How important is the college essay?

Bonus Material: 30 College Essays that Worked

If you’re getting started with the college application process, you’ve probably already given some thought to the application essays you’ll have to write. 

But a lot of students wonder how much these essays actually matter: do admissions counselors really care what you write here, or does everything come down to grades and test scores anyway?

In this post, we’ll explore how important the college essay is depending on the kind of university you’re applying to and the overall strength of your application–all backed up by data from polls of admissions officers. Knowing how the college essay factors into your overall application can help you approach it more strategically, maximizing your chances of earning an acceptance. 

Jump to section:
How do colleges evaluate your application?
How do colleges weigh the essay?
Selective vs less selective schools
“Strong” vs “weak” applications: strategies
Next steps


How do colleges evaluate your application?

We’ve got a dedicated post just on this very question that you can check out here, but for now you should now that, at selective schools, the process will most likely resemble some version of these four steps:

  1. Sort

Applications are organized primarily by geographical area and sent to the readers who work specifically on applications from that area. 

  1. Individual reads

Depending on school, between 1 and 3 people will individually read over your application, usually taking notes and usually giving your application one of our recommendations: Accept, Likely Accept, Likely Deny, Deny.

Note that this can vary a lot from school to school: a very selective school is much more likely to immediately put lots of applicants into the “Deny” pile while putting very, very few into the “Accept pile” initially. 

  1. Committee

After a series of individual reads, the application is discussed briefly by an admission 

committee that reviews the notes from individual readers and evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of your application. 

  1. Final decision

This varies quite a bit by school. Some schools make a decision by majority vote; others leave the decision up to the most senior member of the committee. 


How do colleges weigh the college essay?

Naturally, an exact number can be hard to come by. However, a recent poll of admissions officers taken by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling is indicative of the application essay’s importance: 

All Factors in AdmissionConsiderable ImportanceModerate ImportanceLimited ImportanceNo Importance
Grades in All Courses74.5155.55
Grades in College Prep Courses73.216.85.94.1
Strength of Curriculum62.121.98.77.3
Admission Test Scores (SAT, ACT)45.737.112.25
Positive Character Attributes25.944.413.915.7
Essay or Writing Sample23.233.224.119.5
Student’s Demonstrated Interest16.123.92832.1
Counselor Recommendation15.140.426.617.9
Teacher Recommendation14.240.226.519.2
Class Rank9.129.134.127.7
Extracurricular Activities6.442.93218.7
Portfolio6.411.926.954.8
Subject Test Scores (AP, IB)5.518.335.241.1
Interview5.516.428.349.8
Work Experience4.128.636.930.4
State Graduation Exam Scores2.38.718.870.2
SAT II Scores1.95.614.877.8

Source: NACAC 2018-2019 Counseling Trends Survey

While the four top categories are essentially quantitative, the next three aren’t: Positive Character Attributes and Essay or Writing Sample, and Student’s Demonstrated Interest are all expressed through your essays!

Even though the “Essay or Writing Sample” is only one category here, remember that your “positive character traits” are going to be most evident in your personal statement. And your “demonstrated interest” will be evident in each school’s supplemental essays. 

Looking at the numbers, 70.3% of polled admissions officers give your character moderate or considerable importance. What’s especially interesting is that, when it comes to SAT/ACT scores, 82.8% of admissions officers give them the same level of importance. While that’s certainly higher, it’s surprisingly close!

Viewed this way, your personal statements and supplemental essays can have a lot of influence on multiple elements of your application–not only on how admissions committees view your writing, but, far more importantly, how likely they are to think you’re someone with a positive character who’s legitimately interested in attending their school. 

If you want to read more about exactly what kind of topics you should focus on to make sure your college essay conveys those positive character attributes, you should check out our post on the Diamond Strategy here. 

There’s another factor to consider here: the application essay is the part of your application over which you have the most immediate control. 

By the time you’re applying to college, your grades are already mostly set in stone. Your standardized test scores, depending on your timeline, may also already be locked in. But the application essay is something you have full control over: you get to decide how much you invest into it, and you get to decide when it’s “good enough.”

Regardless of where you are in the college application process, our comprehensive, free guides can walk you through how to brainstorm your college essay and how to write it to maximize your chances of admission. 

Take a look below for 30 real essays that worked, ones you can use as inspiration. You’ll be able to tell that the writers of these essays took them seriously–and were rewarded with admission into schools like Princeton. 


Selective vs less selective schools 

Though the exact importance of the college essay at any given school is going to be murky, there are some general trends that hold true. 

One major one is that selective schools with fewer overall applicants will value the application essay more. 

According to the NACAC Admissions Trends survey, compared to less selective colleges, “more selective colleges also rated more highly the essay writing sample, counselor and teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, and work.”

Why?

In part, this is practical: large, less selective schools (for example, most state universities) simply have too many applicants and not enough resources to meticulously debate the merits of your essay. For them, it’s most often a numbers game: if your stats are good enough and there are no red flags, you’ll quickly be sorted into the “Accept” pile. If your stats are far below the benchmark, odds are you’ll simply be denied.

At elite, selective colleges (Ivy Leagues, for sure, but also many of those smaller schools whose acceptance rates are below 30%), the situation is totally different. Fewer applicants and more resources mean that these schools can spend more time with each application. 

More importantly, because these schools essentially get their pick of the best applicants in the country, they’re often in search of ways to decide among them. Because most applicants to these top-tier schools will all have stellar grades and near perfect test-scores, those quantitative aspects of the application don’t serve to distinguish one applicant from another–they’re really more like prerequisites. 

So, if a school like Princeton is looking at thousands of applications with similar (amazing) grades and similar (amazing) test scores, what do they look at? Extracurriculars, certainly, but also those intangible things like “character” and “demonstrated interest.” In other words: your essay. 

In those situations, the essay may become even more important in the application process than the statistics cited above suggest. This of course assumes that your test scores and GPA are strong enough to make the cut: most evidence suggests that a strong essay won’t, on its own, be enough to save an otherwise weak application.


“Strong” vs “weak” application: strategies. 

The other key factor to consider is your relative strength as an applicant for any given university. 

Let’s take a hypothetical student with a 3.9 unweighted GPA and 1550 SAT who took tons of AP classes. If this student applies to a university like York College, which had an average GPA of 3.02 and SAT of 1055 for the incoming class of 2026, their essay isn’t going to matter very much. Their stats are so comparatively high that, whether the essay is mediocre or amazing, it’ll make little difference. 

Witn one caveat: a personal statement that raises serious red flags can disqualify even that stellar applicant from a less-selective school like York. That kind of college essay is rare, but it’s worth mentioning that a really, really terrible college essay can sink the application of any candidate. 

But let’s say that same student now applies to Duke University, with an acceptance rate under 10%, an average SAT of 1510, and an average GPA of 4.19 for the class of 2026. Now, this student’s amazing academic accomplishments are more or less just par for the course: they won’t automatically be rejected, but nobody on the admissions committee is going to be blown away by their score or grades either. 

Here, the essay (along with extracurriculars and other factors) can serve as the deciding factor between similar, extremely qualified candidates. In this case, the student needs a college essay that makes them stand out. 

All other things being equal, a well-written, safe essay that is perfectly okay but not memorable won’t help the student in the admissions process. It might not literally “hurt” them, but it will have been a wasted opportunity to impress admissions officers. In cases like these–where a student is an average or below average applicant at a highly selective school–it generally benefits to take risks, aiming for a college admissions essay that is unusual, unexpected, and memorable. 

Note: when it comes to schools like Ivies, basically nobody is a “strong” applicant by their numbers. At best, you’ll be an average (for the school) applicant who’ll get a fair and thorough consideration. But never expect that your test scores or grades will be enough to impress admissions committees at the highest tier of selective universities. 

So, your overall application strength and the schools you’re applying to can actually significantly affect your college essay strategy. 

  • If your goal is to get into an ultra-selective school, you can’t waste the opportunity presented to you by the college essay. Your application essay should take risks and be inventive (along with being a compelling piece of writing that shares something crucial about yourself). If you’re in this category, we highly recommend reading our guide on “How to write a college essay”. And you should definitely read through these 30 real essays that worked to get a feel for what kind of risks you should be taking. CU link]
  • If your goal is to get into a less selective (above 30% acceptance) where your stats are significantly stronger than that of the average applicant, the college essay will likely matter less for you. You can get by with just a “fine” college essay.
  • If you’re applying to a less selective school where your stats are not much stronger than that of the average applicant, there’ll be more importance placed on your essay. Once again, that means you’ll be well-served by taking risks and putting as much effort and time into your essay as possible. 

Of course, as we’ve suggested before, even a strong applicant can ruin their chances with a particularly bad essay. What’s the best way to avoid falling into that trap? We can pair you with a college essay expert who can help you walk the line between an appropriately risky college essay and a dangerous one. 


Next Steps

At the end of the day, there’s no scenario where a strong, creative college application essay is a bad thing. Given the insane competitiveness of college admissions now, you should be maximizing every opportunity to favorably impress college admissions committees. 

And that means taking the time to really perfect your college admission essay. In addition to our free resources and guides on how to do so, we offer live, personalized support from tutors who have themselves gained admission to elite schools like Princeton. Our essay tutors know what works because they’ve done it themselves. 

In the meantime, check out our whole series of posts on college essay writing (linked below) and download our collection of 30 college admissions essays that can help you figure out what the perfect college application essay looks like. 

 


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Mike

Mike

Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.