November 21, 2022
Understanding why college essays matter
Understanding why college essays matter and how they play into your college admissions is critical. This post helps you understand how colleges consider essays, breaks down the different types of essays, and gives writing tips courtesy of the College Essay Journal.

Note: This guest post features an interview with the authors of College Essay Journal: A Mindful Manual for College Applications.


There are many components of the college application process. You might hear the word “holistic” used to describe how admissions committees review multiple pieces of an application to determine a decision for a student.

Some parts of the application, like the high school transcript and standardized test scores, are quantitative measures of a student’s college readiness. Other parts, like recommendation letters, the activities list, and essays, are qualitative pieces of the puzzle.

Take a look at the most recent State of College Admission report from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

Source: NACAC Admissions Trends Survey, 2018 - 2019

You’ll see here that in 2017, essays ranked just below academic performance in high school and standardized test scores (now largely optional as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic). While essays are not the most important part of the college application, they rank significantly enough that it is important for counselors to support students as much as possible to lower stress.

Why are college application essays important?

The student is in control of the story

Essays empower students because the student has full control. Essays offer students so much agency in their application when compared to their other components.

By the time a student gets to the fall of senior year, many other aspects of the application are beginning to set in stone. Transcript improvements and late rises in test scores are great, but a student has the power to build their entire story in the essay.

Essays help to foster admissions-student relationships

Essays help admissions counselors get to know students more personally. They can provide a window into a young person’s life that is hard to gauge from other parts of the application including how they grew up, how they think and feel, and what they might hope for in their future. Essays help answer important questions for admissions counselors:

  • Context Clues - does this student have a story that added background to other parts of the application?
  • Community Building - is this student a great fit for the community on campus?
  • Persuasive Writing Skills - did I learn something new about this student from their reflective writing?
  • Accuracy and Following Directions - does this student write with minimal errors and do they answer the question fully?

What are the types of essays?

Writing college essays can be time consuming. Lots of times, the more competitive or selective the college is, the more writing the applicant should prepare to do. This is because each college has the option to add supplemental essays in addition to the main college application essay.

The Main Essay

This main college application essay, sometimes called a personal statement, should not contain any specific references to a particular college if used for more than one application.

When students fill out the Common Application, Coalition Application, or any other college application site, they’ll have the opportunity to write an essay that is shared with the colleges they’re applying to.

The purpose of this essay is to showcase writing skills and enable admissions counselors to learn more about the applicant. There will be prompts that students can choose from when they apply to help them stay focused. Lots of students will decide what they want to write about and then pick the prompt that fits.

The Supplemental Essay

Supplemental essays allow students to write about a number of different things, and all colleges take a unique approach:

  • The “who” essays: address a student’s identity, opinions, passions, and accomplishments
  • The “what” essays: address a student’s preferences, like art, music, books, and even their favorite word
  • The “where” essays: address a student’s career plans or vision for the future
  • The “why” essays: address a student’s motivation for why they want to attend that college or pursue a certain academic interest
  • The “how” essays: address a student’s plans for making the most of their college experience

Students can use Loper to help write their supplemental essays! When ready, students can check out their saved schools to view why they matched and research each college. This will help answer questions specific to why they are interested in that college.

Nailing College Essays with the College Essay Journal

Authors Corinne Smith and Ann Merrell share a love of college admissions, access and affordability, and the higher education landscape. They’ve also read a lot of essays. Together, they wondered “why does essay writing have to be so stressful?”

As a counselor, Ann consistently saw students procrastinate, get overwhelmed, and struggle with their mental health while applying to college.

On the admissions side, Corinne read thousands of applications each year that failed to showcase the student's authentic personality. Then they came up with the idea for a Mindful ManualTM for college applications.

The goal was to make brainstorming fun, essay writing manageable, and the entire process less stressful. Over the course of 30-days, the College Essay Journal prompts students to answer reflective questions in creative ways. It covers themes related to applications and essay topics while weaving in college advising content at the end of every chapter.

From the very beginning, it was important for Corinne and Ann to create something that lowered student stress and emphasized positive thinking. With that in mind, the book incorporates and emphasizes mindfulness techniques that can be applied far beyond college applications. Click here to learn more!

Learn more from our conversation

What influenced the prompts and questions in the manual?
We have both spent our careers supporting and advising prospective college applicants. Often, Ann’s students (especially juniors!) are eager to get started on the essays but get overwhelmed by the official prompts and don’t know where to begin. At the same time, Corinne travels the country as an admissions officer visiting high schools and giving large information sessions. Without fail, the students will always raise their hands or come up afterwards asking what to write about.
When we started thinking about how to frame the College Essay Journal those experiences were top of mind. We wanted to make the essay prompts and questions relatable and fun. Yet, we also looked at essays from schools and application platforms around the country. We identified consistent themes in those questions and broke them down into manageable chapters of the book. Over the course of 30-days, the College Essay Journal asks students to focus on one chapter and theme per day (such as hometown, identity, community, finances, etc.). When they finish, any of these themes can easily become a larger essay topic and piece of writing.
We also know that students learn and reflect in different ways. With that in mind, it was really important that the College Essay Journal captured many styles and formats that would appeal to all types of learners. Some of the questions are as simple as circling how they feel that day or developing a short list of their favorite books. Students might be prompted to describe or draw a response. Others are conversation starters and ask them to engage with someone in their life. And, of course, there are longer responses that lead applicants to develop a mini personal statement without even realizing it.
What are some characteristics of strong college essays?
Some things that immediately come to mind are that the essay should be genuine, authentic, and written in the student’s own voice. Often there is a misconception that students need to be “unique” to get into their favorite colleges or universities. The reality is that very few people end up writing a unique essay. As experts who read thousands of applicants each year, some of the best essay topics cover everyday and common experiences.
Strong essays are typically not written under pressure in just one day. Hence why the College Essay Journal is intended to take 15-20 minutes per day over 30-days. They should also communicate something important to or interesting about the student.
For example, we love pieces that showcase the applicant’s personality, values, point of view, sense of humor, or background. As readers, some of the best essays are the ones that make us laugh or teach us something new. Ultimately, a strong essay will allow the reader to learn something substantial about the applicant and gain an understanding of what the student will bring to their college community.
And finally, what advice would you share with counselors as they help students through the process?
As challenging and time-consuming as it might be, we’ve learned the most important part of this process is to give the student as much ownership as possible. They should take the lead! In our professional opinion, the role of the counselor is to ask questions, provide space for reflection, and connect them with resources (like the College Essay Journal, fly-in programs, virtual and in-person visit opportunities, scholarship applications, etc.).
Counselors should help students explore the full range of post-secondary experiences available to them. However, it’s the student’s responsibility to actively engage in the search, develop a list of schools they like, produce application materials, and submit essays that are an accurate representation of who they are and what they’re looking for.
The reason why this is our recommended approach is because it prepares the student for long-term success. They’re not only identifying a college, but likely making a major life decision and weighing options for the first time. They’ll need to do this countless times throughout their life. It lays the foundation for choosing a major, a job, a city to live in, a home to buy, and many other milestones.
It’s also important to look beyond just the “typical options” for graduates within a given high school. There are incredible institutions around the country taking very innovative approaches to learning. Some of our favorites include Colorado College’s block plan, Deep Springs College and Outer Coast College’s 2-year small, experiential learning programs, Berea College and its no-tuition promise, and many others. And that’s why we love Loper, which really puts students in the driver’s seat for college exploration.

Loper is a free phone app that helps students discover their interests and the colleges that match them. If you’d like to learn more about our platform and mission, we’d love to stay in touch through the email below.

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