Essays are an important part of the college application process at the vast majority of colleges and universities in America, especially with the rise of holistic admissions and the declining importance of standardized testing. Since COVID, there has been increased mention of the importance of college essays on school websites and even upward revisions of their importance in the admissions process in a number of colleges' Common Data Sets, most notably Northwestern. Even before COVID, annual surveys by the National Association For College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) saw an increase in the relative importance of essays in the admissions process as standardized test popularity declined.
With the Supreme Court's recent decision on Affirmative Action bringing essays to the forefront again, it's a good time to talk about their importance as well as how to best write them. No one knows for certain how the Court's decision will change the admissions process, but California provides some clues. Affirmative Action has been banned from the admissions process in several states for some time, most notably California, which has gone without Affirmative Action since 1996. The UC system is known for its PIQs ( Personal Insight Questions) and its requirement that applicants write four small essays. UC representatives have continuously stressed the importance of PIQs in the admissions process. For those who believe California's experience will guide many colleges' response to the elimination of Affirmative Action, it seems that the importance of essays will only increase. With many schools adding and changing essays since the decision, evidence is mounting that essays will indeed matter more. Some of our thoughts on best practice are the following.
The first point to consider is the importance of supplemental essays. Of course students should work hard on their Common Application essay, but they should not overlook supplemental essays. Supplemental essays include additional questions admissions departments feel they need to ask to make informed admission decisions. For this reason, they can be more important than the Common Application question at many schools. Supplemental essays are generally shorter in length, but they are no less valuable; time must be budgeted for their completion.
While colleges look to learn about applicants in their essays, the goal of applicants is to make themselves attractive to their target schools and gain admission. We suggest that students focus their common application essay on their top choice school. Schools have missions and goals and are often very transparent about the qualities they like to see in an applicant. We suggest developing an understanding of what your top choice school values and pick an essay prompt that allows you to best highlight your positive characteristics.
Once the ideal essay prompt is chosen, care must be taken to avoid prompt "drift." Students need to make sure they answer the specific essay question that has been asked, nothing else. Students should also remember that a good essay interests the reader and makes readers like the applicant as well as seeing applicants as a part of their school community. Excessive focus on other individuals, events and beliefs that take away from understanding who the applicant is should be avoided except for dramatic license.
Remember that representatives generally read a large quantity of essays. In fact, many stress that, after a day of reading, a good story is what they value. While there is no set formula for essays, there is best practice. Writing a descriptive opening that takes the reader to a formative event or lesson without making its conclusion obvious is a good way to get the interest and attention of the reader. In brief, try to have a strong opening sentence or two and paint a vivid picture for the reader .
Another best practice is remembering that essays need to have structure, with an introduction, a main body with supportive evidence of character strengths as well as personal growth, and a conclusion. Essays are an important way for colleges to learn about students, so the core of the essay should reflect the author's experiences versus their goals. Use action-oriented verbs and rhetorical devices to try to keep your essay entertaining. At the end of the essay, the applicant should be able to mention a "self-realization" as opposed to something learned at the advice of another. The essay should also have an optimistic tone and display a "growth mindset."
Beyond these recommendations, we believe that reading an essay aloud and making sure it keeps the listener interested is a sure technique to improve it. We also suggest being open to others reading your essay for suggestions as well as finding a good proof reader. For those who need help, we are available.