Writing College Application Essays

How Important Are College Application Essays?

So you’re wondering how important college applications actually are.

Students that intend to apply to competitive colleges and universities spend most of their high school years in something of a vacuum, pursuing extracurricular activities (ECs), volunteering, preparing for standardized tests, collecting letters of recommendation, and taking AP classes to demonstrate their academic ability and discipline as well as their “fit” for the schools they’re targeting. When these activities, test scores, and grades are uploaded, however, they don’t really tell an admissions committee much of anything about the person behind the application.

That’s where the essay comes in.

Here’s what the College Board has to say about application essays:

“A powerful, well-written essay can make a difference and elevate an applicant in an admission committee’s eyes when colleges have to choose between applicants with similar qualifications.

Students can also use the essay to show that they’ve thought carefully about why they’re a good match for the college they’re applying to. They can show their commitment to learning and their eagerness to contribute to the college community.”


Rather than further articulate the importance of college application essays myself, here are two college admissions experts’ – Jeffrey J. Selingo and Harry Bauld – opinions on the subject. I recommend both of the books I quote below. All emphasis is mine.

One place where applicants could stand out is in their essay, but most are unfortunately mind-numbingly similar. Teenagers have less than two decades of life to write about, and as a result, they often focus on the same things: overcoming an athletic injury, dealing with anxiety, depression, or their sexuality, or discovering themselves on a trip, with a fill-in-the-blank country such as Guatemala or Thailand.”

– Jeffrey J. Selingo, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions (193)


The essays that stick out do so not because of what the applicants write but how they write it—with an authentic voice that gives readers a sense of what the student sees, feels, and thinks.


“The best essays are honest slice-of-life stories, both entertaining and serious, that tell admissions officers something they don’t learn from another part of the application. They’re essays that aren’t trying to shoehorn seventeen years into 650 words.”

– ibid

“The trick, of course, is getting out of the leaden shadow of sameness and into the sunlit tropics of acceptance. To do that, you have to become three-dimensional to the committee. The best way: write a good essay.”

– Harry Bauld, On Writing the College Application Essay, 25th Anniversary Edition: The Key to Acceptance at the College of Your Choice (6)

“In the admissions committee’s search for who you are, the essay is, in fact, no more important than any other part of the application, with this important difference: it’s the only place they can hear your voice, just as you want it. One big difficulty with that is obvious: you’ve probably never written anything like this, and certainly not for an audience you can’t (and may never) see. It’s not the same as the history paper for Mr. Snoozleman on the causes of the Civil War, or the English assignment for Ms. Hackenbush on the significance of the green light at the end of the dock in The Great Gatsby. In those assignments, the readers aren’t waiting breathlessly to read your words in order to learn something themselves or take pleasure in what you say; they have probably studied these topics for years. At best such assignments are exercises, literary pushups supposedly in preparation for college, but meaningless in themselves. At worst, writing them is not writing at all — you’re more like a cat in a lab, coughing up hairballs.

But your college essay is not an exercise; it’s a Real Game. It is, in fact, a piece of “published” writing. Like a book or magazine article, it goes our into a world of unknown readers who will judge you without being on your side from the beginning, the way a teacher is.”

ibid, 14-15

Convinced? Good. Worried? Don’t be.

I can help you develop the best possible application essay.

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