The Role of the Essay in Your Students College Application

There is very little way around it. For most colleges, you will be required to submit an essay with your application. Many students dread this part of the college application process and find writing their college essay to be a stressful and time-consuming task. The writing process, including choosing a topic, will be easier if you start with a full understanding of how the college essay is used by college admissions officers.

The essay is a key element of your application package and should be viewed as an opportunity to tell the college admissions officer about who you are, your beliefs and motivations and the essence of your character. You are not merely another high school student. You are you and there isn’t any other part of the application where you can tell your unique story. The essay places your grades, letters of recommendation, standardized test scores and list of extracurricular activities in context. It adds a voice to your application. It adds YOUR voice.

To better understand the role of the essay, let’s step, for a moment, into the admissions officer’s shoes. Imagine this:

You are an admissions officer at a selective college. It is January and you only have a few months to review thousands of applications that are supposed to assist you in choosing next year’s freshmen class. How are you going to do it? You could focus solely on grades and standardized test scores. These data points are certainly important for identifying the outliers, but most of the applicants fall in the middle of the curve. Their grades and test scores prove that they can be academically successful at your school but don’t otherwise differentiate one student from another. There isn’t enough space at your college to accept all academically qualified students and besides, your job is not to fill lecture hall seats with robotic students who know how to churn out A’s. You are supposed to be using your professional judgment to build a freshmen class that is intellectually curious, socially conscious and academically and professionally motivated. You want to accept students who have diverse opinions and beliefs, leadership skills, moral character and a broad range of interests. Your chosen class is expected to make a positive difference in the world and remarkable contributions to their respective fields. In your quest to find students who your college will one day be proud to count among its alumni, grades and standardized test scores are not going to be enough.

Perhaps the students’ extra-curricular achievements can help you decide? Each application contains a list and brief description of the student’s activities throughout high school. This list will give you a snapshot of the student’s interests and how they spend their time. It will help you understand what they do, but not why they do these activities or what they have learned from the experience. You can use the list to make inferences about the student but without additional context, they will be mere educated guesses. For example, you might assume that the vice president of the senior class is a budding leader when, in fact, she is a popular student who ran for the office unopposed. Most importantly, a list of activities says very little about a student’s character.

You are going to need more information to fill in the blanks between the academic statistics and the activities resume in order to get a full picture of the actual person behind the application. You will find this information in a well-written, thoughtful essay. The most helpful essay is one in which the student tells a story about herself that allows you to understand what kind of person she is and what qualities she will bring to campus if admitted.

In addition to understanding how the admissions officer will use your essay, it is important to realize that the essay is the one part of your application that is still completely within your control. Your grades for the first three years of high school are set. Maybe you can retake your SATs but is your score likely to change drastically? Can you control what your math teacher writes about you in his letter of recommendation? No. Your essay is yours for the making. Here’s your chance to shine. Don’t leave it until the last minute. Embrace it and let it tell your unique story.

Picture of Michelle McAnaney, Founder and President of The College Spy.

Michelle McAnaney is the founder of The College Spy, a full service independent educational consulting firm that assists students and families across the US and internationally with the college selection and application process. Prior to founding The College Spy, Michelle was a guidance counselor and educator for more than 15 years, including serving as the Director of Guidance at two high schools, an adjunct college professor and a GED tutor. Michelle holds a master’s degree in school counseling and a bachelor’s degree in human development. She recently completed UC Irvine’s certificate program in educational consulting and is a MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) Certified Practitioner and a NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Master Practitioner. Michelle visits over 40 colleges each year so that she has first-hand knowledge of the colleges and universities her clients will be considering. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.