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At the Risk of Shocking You: Personal Essays Matter Less than We Think

By Martin Walsh

01/13/2018

At the Risk of Shocking You: Personal Essays Matter Less than We Think
“How long do admission officers spend evaluating the application essay?” a student asked me not too long ago. “No more than a few minutes,” I replied. “Three at the most.” The student was visibly shaken. And I get why.

It is that time of year when students and counselors put in ridiculous hours polishing paragraphs and striving to find the perfect story that will both resonate as a powerful revelation and fit into a 650-word box. While the personal statement matters, I firmly believe that its importance is over-rated. Remarkably, after all those meetings, drafts, and tears, I’m afraid that the essay often has very little influence on the admission decision.

The bottom-line, absolutely most important things in every application are not ineffable traits but hard numbers: GPAs and standardized test scores, along with a student’s performance in AP or IB classes. Applications with clearly high or low composite metrics relative to the college’s overall applicant pool are ruled on quickly. It is the files in the messy middle of each year’s applicant pool—the ones whose numbers make them neither obvious “admits” nor clear “denies”—that receive extensive attention. Yet even in these middling cases, personal essays often receive only cursory attention from admissions officers. There are simply too many files to consider in too small a time frame, and too many other evaluative factors that matter much more.

I am not trying to say that all written sections of the common application are not important. After lengthy conversations with admission officers from USC to Emory, Stanford to Chicago, one clear theme emerged: the supplemental essay questions may play a larger role in the admission decision than the personal statement. My informants explained the rationale behind their claim.

1. Personal Statements are often “too polished.” Let’s face it, there is an entire underground industry out there, filled with former admission officers and PhD students who are making quite a bit of money guiding students on their application essay. Sometimes this “help” even takes the form of writing the essay for the student. The result: incredibly mature compositions that lack the authentic voice of a high school senior. While students may get help on the essay, they often are given more freedom on supplement questions and quick takes. As one admission officer told me, “I learn more about the applicant from some of our shorter questions—like what five words best describe you—than I get from the personal statement.”

2. The “Why” question reflects potential yield. The most common supplement question simply asks, “Why are you applying to this university?” Many admission officers I spoke with told me that the answer to this question is analyzed closely in committee. Quite frankly, every admission team keeps a close track of yield. Meaning, if they make an offer of admission, they want to feel certain that the student will deposit. A solid answer to the “Why” question can go a long way in getting an admission offer.

3. Time vs. application numbers. As application counts steadily rise, readers have less time to thoroughly analyze each essay. Unless the personal statement really grabs the reader—and does so quite quickly, I might add—they will move on to the supplements.

A few tips for counselors:

1. Adjust your timeline! Do not spend all fall on the personal statement. Get your students working on supplement essays by early September!

2. Help your students find the supplement questions. Sometimes they are hidden, buried in the common application. Each fall I put together a spreadsheet of “sup” questions for the twenty most popular universities and share this with my students. It helps ensure that everyone is on the same page.

3. Remind students that the supplements require voice, reflection, and attention to detail!




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