What is the Purpose of a College Essay?

If you’re applying to selective colleges, most will require an application essay or a series of essays. You might be ask: what the point?

Surprisingly, some applicants never care to ask this question, and they write essays that don’t enhance their applications. Understanding the purpose of the college application essay will help you to understand how to tailor it to appeal to your audience.

I’m going to give you the rundown of what colleges are looking for when they read your application, and then I’m going to explain how the college essay fits into that equation. As you know, each college has average requirements for admission. Admissions teams review your GPA, the difficulty of the courses you took, and your standardized test scores, which is data that can be graphed. This information will show them how your scores compare to their average requirements and with other students who are applying to their school or program.

Colleges are not necessarily only looking for students who perform well academically. They are looking for campus “citizens,” those who will be contributors, leaders, and participants in the campus culture. So, they’ll also review your extracurricular roles, activities, jobs, and awards that detail what you do with your time outside the classroom. This information will help them make distinctions between you and other students who have similar scores.

Letters of recommendation give admissions officers a chance to hear an adult’s perspective of you. A counselor may provide insights into your personal life, and a teacher’s recommendation will detail how you’re viewed in the classroom. These go beyond, “he’s a good student and does his homework.” Great recommendations will discuss how you contribute to your classroom environment, how you relate to your peers, and how you interact individually and as part of a group.

The last piece is: how do you see you? College essays give you the opportunity to authentically share how you view yourself and the world. This is how they will determine if you’ll make someone a nice roommate and if you’ll fit with their campus culture.

The purpose of college essays are to complete your application. I like to think of them as a way of admissions officers saying, “You’ve put in so much time and effort to look like the perfect candidate on paper, and you’ve done so many things right. But, human to human...who are you outside of all that? What do we not get to see about you in other parts of your application? Please tell us something so we get to know you better!” While some essays are geared toward a specific major and what drives you to pursue that field, others ask to know why you see yourself at their school.

It doesn’t matter what the prompt is, the purpose is always the same: they want a glimpse at how you see things in order to get to know you better.  

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.