While not the most important documents in your admissions file, good essays can be the difference between receiving the decision you want and the decision you dread. And, they may be most important at the extremely selective colleges and universities, where virtually all applicants display similarly impressive grade point averages, class rank, and standardized test scores.
Moderately selective colleges do not generally agonize over essays. For the most part, they just want to be sure that applicants can write pretty well and put together a few coherent thoughts. Highly selective colleges may be looking for something that sets an applicant apart from others with a similar level of high academic achievement.
Almost never will an essay, however good, compensate for sub par academic achievement. And, offering excuses for mediocre academic performance is seldom a good idea. As a professor with whom I served on an admissions committee used to say, “Everyone’s grandmother dies”. Promising to earn a 4.0 GPA, score touchdowns, or become a wealthy and generous alumnus will not help either.
Take advantage of the chance essays give you to introduce yourself by:
1. Spend as much time, thought, and energy as it takes to ensure that your essays reflect your best work. Have them reviewed by at least two people who write well, and by your counselor.
2. Talking about yourself honestly. In fact, talking about an instance in which you learned from a mistake or by falling short of a goal may well make you both more likeable and more credible (especially if there is a “happy ending”).
3. Telling the committee anything you want them to know which is not included elsewhere in your admissions file.
4. Avoiding self-serving cliches about patriotism, family, God, or service to humanity.
It is not necessary to go for the home run. Just remember the tips listed above and a few of the basics; write clearly and thoughtfully, be honest, demonstrate insight, and know your audience.