By Dean Cahill on October 09, 2018
No college application is complete without an essay. In his article Confessions of a Former Admissions Officer, Ed Boland, a former admissions officer at Yale, says that the essay is the “most important part of your college application.” Johns Hopkins University agrees. But all the importance placed on the essay can be… stressful, to say the least. We’re told that college application essays should “capture our essence,” but how?
I think that, to answer this question, we need to think about why the essay is held so highly by admissions. Besides the essay, most schools receive transcripts, test scores, and teacher recommendations. The problem with all of these is that they don’t really explain what kind of person you are. Yeah, you got an A- in biology, but what pushed you to get that grade? That C+ in history looks bad, but maybe there was a family issue that kept you from studying. The point is, there’s an entire dimension to you, not only as a student but as a human being, that a college can only see through how you write yourself. High schools often lean heavily on the “adversity narrative,” but this isn’t a guaranteed method for getting in, and it can be pretty difficult for students who haven’t overcome their own adversity, or learned nothing from it.
So then what do you write about? The important thing is to choose a prompt that you’re comfortable with, whether you’re applying through the Common App or through a college’s direct application. In my view, a good college essay will serve several purposes. Primarily, it is a chance for you to share what makes you special with your prospective colleges. What makes you stand out from the hundreds or thousands of other students? This can be in your passion for learning, your interest in an extra-curricular, or even in how you write your essay. Standing out doesn’t mean getting good grades and lining your belt with a bunch of clubs that you hated. It means showcasing the you that you think is worthy of note. The you that learned how to juggle because you felt like it. The you that reads to your sister every night. The creative, interesting - and interested - you that any college would be lucky to have.
While the admissions office is the primary focus of the application, it’s important to recognize that the colleges are not the only ones that benefit from a strong essay. The application essay is a chance for you to finally articulate yourself. You may not know why you want to major in chemical engineering, but through your writing, you can come closer to understanding what it is about that field that you’re so interested in. Even if you don’t know a major, the essay can be a space to explore your motivations for attending college. Maybe the first thing that comes to mind is a community service project you worked on, so you know that you want to help people, but maybe not how to accomplish that. The point is that you can use this essay to find what’s important to you, since that’s what colleges are looking for anyway.
So don’t disregard the essay, but don’t be afraid of it. It can help both you and your prospective colleges understand who you are and what you want out of your undergraduate experience.