Why College Admissions Essays Just Became More Important

By Dr. Dean Skarlis, Founder and President

In the college admissions world, there are many long-standing truths.  In terms of what counts most with respect to how admissions officers evaluate applicants, the three most important elements of an application are a student’s grade point average, their SAT or ACT score, and their essays and applications.  (In addition, the rigor of a student’s academic curriculum is critically important for those who seek entrance to highly selective colleges). 

But the current Covid-19 crisis has caused a dramatic change for current high school juniors.  What’s different now is that a growing number of colleges are waiving or de-emphasizing their SAT/ACT requirements for at least one year due to the lack of availability of the admissions exams this spring and early summer.  As you may know, the March, May and June SAT and the April ACT exams were cancelled.  As of this writing, it is unclear as to whether the June ACT will also be cancelled.  Moreover, the July ACT and the August SAT are still up in the air.  In addition, many high schools have moved to pass/fail grading systems for the final portion of the current school year.

As a result, college essays and corresponding applications will now be much more important.  This trend actually began about 15 years ago.  As the Common Application became more popular, and internet research began to avail students of more information about more colleges, students began to apply to more schools.  The resulting volume of applications was simply too much for admissions counselors to handle, so many schools dropped interview requirements.  College admissions counselors began to rely more heavily on a student’s essays to add a personal element to the otherwise highly objective decision-making process. 

The trend of more applications has continued.  According to the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), more than 36% of students applied to 7 or more colleges in 2019.  So a process that used to be highly personalized became much less so. 

But with the elimination of testing requirements, and the implementation of a pass/fail system of grading, college essays instantly became more critical.  Many officials now speculate that the student’s writing will be the second most important piece of his/her application, following their academic GPA.

For the past 16 years, we have spent considerable time each summer helping students conceive of and write strong, genuine admissions essays.  What will be different this year is that we have begun the process earlier – in May – primarily because students have more time, but also because we recognize the increased importance of helping students write more about who they are, so admissions officers understand them on a deeper, more personal level.  This requires our staff to get to know students on a one to one basis so we can help them illuminate what makes them unique, and why that’s important in their admissions applications.  This is our favorite part of the admissions process since it enables us to get to know students on such an intimate level.

This year, more than ever, students will need to craft pieces that stand out among the pile of applications sitting on the desks of their evaluators.  Not only will their writing need to be stronger, but their message will need to be crisper and clearer.  There is, however, one cautionary note:  Many parents believe their student’s essay needs to be exceptional, if not perfect.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact, the more honest and genuine a student’s writing is, the better their chances for admission.  We’ve seen far too many essays that seemed perfect, but were either not the student’s own work, or were so heavily edited that they caused an admission rejection.  This balance between strong writing and making certain that the student’s voice is clear is something we strike each year.  If you think your son or daughter needs help with this critical part of the process, please contact us here.