your college essay. Even if your grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities are enough to make you a top candidate for competitive colleges, your essay always matters. In fact, your essay could end up hurting an application for an otherwise strong candidate if it appears hastily written or not well thought-out.
Factoring in your particular interests, talents, and intended major makes the importance of the essay even more nuanced. If you intend to study a humanities subject such as Journalism, Creative Writing, or English, and list writing-oriented extracurricular activities such as your school newspaper or Language Arts tutoring on your application, your essay needs to reflect your talent and chosen major. If colleges see that your focus is writing and receive a poorly-written or uninspired essay, they will be confused — and may wonder how well you understand your own strengths.
On the other hand, if your focus is clearly on a subject in which writing personally and creatively is not as essential, such as the life sciences or math, and your intended major follows the same suit, admissions committees may provide a little more leeway and judge your essay less harshly. You still need to present a well-written and carefully considered essay, of course. If you know writing is somewhat of a weakness, have teachers, guidance counselors, friends, and family members read it and offer feedback. However, colleges will understand that your talents lie elsewhere.
For students who have less-competitive academic profiles, presenting a particularly impressive essay may tip the balance in your favor. This is more likely to happen with smaller schools that can take the time to go over your entire application more comprehensively, because, as mentioned earlier, large schools may not have the resources or funding to devote as much attention to every applicant. Additionally, while a strong essay may help borderline candidates, it won’t be enough to make up for an otherwise weak profile.
That said, students who know they may have weaker GPAs or test scores than other applicants at a particular school may want to take the time to craft a truly outstanding essay. Starting particularly early, coming up with a thoughtful idea, writing several drafts, self-editing, and soliciting feedback may help you create an essay that will give you that extra edge as an applicant.