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Surprised You Got Denied? Show Me the Essays.

Updated: May 8, 2023

This past week, a colleague of mine mentioned hearing the various murmurings of parents, students - and Facebook - surprised by this year’s college admissions cycle. “So many kids were denied from the University of Michigan.” “Student A had a 4.5 GPA and a 1490 SAT score and didn’t get into the University of Georgia, but Student B had a similar or slightly lower academic profile and did.” My response?

Show me the essays.

The factors in college admissions, especially at more selective schools, have always been clear in terms of level of importance. Grades and course rigor reign as #1 and #1a. Historically, and currently to an extent, the SAT or ACT scores are next. Then we have the essays.

In NACAC’s more recent State of College Admissions report, colleges deem the college essays - personal statement and supplementals - to be more important than extracurricular activities, recommendation letters, demonstrated interest, and a host of other factors. And this was before many schools began using test-optional policies. So, if you’re a student not submitting your test scores, you can bet the essays will command even greater attention from college admissions officers.

As colleges consider grade inflation, the expectation is that the essays they are reading line up with the academic profile of the applicant. A 4.5 GPA student applying to a selective school should have essays that are extremely well written. They should be honest and nuanced, authentic, and introspective. They capture the student’s voice and personality. They are interesting to read. Anything short of that is a bucket of cold water on any academic achievements.

From my experience, students who have the most success with the college admissions and application process complete their personal statement essay100% complete – before they walk in the door for senior year. Then, they use August through October to carefully craft, draft, edit, revise, and complete their supplemental essay responses.

Each September, when I see my seniors for the first time, I ask them two questions: How was your summer and where are you with your personal statement essay? If their answer to the latter is a version of, “I’m basically done with it, I just have to…” I know they are off track. Anything short of “It’s 100% complete” is spin.

Beyond the personal statement essay, supplemental essays are becoming increasingly more important to college applications. When Northeastern University asks why out of all the schools in the world you want to go there, the response can’t be because you love Boston. By that measure Emerson College or Suffolk University or MIT or any other of the two dozen colleges in Boston should be a great fit, too.

Unfortunately, many students do not put the same level of effort or emphasis on the supplemental essays as they necessitate. A few years back a student of mine was leaving my office when he told me he would be applying to Brown that weekend; he just needed to write their supplementals essays, “But don’t worry, they’re only like 250 words each, so it’ll be easy.” Oy.

I never tell a parent how to spend their money. But if they ask, and if they have a few bucks to throw at the process, I invariably recommend an essay expert. Not an English teacher or college advisor masquerading as an essay expert. I am a working school counselor and college advisor with more than 15 years of experience. I can read a personal statement or supplemental essay and quickly tell the student if the essays work. However, I wouldn’t try and fool you into believing that I know how to edit and revise and give feedback on the structure, grammar, and mechanics of those essays. An essay expert familiar with college admissions is your best bet.

Lastly, remember, the essays don’t need to be heavy to be a great read. Along the way, some of the best essays that I have read, and those that have helped get students into selective colleges, are lighthearted and even examine the mundane. Waitressing, a Halloween costume gone awry, picking out a pair of shoes in the morning, have all proved that even everyday monotony can be written as complex, introspective, and interesting.

Whatever a student chooses to write about, just remember that these essays are as important to the college applications as ever and should properly complement their academic achievements. Anything less and you’re asking for a bucket of cold water.

Join the conversation during our free webinar The Personal Statement Essay and the "Why This College" Supplemental Essay. Wednesday, May 24, 2023 at 8:00 pm EST. Register here.

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