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  • Nancy Ikenberry

How Important Is the College Essay?

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

A student is working, pen on paper, with a cup in the background.

Colleges consider many factors when reviewing a student for admission: a rigorous high school curriculum, GPA, standardized test scores and passionate involvement in extracurricular activities top the list. But just how important is the college essay?

Simply put, your college essay is more important than ever. We are in a unique period of college admissions. The Covid-19 pandemic led most colleges to adopt test optional admissions policies which persist today. Grade inflation is rampant. The Supreme Court ruling that affirmative action admission policies are unconstitutional alters the manner which colleges consider diversity and lived experiences. Together, these influences have been disorienting, and the college essay is your chance for your voice to be heard amidst the noise in today’s college admissions process.

Test Optional Admissions

The Covid-19 pandemic led most colleges to adopt test optional admissions policies in order to accommodate students’ inability to test. While some colleges have returned to requiring standardized test scores, by and large test optional polices persist today. As a result, colleges are receiving a surge in applications. For example, Harvard received 40% more applications for its class of 2027 than it did three years earlier pre-pandemic. Removing the testing requirement led to this increase in applications because candidates who, historically, because of that singular element did not apply, are now applying.

For colleges that are test optional or test blind, the essay becomes more important. Since schools have fewer data points to work with, other aspects of your application including the essay will be given more weight and consideration.

Highly Selective College Admissions

It is a truth universally acknowledged that for highly selective colleges, there are more students who meet the academic criteria than can be admitted. There are roughly 20,000 high schools in the U.S. alone, each with a valedictorian, class president, 1st chair violin, and multiple team captains. Thousands of students with similar GPAs, course rigor, and test scores apply to the same colleges every year. (Consider that Harvard admitted 1,966 students last year.) This fact is exacerbated by rampant grade inflation. The three-year period between 2018 and 2021 saw more grade inflation than in the preceding eight years, jumping by a full tenth of a point as many schools struggled to grade students during remote learning, according to an ACT report.

Given that at top-tier colleges, many of the candidates are excellent students who have stellar grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities, it can be hard to stand out with the sheer number of candidates with similar academic qualifications. These colleges use a holistic approach when evaluating students, seeking to understand the candidate and their background as a whole. The essay provides an opportunity to differentiate candidates and truly assess an applicant’s fit with the school. Because of that, a good essay that helps a reader understand who you are – your experiences, interests, perspectives, values – and what you bring to their campus and community may make the difference.

Finally, removing the standardized testing requirement did more than add to the growth in applications but impacted the makeup of the applicant pool. Colleges are receiving applications from more first-generation students. And because these institutions are trying to build a diverse class of students, the essay can be extremely important in building a community based on priorities at each institution.

Post-SCOTUS Ruling

This summer’s Supreme Court ruling that affirmative action admission policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are unconstitutional alters the manner which colleges consider diversity and lived experiences. The decision means universities can no longer consider race in addition to other factors when admitting students, ending 40-plus years of affirmative action policies intended to achieve racial diversity in colleges.

While colleges can no longer consider the race of their applicants, they will seek out alternative ways to boost the racial and ethnic diversity of their student bodies. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “all parties agree, nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” That means students will still be allowed to write about their lived experiences with racism growing up, racial equity within their schools or how it’s impacted their opportunities. Rather than check boxes, colleges will rely on stories shared through the essay.

Following the SCOTUS decision, Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth wrote in a letter to the campus community that Wesleyan “remains deeply committed to admitting a class of students that will lead to a diverse learning community on our campus. Wesleyan has never simply looked at the box students checked when considering their racial background. We take an individualized, holistic view of an applicant’s lived experience, through their essays, letters of recommendation, and interactions with our community.”

So how important is the college essay? In this current college admissions environment maybe more important than ever. Your essay is your chance to share your unique and personal story. Be vulnerable and allow your story to emerge. Let it show who you are, share your voice, your unique experiences, and your perspective, what you care about and how you can contribute to the campus community.


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