Since the emergence of COVID, the majority of colleges in the U.S. have switched to a test-optional admissions process. While there are a few outlier schools like MIT and Georgetown that reverted back to requiring test scores after the pandemic abated, most schools remained test-optional, and in some cases (like the University of California), test-blind. Against this backdrop, college essays are more important than ever before. Without test scores, college admission teams are placing greater emphasis on the essays in order to discern a student’s academic capability as well as their curiosity and drive. Yes, the essays are still one piece of a holistic puzzle that includes grades, extracurricular activities, course rigor, etc., but they are the largest, most important piece.
A Way to Stand Out
Fundamentally, college essays are a way for students to distinguish themselves from their peers. When admissions officers are comparing students with identically strong resumes or GPAs, they look to the essays as a way to make a decision. That’s why revising and editing these college essays is so essential. Colleges want to know who students are beyond the numbers. What is the student’s guiding philosophy? What drives them? Are they self-aware? Do they think critically about the world around them or display an ability to make compassionate decisions? The college essays are a way for students to reveal their multifaceted identities to colleges, making their applications come to life.
Most colleges in the U.S. take into account a student’s interest in the school when deciding whether or not to admit them. This is called “demonstrated interest,” and can refer to anything ranging from a student subscribing to a school’s email list and taking a virtual tour to following the school on social media. However, one often-overlooked element of demonstrated interest is the “Why This College?” essay. In the supplemental essays, students have the opportunity to use their writing to show colleges how much research they have done into the school! The most common mistake students make when writing a “Why This College?” type of essay is speaking too generally about a college when answering this prompt. Sentences like “I like x school because it’s in California” or “It has a great biology program” could apply to multiple colleges.
My rule is: “If the sentence can apply to another college, the sentence is not specific enough.” Instead, students can name specific research labs they want to join, teachers they want to learn from, classes they want to take, clubs they would participate in, and more. This type of granular detail not only shows admissions officers that students have a deep knowledge of the school, but also that the student is writing a school-specific essay, not copy/pasting in a generic essay.
COVID inevitably made students’ lives very difficult. Whether a student had to miss out on exciting extracurricular activities or struggled academically with online school, the college essays are an important place for a student to explain any bad grades or transcript issues. Some students use the 650-word Additional Information section in the Common Application to explain both an academic challenge and how the student overcame it. Other students use the 250-word COVID explanation essay. Both essays are optional, but it’s worth students having a strategic conversation about a) if they need to write one of the optional essays, and b) which version to write.
SCOTUS Decision to Overturn Affirmative Action
The recent Supreme Court decision to ban the use of race in college admissions at both private and public colleges and universities has many downstream consequences that will reverberate across the college admissions process over the next few years. One of these consequences is that college admissions officers will now look to the college essays (rather than a checkbox) to assess the racial discrimination a student has faced. Chief Justice Roberts specifically noted that admissions officers could consider race if students articulated how race affected their character development in their essays. Therefore, colleges will be using these essays as a substitute for their previous use of race. Many schools have outright stated that this is how they plan to get around the Supreme Court decision. Therefore, the college essays will play a more important role than ever in helping admissions officers decide whether to accept a student.