How much impact does an essay really have on the overall application?

Isn’t the meat of the application really the GPA, SAT/ACT, EC’s and awards? I’m thinking the essay could sway an AO for an application that is in the “maybe” pile - but can a good or bad essay move an application from the “yes” pile to the “no” pile - or from the “no” pile to the “yes” pile? I read my daughters essay - and it’s perfectly fine - so should I assume an average essay has no impact on the overall application?

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At highly rejective schools the vast majority will have the same academic credentials, 4.0, high test scores and strong rigor. The essay along with ECs and geographic location are probably THE things that separate applicants that get in vs. those that don’t.

There are a few schools that don’t use essays where it’s just an academic score, but they are rare.


There was a long thread about this last year: Anyone on the "inside" brave enough to important is the main essay?


Depends on the school. The vast majority of schools don’t care much about the common app essay, but relatively more selective schools that have holistic admissions do care about the essays, including supplementals.


Essays will help distinguish between “maybe” applicants.

At the more selective / rejective colleges, the top end GPA, SAT/ACT, etc. only get applicants into the “maybe” range (as opposed to the “obvious reject” range), so essays and the like are used to distinguish which few of the “maybe” applicants are admitted.


I don’t know ho much awards matter, tbh. Unless the award is very meaningful, the overwhelming majority of students don’t have anything of impact to list as an award. A disadvantaged student, who might have to work to support a family or similar, might have no awards to speak of, but could have a very meaningful essay which shows his personality.

I think essays can have a large impact at more selective colleges that use holistic admissions.


If you approach collage applications by maximizing every component you can’t go wrong. You’ve done the best you can do. By the time most kids are applying, there’s not much you can do about grades, test scores, or ECs - those are pretty well baked-in by this time. So, why not invest some time in making sure your essays are the absolute best they can be?


Not sure if a great has the power to change a no to a yes, but I think it can have the power to move a maybe to a yes…And I definitely think that an abysmally bad or inappropriate essay can put you straight to the no pile.

I’m not sure of the impact (guessing there was one)…but for my younger kid, there were hand written comments about her essay on all but one of her acceptance letters.


Depends on the school.

You can check the common data set to see what level of importance it’s given. Some are most important. Some are not at all.

But unlike stats, essays are subjective. One AO might love, another might hate. The same AO one day might love and another day might not.

The problem with your essay question is because it’s subjective and each school counts its importance differently, there’s no way to know.

I personally believe essays are hard to move the needle. I think a lot of schools write comments related to essays on acceptance letters to make kids feel good. That was common to both my kids on supplementals. That’s part of selling. I don’t think their essays were exceptional. Certainly not my sons.

Regardless of what I or others think, I’d suggest you always put your essay in its best possible light by writing as strong as one as you can. You busted tail four years to get into a great college why get sloppy now ?


I agree. AO jobs are sales jobs, and writing comments in acceptance letters likely increases yield.


My daughter’s essay got her a competitive scholarship. I’d say they matter in some cases.


It matters. Best way to separate yourself IMO. Easiest way to show you do not belong.

On other hand, most people feel good about their essay (which is truly average) and, as you stated, has little impact.


This is what it probably comes down to for a lot of colleges that use holistic admissions. Very insightful, @michaeluwill .

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Two kids through the process. Hard to know with certainty but my gut is really good essay and supplemental essays helped kid #1 gain admission to selective/ rigorous school. Pretty certain it helped kid #2 receive significant scholarships.

Funny, #1 process was painful. Many iterations, topic changes, etc. Felt grueling just watching and reading. If you’ve ever watched “A River Runs Through It”, I felt like Tom Skerrit (the dad) when his son would bring him an essay and he would say, “That’s very good…now do it again.”
Took forever. #2 is a natural writer. She knocked the cover off the ball her first swing. Took her all of 30 minutes.

I think they matter, especially at the smaller schools where they can spend more time reviewing the material.


Very fascinating - while my daughter got merit scholarship offers from essentially all colleges that even had such a thing, I don’t recall any of her acceptance “letters” (that email that links to the web site with the big animation) reference her essay.

Sure, there was also an envelope a week later - but by that time, it was just a matter of record/formality. Definitely nothing hand-written.

So until today, I was ignorant how “common” that “marketing” practice might be. She had won the English award every year, won essay awards, and I thought her college essay was quite good – but clearly not enough to solicit hand-written notes, just money offers.

I think you misunderstand-- the quality of the essay has zero to do with the handwritten notes. The handwritten notes are intended to get a kid to enroll. Once a college has admitted a kid, the AO will write notes to all the kids, or all the kids they think are borderline to matriculate, and it doesn’t matter at all what the essay itself was like.


Well - given that (like many kids) she had many more acceptances that she could possibly matriculate at, I’d say every applicant is implicitly “borderline” to all colleges, except that one?

Now I actually wonder if she had gotten personalized emails that she had just never mentioned… I’ll have to quiz her next time. I feel she would have at least commented “Oh, that was nice!” (especially if it had referenced an essay she wrote)- unless she completely had felt cynical about them, dismissing them as a transparent sales strategy.

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Merit money leads to higher yield too, that’s why some schools use $ to get the students they really want.

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I hope you can read the threads on the concept of a “good enough” essay. I have worked with many students on their essays and feel strongly that the main goal should be to do no harm. I believe most essays are neutral in effect. A very few outstanding ones may make a difference and some horrible essays may also make a difference.

If you think your daughter’s essay is “fine” it probably is.

Colleges know that essays are coached. I think extracurriculars, interests and talents, play a larger role at holistic schools and certainly there are schools that rely on stats. The interview is sometimes another factor.

My hope is that students (and parents) feel less stress about essays. The reality is that better quality results. Authenticity and likability are key positives in essays. The effort to be stellar or “unique,” constant editing and rewriting, as well as adult involvement, can ruin an appealing if imperfect essay.

I am sure your daughter’s essay is fine and I hope she can enjoy senior year.

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