Admissions Essays: an Endangered Species

Many institutions today are facing a competitive landscape and are searching for ways to remove barriers to candidate engagement.  However, many also want a more complete picture of the candidate as part of the decision-making process for both admissions and finical aid.  What does this mean for essays on either the application or within standardized tests?

“Because students are applying to a larger number of colleges than in the past, the essay is seen as an impediment to the application process,” reports Webster University’s director of undergraduate admissions. With lower college acceptance rates, students are forced to apply to an increasing number of colleges to maximize their chances of admission. When there are too many essays (some institutions have more than a dozen!), the student can lose interest and abandon the application. With hopes for an increase in student outreach, many colleges are eliminating the essay requirement.

Adding to this, some critics claim that essays are too subjective. Opinions can differ diversely from counselor to counselor.  An essay that might be loved by one may be completely disapproved by another leading to inconsistent results. Because of this, many colleges have decided to remove essays altogether and instead, review other aspects of the students' records:  starting with grades and covering extracurriculars and outside activities- in search of a more holistic view of students.

Can it really be Holistic without the Essay?

Although eliminating the essay will likely increase applicant engagement, it also removes students’ opportunity to fully express themselves.

An essay gives the admissions officer a chance to really connect with the candidate and understand him/her as more than just a number. Students have the opportunity to express why they failed to do as well in a class as they might have hoped or why their test scores may not have accurately captured their intelligence, the candidate's background, and potential hardships.  This allows them really understand a students’ persistence and effort beyond just the numbers.

Because of this, this may not be the most effective solution to gaining a more holistic admissions approach.

Why this is personal to me

As a current college student, it wasn't long ago that I had to navigate this very process.  When I was applying for colleges, I didn't have perfect grades or test scores. Growing up with undiagnosed and unmanaged ADHD, and being one of those students determined to partake in every extracurricular possible, time management became a huge issue for me.

I could also study all night and know an entire book of calculus material before going to bed.  However, no matter how well I understood the material, if I took an exam without a quiet location and the necessary time for my brain to process, I often received failing grades on tests.

Imagine taking your calculus final, which was worth half of your grade, and you complete less than half of it.  You get a Big “F” on your transcript without a fair chance to succeed. And, unfortunately, that could be all some colleges would see.

That “optional” essay that was available on some of my college applications became my angel in a cloud of darkness. It’s where I could express the hard work and persistence I demonstrated, particularly by retaking the class and earning an “A.” Without that essay, colleges could see the grade shift but not know what happened (potentially believing I was slacking the first time or intentionally skipping the final). They would never have known the valuable lessons I learned from my failures or how much I struggled and grew as a person because of it. Because of that essay, I am now going to my dream school.

Finding a Solution

Though the removal of essays may increase college outreach, it may not be the best way to review students more holistically.

As institutions eliminate essays, colleges should find other ways to holistically review their candidates:  to understand their applicants to the fullest. Two options may be to more frequently contact candidates who are on the edge by requesting follow-up interviews with or asking for an optional essay. Because while applicant percentages may increase, student success will certainly decrease without a truly holistic and fair application process. 


Want to learn more about creating this process?

Read: Admitting the Ideal Student: Responsible, Resilient, and Resourceful


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