The goal may be to give all parts of the application equal attention, but that doesn’t mean that each section requires the same level of effort. As one admissions officer pointed out, most of the application is effectively written even before the student logs in and starts filling it out: grades, test scores, curriculum, rigor and family background are already set, and teacher/guidance counselor recommendations are submitted separately.
This leaves the writing portions of the application, the personal essay and supplemental essays, as arguably the greatest variables. Not surprisingly, when we asked our survey respondents to identify the parts of the application most likely to undermine an otherwise strong application, a 45% plurality said: the essay. However, not far behind were teacher recommendations (39%); extracurricular activities (37%); and supplemental essays (29%). This underscores the importance of taking a holistic, integrated approach.
Which of the following sections is most likely to undermine an otherwise strong application?
In a separate question, we asked how likely it is that the essay “makes or breaks” an application, and the response cast a different light. A total of about 40 percent said either “unlikely” (35%) or “very unlikely” (5%). Just 17 percent said “likely,” while 42 percent said “neutral.” In our follow-up interviews, the consensus was that while it was true an exceptional essay could move a student into the admit column, and a truly awful one could be fatal, most often the essay is not determinative. This is not meant to diminish the importance of the essay, but rather put it in some perspective. It’s yet another marker of the prevailing “holistic” admissions philosophy.
How likely is the main essay to "make or break" an application?
However, when we asked our admissions officers for their best piece of advice to applicants, and then generated a “word cloud” based on their open-ended responses, by far the largest word, right in the center was: essay.
In another question, we asked respondents to identify the most common problems with the essay, and the number-one response was “lack of focus/message,” selected by a whopping 75 percent. The issue was perhaps best telegraphed by an admissions officer at a highly selective liberal arts school, who told us that the essay’s message should be so succinct you could fit it on a T-Shirt. “Not down the sleeves and on the back,” she said, "Just on the front.”
Several others echoed this sentiment in various ways, noting that altogether too many essays fail to meet the basic standard of any good story. Usually this means a beginning a middle and an end (though not necessarily in that order), and always with a conflict and, most important, a resolution. The single-most important thing is to show some progression, change and growth. The essay should also provide insight into the student’s values and how he or she thinks and takes on challenges.
Far behind, at roughly equal levels were “boring/unoriginal” (41.5%); inadequately proofed (41.5%); and poorly written (37%). “Obvious adult interference” logged in 28 percent (parents take note!). Somewhat at odds with our “holistic” meta-theme, just 17 percent chose “inconsistent with rest of application.”
What are the most common errors made in the main essay?
Being original presents its own special challenges, as it is highly unlikely that a student will come up with a topic that has never before been written about. Three of the most common topics are the sports/injury story, the mission trip and a family crisis of some kind (usually a divorce or death). Every one of the admissions officers we interviewed stressed that while they do not relish reading five essays a day about getting kicked off the field hockey team, the issue is less about the topic itself than what the student brings to it.
Students can be memorable without being original when they let their “voice” do the talking and write an essay that only they could have written. Yes, that is challenging, but so is college. Nor does it need to be a literary masterpiece. It can be simply conceived and written but powerful if it connects on an emotional level and genuinely captures what matters most to the student.