Underestimating the College Application Essay

In my last blog post, I wrote about how people tended to overemphasize the importance of the SAT in the US college admission process. In this post, I will write about how people tend to underestimate the essay.

My client who excitedly told me about his good performance in the last SAT also forgot to turn in the latest (third) draft of his application essay which I asked for three weeks ago.  To his credit, he said he will turn in his latest essay draft this week.  It’s a real pain, this essay thing.  Having to run after drafts from clients is clearly my least favorite thing to do as an independent college counselor.  But I take encouragement in the fact that this young man is already on the third draft of his essay…and it’s only July.  Our aim is to have everything done by October so he can apply Early Action to some universities on his list.  So far so good.


For most prospective US college applicants though, the essay hasn’t taken shape yet.  They’re too busy….studying for the SATs!  Well, actually, with the new academic year just having kicked off here in Manila, they’re probably busy with school.  It’s an understandable situation…who has time to write the application essay when it isn’t really due until late December (for Regular Decision candidates)?  It’s easy to put something like that off…sort of like going to see the dentist.  It’s something that must be done but is so incredibly unpleasant.  But it is something that must be done and if it needs to be done, it is best that it be done quickly.

How important is the application essay really?  Well, that really depends.  As a general rule, the larger the university the less emphasis is given to the essay.  In these cases, the large applicant pool makes it difficult to give each and every essay the thorough going over it deserves.  Large state universities tend to emphasize grades, high school academic rigor, and test scores more.  But if you start applying to more selective colleges, the essay becomes more and more important.  Consider Stanford:  they receive almost 40,000 applications and admit only about 2200 students.  For the most part, a large majority of of these 40,000 applications are from students with truly impressive academic credentials and extracurricular involvement.   But that’s clearly not enough; Stanford turned away 60% of all applicants who had scored a perfect 2400 on the SATs.  So what’s left?  You guessed it….the essay.  The essay becomes the one opportunity most candidates have to stand out among their peers.  A great essay will make a candidate stick out like a hot pink jacket in a roomful of blue, black and gray suits.  You want admissions officers to remember you (in a good way) when they’re looking through those 40,000 applications.  Even in less competitive but smaller schools like Santa Clara, the essay helps the admissions committee see what kind of person you are and whether or not you would be a good fit for them.  Although the essay by itself will not determine admission or denial (unless the essay is in incredibly bad taste), the essay carries considerable weight in the final outcome.  Most international students compete for slots in these kinds of universities so writing a solid application essay is very important.

So how does one write an essay that will knock the socks off the admissions committee?  Well, a truly good application essay is personal, well written and is in the student’s voice.  A good personal essay requires deep thought and reflection and this comes only with….TIME.  You need time to write a good application essay, a lot of it.  Consider this prompt from the Common Application.

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

A lot of candidates will sit and write about the beach or the mountains or their favorite room in their house.  But look again at the prompt.  It doesn’t say talk about the place, it says what do you do or experience there and WHY IS IT MEANINGFUL TO YOU?  For this prompt, you need to determine the place you will talk about then connect it to yourself.  You have to write about this in a way that will grab your reader’s attention.  You have to convey yourself in the 650 word limit of the application essay.  Not the sort of thing you can do in the last few days of December with the application deadline looming.  So when should you start?  I don’t think that the summer before your senior year is too early to begin the reflection process and start writing a first draft.  If you start the entire application process when you start school in June, it’s not too late certainly but you’ll be more pressed for time.  In the case of the client I cited above, we started working on his essay in March and through the summer.  Again, he is now writing the third draft of his essay.

The take home message in all this is that you must start early.  You must put in the time and reflection needed to write a really good application essay.  You need the time to write and revise, write and revise, write and revise.  This is probably the most important essay that you will have written thus far in your life so you need to make it a good one.  Find a good college counselor to help you through the writing process.

Maybe you should put the SAT review book down and spend that time thinking, reflecting, and writing.


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