Are College Essays Really That Important?

College application season can be stressful, and so it’s natural to want to know if there are places you can cut corners. Can I drop that AP course I hate? Will a dip in my GPA hurt my application? Do I really need to retake the SAT in my senior year?

When it comes to college essays, a common question is “are they really that important?” Another way of asking this is, “How much effort should I put into them?”

I’ve done the research on this question, and the answer is: it depends. What does it depend on? Well, it depends mostly on where you’re applying and how the other parts of your application look in comparison to other applicants.

Let me give you some background. According to the most recent survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), 61% of universities stated that application essays were “of considerable” or “of moderate” importance to their decision-making process.

Here’s the actual breakdown:

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*Graph data based off surveys by the National Association for College Admission Counseling* Source.

Why are they important? In the past two decades, the number of people applying to college has skyrocketed. More students are applying to more colleges. Additionally, high school students have become more competitive applicants with higher test scores and GPAs. Admissions teams have more applications to review, and if many students have similar scores, grades, and responsibilities, then they will look to other parts of the application like letters of recommendation and college essays to complete the picture of the applicant. Therefore, essays can help put a candidate with average or below average scores in the running for a seat, and it can help admissions teams make decisions between competitive candidates.

In 2014, the average acceptance rate at universities was 64.7%, but for highly selective schools, the acceptance rate teetered as low as 5%. For highly selective schools, essays matter, and they matter a lot. While most of the parts of the application reveal how you perform academically and how you spend your time, your application essays show how you view yourself and the world. They are an opportunity to add in details about yourself that admissions officers can’t get elsewhere on your application.

So, how much effort should you put into writing your essays?

If your scores are substantially higher than the average for a school, then the essay (s) won’t necessarily be a deciding factor. If there are a number of supplementals for a “safety” school, then you may choose to delegate your time to focusing on the essays for your “reach” or “dream” schools. However, you do want to make sure your essays follow the prompt and are well-written as they are still a reflection of you.

My advice is to take college essays seriously. Get started on them before your senior year, and model the strategies of the “essays that worked.” Once you understand what admissions officers are looking for and how to write them, you’ll have a much easier time writing multiple essays.

Happy Writing!

This article was written by Jaclyn Corley, the founder of TheCollegeEssayCaptain.com. Her mission is to empower college and career applicants tell their stories powerfully.