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College Application Essays Don't Matter as Much as You Think

Correction appended, November 14.

Parents: sit down before you read this. Kids: deep breaths. You know that beautifully crafted, deeply felt, highly unusual college application essay you've been polishing? It might not make a difference for your college admission chances.

Stanford sociologist Mitchell Stevens spent 18 months embedded with admissions officers at an unnamed top-tier liberal arts college and found that, even in cases where students were within the admissible range in terms of scores and grades, officers rarely looked to the personal essays as a deciding factor. He wrote about his experience for The New Republic, and here's the most interesting part:

Yet even in these middling cases, personal essays rarely got even cursory attention from admissions officers. There were simply too many files to consider in too small a time frame, and too many other evaluative factors that mattered much more. How likely was an applicant to accept our offer of admission? Had we already accepted anyone from his or her remote zip code? Had the applicant received any special endorsement from a college alumnus or a faculty member? Did someone in the office owe a favor to the applicant’s guidance counselor? Those are the questions that get debated before a verdict is reached. But during the hundreds of deliberations I sat in on over two admission cycles, I literally never heard a decision made on the basis of a personal essay alone.

The good news? Three former admissions officers I spoke to told me that, contrary to Steven's observations, officers read every essay that comes across their desks. "We definitely read the essays," says Joie Jager-Hyman, president of College Prep 360 and former admissions officer at Dartmouth College. "You don’t do that job unless you enjoy reading the essays. They’re kind of fun." Elizabeth Heaton, senior director of educational counseling at admissions-consulting firm College Coach, and former admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania, says she took notes on every single piece of writing a student submitted, whether she advocated for them or not.

The bad news? No matter how gorgeous your prose is, you can't get into college based on the strength of your essay alone. "No-one ever gets into college because you write a great essay," Heaton says. "You can not get in because you write a really bad one."

And even Joan Didion herself wouldn't get into college on her writing skills if she had lackluster grades or scores. The officers told me they did sometimes look to the essays to explain weaknesses in the application (like if there was a year of bad grades that coincided with an illness,) but they said that kind information was usually best kept in the "additional information" section of the application.

Some officers recalled moments when they were so moved by an essay that they advocated for the student to be admitted despite other weaknesses on the application, but none had ever recalled a time where that strategy had worked. "There were a couple of incidents were I really wanted to admit a student and recommended that they move forward because their writing and personal qualities were so interesting, but I was not successful," says Shoshana Krieger, a counselor for Expert Admissions who formerly worked in the admissions office at the University of Chicago and at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. "There are certain cases where if a student is simply too far off academically, it’s then just not going to make a difference."

"I never saw a phenomenal essay suddenly make up for everything” Heaton agreed. "These days, there’s just so little wiggle room to be able to make that call." She also noted that it looks suspicious when a kid with mediocre grades and scores submits a spectacular essay, and raises doubts that the student might not have written it herself.

Later in his piece, Steven notes that the college essay may be more of a psychological outlet than a practical asset in the college application process, since it's one of the only things that's still in the applicant's control during the fall of their senior year (most of their transcript and scores are already behind them.) Joie Jager-Hyman said she agreed with that assessment. "There’s so much anxiety right now in the air," she said. "It’s the thing they feel like they have power over." She also noted that focus on the essay could help kids become better writers in the long-run, even if it might not necessarily make or break their college admissions chances, and "that's not totally a bad thing."

So even if all the revising and nitpicking on the college essay may not help your kid get into college, it will almost certainly make him or her a better writer. So don't put away that red pen yet.

Correction: The original version of this post misstated the location of Trinity University in Texas. It is in San Antonio.

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