I Know We Should Work on College Essays This Summer But. . .

Tens of thousands of rising seniors will spend this summer dreading the college admission essay.

I get it! Essays are hard to write. Add to that the weight an essay can play in the admissions process and no wonder students develop writer’s block.

Every year I have a student or two who gleefully tell me they don’t have to worry—they are only applying to schools where the essays are optional. Then I share the bad news: 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 strengths and 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, major, or scholarships.

Can’t They Just Use What They Wrote for English?

There are some students who can get into the schools and programs of their choice, even without a great essay. Here are a couple examples:

Lauren– #8 out of a class of 547 with an SAT score of 1520. She wants to apply to the University of Houston to 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 22. 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.

These students can use the essays they wrote in English class. In both examples, the student will be fine and the results for admission will be the same whether they submit a weak or strong essay. 

However, most students are not in similar situations. If your essay could be the difference between a “yes” or “no” are you confident in your essay written for English class?

Admissions essays are unique. They are not like most high school English essays. Most high school English teachers can correct mechanics, but don’t have significant experience in coaching students to develop the most significant content. 

My son will be applying for college this fall. He is a good writer and had an AMAZING English teacher this year. He will still be doing revisions with me this summer. 

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 3rd quarter in his high school class); struggled with learning differences and ADHD which made the SAT and ACT difficult; 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 average and the competition for admission to the school 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 essays, 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 tutor, friend, or internet chat board.

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: https://bit.ly/3K4f1gK

college essays, get into college, how to write the best college essay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ACT® is a registered trademark belonging to ACT, Inc. ACT, Inc. is not involved with or affiliated with College Prep Results, LLC, nor does ACT, Inc. endorse or sponsor any of the products or services offered by College Prep Results, LLC. SAT® is a registered trademark belonging to College Board and is not involved with or affiliated with College Prep Results, nor does College Board endorse or sponsor any of the products or services offered by College Prep Results.

College Prep Results, LLC: A Megan Dorsey Company

© 2006-2021 College Prep Results, LLC