Some college admissions advisers would have you believe that even with bad grades, sub-par SAT scores, and mediocre recommendations, you can knock your college applications out of the park with a perfect essay.
Not so much. It has been said that a great essay will heal the sick, but won’t raise the dead. Admissions officers want to see applicants who have proven themselves consistently in the past with their grades, test scores, and recommendations, so if you haven’t, it’s unlikely that a mind-blowing essay is going to change their minds at the last minute.
That said, the college essay is as important now as it has ever been, and in close cases (as they all are with competitive colleges), a remarkable essay can be the deciding factor. In fact, many schools rank the college essays as one of the top three elements in an application (along with GPA and test scores).
The most important thing to understand about the purpose of the college essay is that it shows a different part of you than the rest of the application. Think of it as the heart of your application, infusing those cold, lifeless GPA and SAT numbers with passion. It gets across information that the other parts simply can’t. If your application already includes information about extracurriculars that don’t need a lot of development, try to spend more time choosing a different subject of your essay. There’s no need to focus on cookie-cutter elements or cliches about feeding the hungry if those things don’t really speak to who you are.
Keep it lively, personal, and if possible, amusing. Admissions officers have to read hundreds if not thousands of these things, so standing out among the crowd is a difficult, but all the more important, task. The more specific you can make your writing to your own experience, the more likely it is that they’ll remember who you are, and sometimes that’s the best result you can hope for when your application is part of a very large pile.
Dan Stern is the founder of College Essay Organizer, a groundbreaking website that instantly streamlines the entire essay process for applicants. He also runs a private college admissions practice in New York City, and has worked with hundreds of college applicants over the last 15 years.