A Tutor's View: How Important are College Application Essays and Personal Statements?

06/02/2017 03:14 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2017

Applying to college these days has much in common with mounting a presidential campaign. The system is complex, the stakes are high, and there are complicated answers to what seem like simple questions.

An easy one: How important are grades? Very. Top grades are necessary but not sufficient to get into selective colleges and universities. Slightly harder: How important are SATs and ACTs? Some 900 colleges don’t require them anymore (see Fair Testing Site), and there are no cut off numbers for many colleges, but there are acceptable ranges.

And then there’s this: How important are the application essays?

In 2014, Time published an article that shook up college-bound families: “College Application Essays Don’t Matter as Much as You Think.” It was based on research that had just come out in The New Republic challenging the conventional wisdom – that application essays are major determining factors.

Said Time: “You know that beautifully crafted, deeply felt, highly unusual college application essay that you’ve been polishing? It might not make a difference for your college admission chances.”

By the end of article, the reporters had done their own research and reached a different conclusion: “Three former admissions officers I spoke to told me that, contrary to [New Republic] observations, officers read every essay that comes across their desks.”

The essays, they conclude, are important, with this caveat: “No matter how gorgeous your prose is, you can’t get into college based on the strength of your essay alone.” Or in the words of more than one admissions officer: “A good essay can heal the sick but not raise the dead.”

And this statement is axiomatic in the field of college admissions: While a good essay may not be able to salvage a mediocre application, a bad essay can hurt an otherwise terrific application.

For the record, Yale admissions officers like reading essays and share their enthusiasm in a video: “Most admissions officers will tell you that the personal statement is their favorite part of the application.”

After working with many hundreds of students on their application essays, and reading hundreds (thousands?) of articles, essays, and tweets, I want to offer a more nuanced answer to this vexing question.

How important are essays? Short answer #1: It depends. Short answer #2: It’s complicated. Short answer #3: It’s holistic (often).

Let’s start with a story you’ve probably heard about “The Costco Essay.” Two years ago, high school senior Brittany Stinson was admitted to five Ivies and Stanford, and her Common Application essay went viral. A newspaper heading told a story that wasn’t entirely true: “This Essay got a High School Senior into 5 Ivies and Stanford.”

The truth was that Brittany Stinson’s outstanding academic record got her most of the way through the admissions door. The Common App essay – one of many she had to write for the colleges she applied to – confirmed her accomplishments and made her come alive to readers. Lost in the media frenzy was that she had top SATs and grades, had done university genetics research, and community service, and was the daughter of an immigrant mother from what colleges call “an underrepresented minority.”

In choosing applicants, colleges look for diversity of all kinds, including racial, economic, and geographic. Even your zip code can play a part in where you’re admitted. But as with the essays themselves, your zip code – like your grades alone – are not the deciding factor.

And keep this in mind: The Common Application essay is required of many applicants but it can be one of many required essays, depending on where you apply. A single student’s list of essays can reach 25 or 30 pieces of writing, from 650-word essays (supplements for Cornell and University of Pennsylvania) to 35-word answers to interesting questions (“You are teaching a Yale course. What is it called?”). While some 700 colleges are part of the Common Application Organization, many state universities are not, along with MIT, and their questions are entirely different. And many Common App colleges also require supplements.

Someone applying to the University of California, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Brown, University of Chicago, Cal Tech, and MIT is looking at several dozen demanding pieces of prose. Some passages can be recycled, but even so, there’s a great deal of work involved. And for these top universities, they must accompany not just good academic records, but outstanding records. “Outstanding” is measured not just in grades and scores, but in prizes (national and international), competitive summer science programs, and a multiplicity of high-level extra curricular activities (leadership roles in sports, student government, school newspaper, etc.).

There are many of us in this field – along with parents and educators – who believe this is too much pressure for students. Yet our objections and feelings of protectiveness toward students are weighed against the reality of the current situation.

The solution? Cover your bases. Examine your record and your heart. Consider a range of universities. Unless you are an athletic recruit or the child of a President or celebrity, prepare for every possibility.

And there’s this: Essays play different functions for different students. If you’re applying to the most selective colleges without a stellar record, great essays are not going to push you through the admissions door. But if you’re applying to less selective, small colleges and you have a less than stellar application, several terrific essays can make more of a difference.

Large state universities – because of the huge applicant pools – often rely much more on grades and scores, at least for the first cut. They might just disqualify applicants who don’t meet the numerical criteria. Private colleges and universities tend to be more holistic and examine the student’s entire record, including recommendations.

As with so much in the world of college admissions, there is little to no transparency. The answer to many questions students and parents have is, “It depends.”

When it comes to application essays and personal statements, there’s so much variety in how the essays are viewed from college to college and student to student, it’s wise to aim high. And you won’t go wrong writing the essays as though they are going to be read by the admissions officer who feels that reading them is the best part of her job.

Elizabeth Benedict is a bestselling novelist and former Princeton writing professor who works with students around the world on their application essays through Don’t Sweat the Essay. Email her at Liz@DontSweatTheEssay.com

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