You know it is important to have a high GPA, strong standardized tests scores, and extracurricular activities for your college application. But what about the essay? Just how much does it really matter to your overall academic profile? The answer is that it depends on a number of factors. The essay is always important, but just how much it will influence your overall application varies by the school to which you are applying, as well as your individual profile.
Looking for more advice on college essay writing? Check out our blog post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2017-2018.
Factors that Affect the Influence of College Essays
Huge public schools, such as state flagship universities, tend to have more applicants that private schools, as well as limited resources with which to evaluate candidates. Competitive state schools, such as UC Berkeley and the University of Michigan, tend to screen candidates on the basis of GPA and test scores first before reviewing extracurricular activities and essays.
If you are a “borderline” candidate, with a good but less-competitive grades and test scores, a strong essay could push you into the admitted pool. However, your essay is unlikely to compensate for grades and test scores that are too far below average, since, first and foremost, the primary bases for evaluation are the quantitative aspects of your application.
In contrast, smaller colleges, especially liberal arts schools, tend to take a more holistic approach to evaluating candidates, since these colleges tend to be more self-selective and receive fewer applications. Therefore, they can devote more time and resources to each individual application.
Top private schools like the Ivies and similar-tier colleges also prefer to use a holistic approach when evaluating students, seeking to understand the candidate and his or her background as a whole. At top-tier colleges, many of the candidates are already excellent students who have stellar grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities, so essays provide an additional way to differentiate candidates and understand their entire profiles and personalities.
The importance of your essay also depends on you personally as a candidate. For the student who otherwise presents a strong profile, with a high GPA, competitive test scores, and stellar extracurricular activities, the essay is unlikely to have a big impact on your overall application, because you have already demonstrated your ability to succeed. However, you should still aim to write a strong essay. If anything, it will only complement the talent you have already conveyed with the rest of your profile — and it never hurts to impress the admissions committee.
Under no circumstances should you ever “blow off” your college essay. Even if your grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities are enough to make you a top candidate for competitive colleges, your essay always matters. In fact, your essay could end up hurting an application for an otherwise strong candidate if it appears hastily written or not well thought-out.
Factoring in your particular interests, talents, and intended major makes the importance of the essay even more nuanced. If you intend to study a humanities subject such as Journalism, Creative Writing, or English, and list writing-oriented extracurricular activities such as your school newspaper or Language Arts tutoring on your application, your essay needs to reflect your talent and chosen major. If colleges see that your focus is writing and receive a poorly-written or uninspired essay, they will be confused — and may wonder how well you understand your own strengths.
On the other hand, if your focus is clearly on a subject in which writing personally and creatively is not as essential, such as the life sciences or math, and your intended major follows the same suit, admissions committees may provide a little more leeway and judge your essay less harshly. You still need to present a well-written and carefully considered essay, of course. If you know writing is somewhat of a weakness, have teachers, guidance counselors, friends, and family members read it and offer feedback. However, colleges will understand that your talents lie elsewhere.
For students who have less-competitive academic profiles, presenting a particularly impressive essay may tip the balance in your favor. This is more likely to happen with smaller schools that can take the time to go over your entire application more comprehensively, because, as mentioned earlier, large schools may not have the resources or funding to devote as much attention to every applicant. Additionally, while a strong essay may help borderline candidates, it won’t be enough to make up for an otherwise weak profile.
That said, students who know they may have weaker GPAs or test scores than other applicants at a particular school may want to take the time to craft a truly outstanding essay. Starting particularly early, coming up with a thoughtful idea, writing several drafts, self-editing, and soliciting feedback may help you create an essay that will give you that extra edge as an applicant.
College-bound? This article provides an overview of the kinds of things admissions offices seek from applicants — and is especially useful for high school sophomores and juniors as you begin your college planning, but it can also be useful for seniors as you prepare your college applications.
10 Things College Admissions Offices Look For:
1. Strong Scores on Standardized Tests. Of those colleges and universities that require the SAT or ACT as part of your application — and a small (but growing) number of schools do not — admissions counselors seek scores that match of exceed the scores of their current students. For better or worse, standardized college entrance exam scores are seen as the most objective measure of your college potential. In the process of conducting your research on colleges, you should easily be able to find a profile of the most recently admitted class. (Note: colleges that do not require a standardized test for admission consideration do usually require supplemental materials, such as a graded paper from a core academic course and a portfolio that showcases your strengths, interests, and achievements.)
2. High Grade Point Average. It goes without question that grades are an extremely important element of your college application. Colleges will ask you to submit official transcripts from your high school and possibly recalculate your grade point average based on some internal system they use for weighting different types of courses. Your goal, from the first year of high school forward, is to achieve the best grades you can. If you had a rough freshman year, but have since rebounded with much stronger grades, fear not, because colleges certainly look for trends in academic achievement — and a record of constant improvement when your GPA is not as strong as you would like is a good sign to most admissions counselors about your growth and potential.
3. Challenging College-Prep Courses. Your challenge is not just to get the best grades you can — but to get the best grades you can in the most academically challenging courses as you can. You certainly do not need to enroll in an International Baccalaureate (IB) Program at your high school, but where you have the strengths, skills, and aptitude, you should at least strive for Honors or Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Most colleges will place greater weight on these “tougher” courses — and even go so far as to rate a B in an advanced class (IB, Honors, AP) on a higher scale than an A in a comparable mainstream class.
4. Top Percentage of Class Standing. Class rank and class standing are moving a little further to the back of the pack, partly because class rank means almost nothing in high schools that are at the extremes — horrible or exceptional. In some of the top high school programs, class rank has been found to actually hurt some of the very best students — because only so many can be in the top 1, 5, or even 10 percent of the class. Grades obviously drive class rank, so you should of course strive for the very best grades — and then just hope that the ranking works in your favor or that the colleges you apply to don’t use rank as a top criteria for admissions.
It goes without question that grades are an extremely important element of your college application. Colleges will ask you to submit official transcripts from your high school and possibly recalculate your grade point average based on some internal system they use for weighting different types of courses. Your goal, from the first year of high school forward, is to achieve the best grades you can.
5. Leadership Positions in a Few Organizations. Most colleges and universities are seeking leaders from within their applicant pool, and you can make your application stand out by having one or two leadership positions over the course of your high school career. Being a leader in one or two organizations means much, much more than simply being a member in 10 clubs and organizations. Not only does leadership show a certain level of maturity and character, but colleges also have an eye to all their student organizations and their need to recruit future leaders. You don’t need to be the president of an organization, but you should be an officer of at least one group by the time you’re a senior.
6. Active Involvement in Community Service. There’s no requirement for community service to gain admittance to college, but just about all college-bound high school students have jumped on the bandwagon, volunteering throughout the local community. It seems to be one of these unwritten rules that applicants who volunteer many, many hours in the service of supporting others will become a key campus activist. Regardless of the importance for admission to college, most experts agree on the value and self-fulfillment people get in helping others.
7. Insightful and Well-Written Essay(s). Of all the 10 items on this list, the essay either gets the most attention or the least respect — depending on who you ask. Like some of the other 10 elements on this list, not all colleges require an essay as part of the admissions application. The essay — or essays — are a tool used by some universities to learn more about you and why you want to attend their school. Definitely take the time to carefully consider the questions and write, edit, rewrite, and proofread your essays — with an eye to what the essays reveal about you and your personality. Some admissions counselors admit that an amazing essay can push a marginal applicant into the accepted student group. Learn more about college essay writing in our article, Writing the Successful College Application Essay.
8. Quality Recommendations from Teachers and Guidance Counselor. The recommendation letters that you ask your teachers and your guidance counselor to write can play a key role in your college application. Ideally, you have a few favorite teachers — teachers who not only know the quality of your work and academic acumen, but also can talk about some of your personal qualities. It’s best to ask your teachers for letters as early as you can so that they have the time to write a quality letter; obviously the most popular teachers will need even more time if they have requests from many of their students.
One other nice touch — especially for a college you really want to attend — is to ask a professional such as a former (or current) boss to write a letter of recommendation for you. Even better if that person has some sort of tie to the college as a donor or alumnus.
9. Relevant Recommendations from Professionals and Others. One other nice touch — especially for a college you really want to attend — is to ask a professional such as a former (or current) boss to write a letter of recommendation for you. Even better if that person has some sort of tie to the college as a donor or alumnus. Other possibilities include your supervisor from one or more of your volunteering/community service projects or a coach from one of the teams you have played for. If you have run your own business, you might ask a favorite customer to write a letter. Finally, you can also ask a family friend or religious leader to write a letter — but personal references are not as strong as academic or professional ones.
10. Work and Entrepreneurial Experiences. While you certainly do not need to have ever held a part-time or summer job or started your own business, if you have some unique experiences, writing about your experiences can be a great essay topic as well as showcasing your professionalism and time-management skills. College admissions folks love self-starters — applicants with a strong entrepreneurial spirit — so proudly tell the story of your babysitting, lawn mowing, car detailing, tutoring, painting, or pet-sitting business (or whatever YOUR business is).
Final Thoughts on College Admission Success
While this article is a quick overview of the types of things college admissions offices are looking for from college-bound high school seniors, you can find much more information and depth in our free College Planning Tutorial.
Finally, some additional resources that can help you in the college application process:
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Dr. Randall S. Hansen is founder of Quintessential Careers, one of the oldest and most comprehensive career development sites on the Web, as well CEO of EmpoweringSites.com. He is also founder of MyCollegeSuccessStory.com and EnhanceMyVocabulary.com. Dr. Hansen is also a published author, with several books, chapters in books, and hundreds of articles. He’s often quoted in the media and conducts empowering workshops around the country. Finally, Dr. Hansen is also an educator, having taught at the college level for more than 15 years. Visit his personal website, or check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.