Anyone on the "inside" brave enough to important is the main essay?

Been through this process with multiple kids. The essays are excruciating. At highly competitive schools (top 25) with 50,000+ applicants, are these actually read by more than one regional rep (who may have less than 12 months experience, might be having a good or bad day, etc)? Do they ever move the needle (except for unique cases of extreme adversity), given limited admissions staff, institutional priorities, etc?

I wouldn’t want the answer. Put your best foot forward. Or you wouldn’t deserve to go.

All of what you said is possible. Depends on the school. It also may not be the case. Schools likely use essays to differentiate the thousands of top students.

If you can’t ‘cut’ the application, how will you make it as a student ??

Few ever know why they were admitted or denied. Your question is like guessing the stock market. You’ll get answers but no one truly knows and it’s school dependent.

Don’t want to worry about the essay ? Apply to the many schools that don’t require it as a back up and will solely use your GPA and/or test score.


I’ve had insider information from an Ivy ad com when an essay sank an applicant (basically an arrogant, flippant essay).

JHU has examples of great essays on their websites from students who were admitted, so someone is obviously reading them.

My general take away is that it’s an opportunity for students to show some of their personality and highlight qualities that can’t be discerned through GPA and test scores.


Why are you asking this question? If applying to highly rejective schools, essays are an important part of the application package, full stop.

You can look at the common data set matrix (c7) to see which application components are most important. Essays are in the ‘academic’ section, here is Dartmouth’s and they say the essay is very important, same as the rest of the academic factors. I would believe this info is accurate.

Practically speaking, the essays are an important way (along with LoRs) for the AO to learn about the applicant in ways that grades can’t demonstrate. AOs are looking for fit, and it’s more difficult for them to ascertain fit with average or substandard essays.

IME at most highly rejective schools apps are read by at least two different people (this is true even at UCLA, the school with the greatest number of apps). Not sure the level of experience of the AO matters at all, as they, along with external application readers, all go through training so that they can read the apps in the way their specific school wants that done.


Essays matter a lot after you hit the other thresholds at top schools. 4.0/1550+, ECs etc. Essays make or break an application. Otherwise you can’t separate out the applications. One 4.0/1550 is the same as another. Not on the inside.


Anecdote of 1 FWIW. Son’s best friend had high gpa, SAT only in the mid 1400’s, decent EC’s (average excellent, nothing special – no national or even state recognition), white, high SES, no hooks, and got in Harvard REA. I can’t speak for his LoR’s, but I did review his essay, and it was the poster child for “go big or go home”. I thought it was smart of him as he had so much stacked against him in the context of Harvard to try to use the essay to really stand out. I am not sure if he would use that essay for lower reach/match schools, might be a bit risky. I do think for “average excellent” unhooked kids looking at highly selective schools, the essay may be the avenue under their control to stand out.


Well I tell kids that colleges know that essays are coached and that in recent years, for that reason, they are not “make or break,” since the amount of help students receive is so varied in quantity and quality. I really think essays have declined in importance though test optional status at so many schools may have an effect.

I think a bad essay (especially, as mentioned above, arrogant or flippant) or an absolutely outstanding essay (in content and style) can make a difference but I really believe the majority are neutral in effect. In fact, I counsel students to “first do no harm.”

Since I started helping (mostly) international applicants who have little help at home or school, I am astounded at the number of essays kids have to write. I think the stress would improve with fewer applications. Students start in early summer because they have so many to do.

I would reassure students not to stress so much about essays. They do not have to be about curing cancer, they do not have to be “unique,” and the effort to be creative in answering straightforward questions can sound contrived. Most important is likeability in my opinion.

My kids looked at old photos of childhood which seemed to inspire them, a tip that has worked for a few others.

Apply to a reasonable number of schools, choose schools that are a good fit, and the essays should not be “excruciating.” I

ps Is it possible that it is anxiety that causes the pain, not the essay-writing itself? If so, then reassuring young people that the essay is not an all-important factor may help :slight_smile:


The art of writing the personal essay is just hard. It is a specific discipline, and one with which many / most HS kids have little / no experience. The UK version (Personal Statement), which is focused on why you want to study the subject you are applying to study, and why you think you are a good candidate for studying that subject is still challenging, but an order of magnitude easier for a 17/18yo to get their head around.

Worse, the growing belief that a good trauma or adversity story helps you get into ‘rejective’ schools is pernicious.

All that said, I do think that the exercise of writing the essays is -overall- a positive, especially the ‘why this school’ ones. It pushes the kids to think harder/deeper about why they want what they want.

I wonder about this all the time. I do not think they read 20,000 essays or even if they do, the first cut is probably more based on academic performance. After that, how does one identify that one kid out of every ten? I suppose at that point, everything counts.
One thing of note is that I was listening to Bucknell’s podcast this morning. They claim multiple times that real humans (and not a computer algorithm) read essays, which makes me think that perhaps other schools use different methods including AI? There was also this recent article/case/story about an Auburn University applicant who found out that irrespective of what CDs stated, that particular school only considered GPA and scores! Basically, no one really read the essays. There was yet another post a while back on Reddit from a college hack who served on UT Austin’s admissions committee. He said they were barely trained to read the essays and two readers were assigned per application. They were not highly compensated either. All very sus!
Someone I personally know spent $2000 to find a college essay editor for his son, who is a top student and goes to a T10 school (not HYPSM, rejected from all of them) now. This “editor” happens to be faculty at our state flagship. Go figure. I suppose it depends on how desperate one is for prestige.

1 Like

I don’t know of any highly rejective schools which practice holistic admissions that don’t read the entire app, most read it a minimum of two times.

You are correct that external application readers don’t make much money…typically $18-$25 per hour.


In my experience, the students who get into the most selective colleges all have good essays. That doesn’t mean works of art. That means essays that show who they are. I’ve worked with many kids professionally on their essays and my thought is that a good essay absolutely helps the application.

I also agree that a lackluster or bad essay is really detrimental, certainly for the most selective schools.

A lot of kids think they’ve written a really strong essay. When I first read a LOT of them, maybe the essay wasn’t necessarily terrible, but maybe it was all about how they won the game, or their anxiety, or something uninteresting about the kind of person they are: “I am a high achiever who knows how to get what I want…” (but the essay never SHOWS any of that). Those types of essays, along with many other examples, don’t add anything positive to an application.

I’m not an admissions officer, but my sense is that yes, good essays are pretty important, especially for the most selective schools. If Johnny has amazing everything but a lousy essay, it’s going to be harder for him to get in if that college values the essay. Google Common Data Set, name of college. Look at section C7.


The essays matter. Now more than ever since so many schools are test optional. And I am on “the inside” in a round about way. What I will say is that the vast majority of essays are good but generic. It is the handful of wow essays that get the attention of admissions directors. As someone who reads a lot of these essays, I can honestly say you know the win when you see it.

1 Like

For sure. But that doesn’t mean that a kid has to have that kind of essay to get admitted. Very, very few students can write exceptional essays. I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site that I’ve seen only handful of really outstanding essays. A good essay can take many different shapes but the key element is that it conveys the student’s personality in a way that makes an AO want to say yes.

The ones that actually make me feel some kind of emotion are the ones that really stand out. And by the way, there are emotions I like to feel when I read essays, and ones that I don’t like to feel. Inspiration, joy, hope, pride, admiration, optimism, etc…are great ways to feel. On the other hand, essays that make me feel negative emotions are best avoided: sadness with no respite, pity, cringiness, tragedy, general negativity, and generic descriptive statements with no illustrative support are not good essays to submit to an admissions officer who wants a reason to say yes.

And please, students, think twice before writing your essay about your relative with substance abuse issues, or your struggle with depression. This has been mentioned before on CC. The issue is that there are very few students who can write about these topics in a way that helps the AO understand positive aspects of a student’s personality. It isn’t that you are not allowed to write about these things, but if you must, be sure to keep the focus of the essay on yourself. Don’t spend the whole essay writing about your addicted relative and finish off by saying “In the end, I learned that with the help of my family, I can overcome tough circumstances.”


This 100%. Nothing else matters if you have violated this first rule.


I’m no insider, just a parent. DS was accepted to two schools who sent hand-written notes from the admissions committee member with the acceptances - Penn and Colgate. Both notes referenced his main essay. They read it and commented on it. Take that for what it’s worth.


My daughter is going to USC in August 2022. She got in Marshall and then invited into their Global Leadership Program. She spent 3 months daily, honing her essays. Over $200,000 earned in merit scholarships because of the essays. They are how the school got to know her. She is excited to be part of the next generation to find ways now to hone her daily opportunities to find ways to give her time to USC. Yes, essays are everything and once you are admitted, please KEEP your promises. Pay it forward.


If it means anything my D’s admission letter (from her ED college) specifially referenced her essay.

Two small LAC’s referenced my D’s essay in acceptance letters. They probably spend more time reviewing essays than larger colleges.

1 Like

Not on the inside but have a number of friends who are.

As with all things, it depends. If the school is large and admits based mostly on stats, it may matter less.

At smaller schools…

If you’re a recruited athlete, a perfunctory essay will make no difference. The coach is doing the deciding. If you won one of those prestigious math or science competitions, that is your hook. But for the rest of the excellent applicants, this is your chance to be human and differentiate yourself. So yes, it matters.

If you aren’t sure if your situation is one in which it makes a difference, treat it like it does!

I think some of the posters here have kids who wrote essays that fall into the (minority) “outstanding” category. I still maintain that most essays do well to have a neutral effect :slight_smile:

And I also feel that the idea that essays are make or break, causes a lot of stress so I try to present essays as just one part among many. I think the essay’s important may be reduced by strengths in other areas.

1 Like