How important are college application essays?
Today, if I asked you the average SAT/ACT score or weighted GPA at your ‘first choice’ school, you’d probably know the answer. And, if you don’t, you could easily find it in their class profile of ’21. But what you won’t see is any metric to represent the college essay. Why? Because, in short, it depends both on the school you’re applying to and your individual profile.
If you’re applying to large state schools that receive a torrential downpour of candidates, the odds are that they screen students using grades as the preliminary filter and then get to the rest of your application.
However, if you’re applying to liberal arts or top-tier schools, the process of evaluation is more holistic. Small colleges are selfselecting — they’re looking for a personality match as much as an academic fit, while top-tier institutions are inundated with applicants who have similar credentials.
So, the essay helps differentiate one student from the next. Now that we’ve understood the importance of essays in the context of the schools you’re applying to, let’s address it from the perspective of your profile. If you’re not an A+ student with a 1550 in your SAT, who also cartwheeled to a national gymnastics medal and authored a path-breaking Alzheimer’s study — but you’re not the lazy leftover either — you reside in the nebulous grey area.
Don’t stress; you’re not the only one in purgatory. You’re one of the thousands whose credentials are neither easily accepted nor rejected. Therefore, your goal is to catapult out of the shadow of sameness and into the celestial realm of acceptance. And that’s what your essays will help you do, provided you write them thoughtfully. They will make you look three-dimensional to the admissions committee.
In a blog post, Hannah Mendlowitz, the senior assistant director of admissions at Yale, goes so far as to say that the essays are her “absolute favourite art form”.
While the essay may not be the most crucial piece of the puzzle (that status is saved for your transcripts), it’s the best way to convey what you offer a school beyond numbers. So, use them well.
What do colleges look for in an essay?
What would you look for in a friend or a roommate? Perhaps, empathy or a sense of humour? Believe it or not, admissions’ officers are seeking similar qualities in your essays. By the time they get to your personal statement, they’re already acquainted with you — from your transcripts, they can infer where your academic preferences lie, and your activities list provides them with a broad picture of your extracurricular interests. Now, they want to get to know you better.
While your grades speak for themselves and your recommenders speak on your behalf, the essays give you the prized chance to speak for yourself. Think creatively about how best to maximise this opportunity. (Hint: Don’t bore them with a list of your accomplishments).
When you go to a party, and you meet person A who wouldn’t stop talking about how they won the Physics prize in Class 10, the best delegate award at XYZMUN, and, wait, did they already mention winning the Math Olympiad, too? How often do you leave thinking, “I’m looking forward to meeting them again.”
Instead, the next morning, you message person B who likened their mood swings to the kinematics for a pendulum, made a passionate case for the humane treatment of disenfranchised refugees in Bengal, and described how they unlocked the third-dimension using multivariable calculus. Why did you choose person B over person A? Because they showed a depth of character that interested you.
Admissions officers aren’t unreasonable people; they don’t expect you to fit your entire life story into a handful of words. So, curate the qualities or experiences you think are most meaningful to you and let them revel in your successes or share in your disappointments.
And most importantly, give them a reason to want to invite you to the next party.
What if I don’t have anything interesting to talk about in my college essay?
This is perhaps the most common concern students have. Let me assuage your doubt — colleges don’t expect most students to have advanced science by quantum leaps or to have won a Nobel Peace Prize like Malala.
The word ‘essay’ comes from the French word ‘essayer’, which means to attempt. By definition, this work of writing is supposed to be a short piece which doesn’t exhaust the reader or the subject. Therefore, I encourage you not to demoralise yourself by fixating on all the things you haven’t done (like bravely challenging the Taliban) and instead, focus on what you have.
To quote philosopher Montaigne, “And because I found I had nothing else to write about, I presented myself as a subject.” Don’t shy away from the mundane details of your life — in fact, they can make for the most ‘interesting’ narratives.
A brainstorming activity I find helps is to take a pen and a piece of paper (avoid doing it on a computer or phone), write an exhaustive list of all those small details and quirks that are distinctive to you. For example, your favourite word, an argument you always make, maybe a recurrent dream (my best friend in college had one about losing his teeth; in Brazil, that’s popularly believed to be a portent of impending misfortune!).
Make the admissions’ committee laugh if you’re funny or take them by surprise if you’re a dramatic person! Let your essay be an extension of your personality, and it’ll be ‘interesting’ enough.
By Ileshaa Khatau
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