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.
Americans are split on the main purpose of college, with 47% saying it is to teach work-related skills and 39% saying it is to help a student grow personally and intellectually.
Do we send students to college mainly to grow and learn or strictly to prepare for a future career? The American public is somewhat split, but ultimately comes down in favor of the latter on balance. Just under half of the public (47%) says the main purpose of a college education is to teach work-related skills and knowledge. Another 39%, however, says that college is an opportunity for students to grow personally and intellectually. A little more than one-in-ten (12%) say the time spent at college should be dedicated to both pursuits. Americans who did not attend a four-year college are the most likely to say college is best for developing work-related skills — 55% say this should be the mission of college. Americans who did attend a four-year school, however, lean the other way: 50% say that individual growth is more important; 40% say learning skills for a career. Adults with a post-graduate education, by a 56%-to-26% margin, are the most likely to say the mission of college should be to help an individual grow personally and intellectually rather than to prepare students for a career. Read More