How Important Are Essays for Me in College Admissions? (Guest Post)

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Note from Ms. Sun: This advice is great for non-UC colleges but is not applicable to the UCs (the context is different); always do your research and be aware of college-specific quirks!

Why Essays Matter

Put simply, colleges receive tens of thousands of applicants who all look the same – similar academics and similar extracurriculars. Admissions officers are looking for tiebreakers. Strong essays that stand out are a critical tiebreaker.

Let’s take an inside look at how college admissions officers evaluate applicants. The easiest way to think about it is that there are two components: The Academic Score and The Personal Score.

  • Academic Score: A combination of your grades, test scores (SAT/ACT, APs), and strength of curriculum (how difficult were the courses you took compared to what was available to you at your high school).
  • Personal Score: A combination of your essays (what you write about and how you write about it), extracurriculars, recommendations, and interview (if applicable).

You can then plot the scores. Using data Harvard had to release publicly, we’ve created a simple way to understand your admissions chances at Ivy and equivalent colleges based on your Academic and Personal Scores. The higher each score is – ESPECIALLY the Personal Score – the more likely you are to get in

‍As you can see, it’s best to be in the Strong Academics, Strong Personal category (75% of admits). The next best is Sufficient Academics, Strong Personal (25% of admits). You may feel this is counterintuitive, but it works. Colleges have a ton of data on how students perform at their college after they accept them. They use this data to set the Academic Bar. If you’re above the Academic Bar (4 in 5 applicants), then the college believes you’ll be academically successful at their college. And once you pass the academic threshold, the personal side of your application matters much more.

‍The real challenge is earning a Strong Personal Score. Only 1 in 5 applicants receive a Strong Personal Score. While nearly every applicant to Ivy and equivalent colleges has impressive extracurriculars, earning a Strong Personal Score requires setting yourself apart through your essays – what you write about and how you write about it – making your application impossible for admissions officers to ignore.

In all, the data shows strong essays 10x your admissions chances at Ivy and equivalent colleges. ‍

Note: Keep in mind there are many other considerations colleges can use in admissions: geography, family income, first-generation status, legacy, athlete, choice of major/career goal, your high school, and diversity. These factors are often used to shape who gets in (typically amongst otherwise similar applicants) but are mostly out of your control. The one you can control beyond essays is demonstrated interest. Demonstrating interest in a college through your essays or other actions you take (e.g., visiting campus, being on a college’s mailing list, communicating with your regional admissions rep) signals to the college that you will likely accept admission if you get in, which increases your likelihood of acceptance.

When essays matter (and when they don’t)

Essays matter a lot at Ivy and equivalent colleges, where colleges have tens of thousands of academically similar students they need to differentiate between. However, as colleges’ or specific majors’ admissions rates increase (e.g., accepting 50% of applicants instead of 15% of applicants), the less important essays become.

This is because colleges can admit nearly 100% of applicants in the Strong Academics, Strong Personal category. And then they have plenty of spots left for other applicants with Strong Academics, Sufficient Personal and those with particularly compelling Strong Personal profiles but only Sufficient Academics.

We’ve put together a simple guide to understanding when essays matter and when they matter less. Keep in mind that a college’s overall acceptance rate often doesn’t reflect how important essays may be for you. Often, applying out-of-state to desirable public colleges has far lower admissions rates than applying in-state. For example, the University of Michigan has an in-state acceptance rate of around 40%, and out-of-state is under 20%. Additionally, applying to highly-desirable programs and majors can have far lower admissions rates. For example, the University of Washington has around a 50% admit rate; however, computer science is only about 25% for in-state applicants and 2% for out-of-state applicants (yikes!).

Essays matter for …

  • Highly-selective colleges (under 15% admit rate)
  • Selective colleges (15-50% admit rate) where your academics are sufficient but not strong compared to other applicants
  • Large colleges where you’re applying to highly-desirable programs (e.g., Computer Science) or desirable out-of-state destinations

Essays matter less for …

  • Selective colleges (15-50% admit rate) where your academics are strong compared with other applicants
  • Large colleges where you’re applying in-state or applying to less competitive programs

Strong Essays Are a Massive Return on Your College Investment

‍Here’s the most important chart you will see for college admissions. It plots List Price Tuition versus US News Ranking for the top 100-ranked colleges. It also includes why essays are important for improving your return on investment by getting you into a reach or lower-tuition college – and earning you scholarships at some of your top choices. 

It’s a fascinating chart. First, tuition-wise, the list price tuition for private colleges is roughly the same for all schools. Second, public colleges offer the best return. Out-of-state tuition is on average 38% lower than private school tuition list price and in-state is 77% lower.

But more importantly, you can see the massive increase in return you get on your college investment by having strong essays. One of three things can happen:

  1. You get into one of your reach colleges, and you end up paying a similar tuition (or less) as your other top-choice colleges. For example, you get into Columbia and choose to go there over acceptances at Northeastern and Tulane, which have similar list price tuitions.
  2. You get into one of your top-choice public colleges, and you end up paying far less in tuition than at a private college. For example, you get into the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill ($39k per year out-of-state, $9k in-state) and choose to go there over acceptances at Georgetown and Emory ($60k+ per year list price tuition).
  3. You get into one of your top-choice colleges and get scholarships worth $5,000 to $20,000 per year or more. For example, you get into Northeastern with the Dean’s Scholarship ($35k per year after the $28k per year merit scholarship) and choose to go there over a Columbia acceptance ($66k per year).

‍Even more enticing, you may pay far less by getting into a reach college if your family income is below $120,000 per year. This is because schools with large endowments, like Ivy and equivalent colleges, can afford to offer substantial need-based aid. For example, the average yearly tuition for the Top 20 Ranked Private Colleges is $3,000 per year for families earning under $48k per year, $6,000 for $48-75k per year, and $16k for $75-110k per year. 

The Best Way to Have Strong Essays

College admissions essays are high stakes and different than anything you’ve ever written. Don’t expect to be great at writing college essays just because you’re a “good writer” or are in AP English. Great writing requires a deep understanding of what your audience (admissions officers) cares about.

Working with a Prompt Application and Essay Coach is the best and most cost-effective way to ensure you have strong essays.

  1. Your Prompt Coach helps you plan your writing, identifying your most compelling content, mapping it to each part of each application, and creating outlines for each essay. Your coach ensures your content relates to the 5 Traits Colleges Look for in Applicants: Drive, Intellectual Curiosity, Initiative, Contribution, and Diversity of Experiences and Interests.
  2. Your Prompt Coach helps you make your writing concise. You have only 1,000 to 3,000 words to make your case. It’s not like the history paper to which you added two pages of nonsense to get to the 5-page minimum. Instead, every word counts. And if you’re a high-achiever, chances are you’ll struggle to fit everything in. Your Prompt Coach is an expert at concise writing, often helping you reduce your word count by 40-60% without losing any meaning – allowing you to fit in all of your most compelling content.
  3. Your Prompt Coach helps you make your writing clear. You have 8 minutes to make your case. That’s the average time an admissions officer spends reading and evaluating an application to an Ivy and equivalent college. It includes reviewing and making notes on everything – not just your essays. Your writing must be easy to understand. Otherwise, the admissions officers will just move on to the next application.
  4. Prompt is half the price or less of equivalent services. Prompt delivers unlimited coaching on all written parts of your applications for 1, 3, 6, or all of your schools. Our students often write 10, 20, 50, or even 100 essays across their applications, and our most ambitious students, applying to 10+ Ivy and equivalent colleges, often receive 50-70 hours of coaching. But most importantly, Prompt delivers results. 98% of Prompt students get into one or more of their top-choice colleges, and the typical student receives a 5,000 to 20,000 (or more) per year scholarship to at least one of their top choices.

* Top-choice Colleges are defined as a student’s reach colleges or other colleges they indicate they would be excited to attend if accepted.

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Questions or Comments?