Are College Admissions Essays Ever Truly Optional?

college admissions essays are almost never truly optional.

Why Do Colleges Ask for Essays?

What students often fail to realize is that college essays are designed to help applicants gain admission. The essay is an opportunity for each student to share his or her story—background, strengths, interests, talents, etc. Colleges understand that students are more than the sum of their test scores and high school grades. Essays are a manageable way for colleges to get to know students better. In an ideal world every student could gather his or her strongest supporters (teachers, mentors, religious leaders, parents, etc.) and sit down in the admissions office for an hour long conversation on why this student would be an ideal addition to the campus. Everyone could share stories and explain perceived shortcomings. Colleges would get to know each applicant and the environment in which he or she has grown up. But this approach is not practical. Instead of bringing their own cheering section to the admissions office, students get to send essays. College essays should be arguing each applicant’s case for admission. Instead of a burden, essays are an opportunity!

Who Needs a Quality Essay for Admission?

A number of students NEED quality essays in order to earn admission at the schools on their lists. Here are the most common situations in which essays are essential:
  • The high flier applying to competitive schools or programs.
  • The reach student trying to gain admission beyond what grades / scores alone might secure.
  • The OK for admission student who is almost certain to get in, but will want the essay considered for a particular program or scholarships.

Who Doesn’t Need an Essay?

There are some students who would not benefit from submitting an essay. These situations are rare, but if one applies to you, save your energy and don’t bother with the essay. (All examples assume the particular university does NOT require an essay as part of the application.)
  • A student who meets a specific university policy for guaranteed admission.
  • A student applying to a school where he / she will easily meet the standards set for a particular major or program using only GPA / rank and test scores.
  • A student not interested in scholarship consideration.
Here are some specific examples of students who do not need essays: Lauren– #8 out of a class of 547 with an SAT score of 1420. She wants to apply to the University of Houston and study psychology. Lauren is not interested in the Honors College or other scholarships. (Not sure why because she looks like a great candidate for honors and scholarships!) Phillip – no rank from his private school (mostly Bs & Cs) with an ACT score of 20. Phillip wants to spend a year or two at his local community college working on core requirements before he transfers to a four-year university.

Students Whose Essays Made the Difference

Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of situations where I know essays were the tipping point for a student. Well written essays with a clear point of view and personalized message can be the difference between admission and rejection. Here is a overview of some of my recent clients who have cause to celebrate because their application essays worked! (Names and some details changed to protect identities.)
  • John—average student (top of the 3rdquarter in his high school class); struggled with learning differences and ADHD which made the SAT and ACT difficult; highest ACT composite 19. John’s parents worried he would have to start at a community college due to his grades and scores. Happy and successful student at Texas Tech!!!
  • Divya – great student (ranked in the top 2% of her large public high school); perfect 36 on the ACT; great extracurriculars including Girl Scout Gold Award, 4 years of orchestra, and significant community service. Divya was interested in a lot of the highly competitive schools—places where fewer than 15% of applicants were admitted and perfect score valedictorians are regularly rejected. Divya had numerous offers of admission including Harvey Mudd, Rice, and NYU Honors.
  • Jason – good student (As and Bs from a non-ranking private high school); 28 on the ACT. Jason had a passion for broadcasting and a lengthy resume that reflected his interest. He wanted to attend one of the premier schools with an elite communications program, but his grades and test scores fell just below their averages and competition for admission was fierce. Jason’s essays brought his accomplishments and passion to life and he got in. (You can see him on TV this summer!)
  • Sherri – good student (As and Bs from a non-ranking private high school); strong test taker with a 1550 on the SAT. Sherri was not in the top 10% of her class, but was interested in engineering at the University of Texas. Again, strong essays helped make the difference and she was admitted directly into her top choice major in the UT School of Engineering.


Essays can make or break applications. I’ve seen applicants with better rank and scores get rejected while my clients with strong applications essays got in. I know admission essays are hard to write! (I tell students I would rather write a 50 page research paper than 2 pages about myself. In high school I was taught how to write research papers and I’m certain I could write those 50 pages in less time and with less stress.) But the power of a quality essay makes the effort worth it. Unless you fall into the very narrow group of students who don’t need them, you will need to submit a college admission essay, even if the university lists it as optional.


  • Start your college essays early. Quality work takes more time than you expect.
  • Be careful whose advice you take. You want the advice of a professional who works specifically with essays for college admission. Unfortunately that probably isn’t your English teacher, friend, or internet search.
  • Limit the help you receive. Too much help can leave you with a Frankenstein creation—uneven parts sewn on by each new “helper.”
  If you want more help with college admissions essays, I’m offering a workshop. Details and registration available here:      ]]>

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