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Is the Common App Essay Really That Important?

Write the Common Application

Is the Common App Essay Really That Important?
Is the Common App Essay Really That Important?

This is part 1 of our series “The Complete Guide to the Common App Personal Statement Essay” where we walk first-year undergraduate students through writing the Common App essay from start to finish. That's right — from the very beginning. 

We'll start with tackling a common question we get from parents and students alike: "Is the Common App essay really that important?"

When you think about your college application goals, the first one you think of is probably, “Just get it done and over with.” That is a fantastic goal! Many students put off their applications and end up writing in a furious marathon right before deadlines, without much time for brainstorming or revision. Diving into the process early and putting in the work will pay off, I promise. Follow us through our “The Complete Guide to the Common App Personal Statement Essay” series for an easy and painless way to finish your main college application essay. 

Your next college application goal is probably, “Get into X school.” Another worthy goal! 

But, to achieve that goal, you need to get into the mindset of college admissions readers and know what their goals are. When we determine what college readers want to know about applicants, then you can use your personal statement to give them exactly that! 

What Colleges Want to Know About You

So here’s what you need to know: Colleges want to know that you will be successful in college and beyond. Of course, colleges define “success” in many ways, including: 

  • You will show up for classes, do your work, and graduate on time. 
  • You will contribute positively to the college’s community. 
  • Their college is the right place for you to learn what you need to achieve your goals. 
  • You will positively impact communities you join and careers you pursue in the future, serving as a powerful brand ambassador for the school. 

But how can you prove future success?

College admissions readers score your past successes to determine if you have what it takes to be successful in the future. We can break down the college admissions decision-making process into three factors:

  • your academic score — your grades, test scores, and the perceived strength of your high school's curriculum,
  • your personal score — essays, letters of recommendation, activities lists, and interviews (if applicable), and
  • an "other" category — things like being a first-generation college student, legacy applicant, student-athlete, as well as your family income and demonstrated interest in the school. Many of these factors are completely out of your control!

While some students might apply to a few "reach" schools, most tend to apply to schools where their academic score is similar to their fellow applicants. For example, 84% of Harvard applicants surpass the academic score threshold. This means that the majority of students are going to have nearly identical academic scores. Harvard's acceptance rate in 2021 was only 4% of applicants. In other words, 80% of the applicants were deemed "academically capable" of succeeding at Harvard but were still rejected! Other aspects of your application will be vital for helping you stand out within that 84% and becoming the 4% admitted. 

All things considered, the personal score is the one you have the most influence over and the score that will ultimately be the deciding factor in most cases. The personal statement essay is the cornerstone of the personal score, especially as interviews are offered at fewer and fewer schools every year. This 650-word essay is the primary opportunity for you to make your case for who you are, how you learn, and what kind of community member you will be at the university, in and outside of the classroom.

Your Common App personal statement and other essays are your opportunity to showcase your growth and strengths through life experiences, demonstrating your most central traits and defining values. Admissions readers will then extrapolate from these narratives to envision the student you will be on their campus —in the classroom and in the community— and picture the contributions you will make.

In other words, by showing admissions readers how you’ve faced challenges, learned about yourself and the world, and made a positive impact in the past, they will be able to easily visualize you doing even more in the future

Find part 2 of our series: Breaking Down Myths about the Common App Essay. 

Isa is the Director of Coach Development at Prompt. She started as a Writing Coach in 2018, was an inaugural Coach Mentor, and stepped into her current leadership role in 2023. She studied operatic performance, cultural studies, and creative writing through The New School’s undergraduate and graduate programs before going on to earn her Doctorate of Literature at Drew University, centering her dissertation on the decolonization of the memoir. For the past 20 years, Isa has spearheaded a wide variety of long and short-term projects that span education, human rights, food sovereignty, and the performing arts, cultivating strengths in growing communities, building equity, and leveraging technology within grassroots and human-centered initiatives. She worked with Amnesty International as an investigator and writer for over a decade before serving as a director at several international nonprofits. Most notable is her role as curriculum director for the School for the Liberation of Women in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her work at Prompt represents the perfect intersection of her interests in writing, pedagogical theory, community, strategic planning, and education access. Isa’s passion for lifelong learning is not only evident in her career path, but also in her continued personal educational endeavors, which include graduate-level certifications in CELTA TESOL Teaching (International House), Diversity & Inclusion (Cornell), Leadership Essentials (Cornell), and College Admissions & Career Planning (UC Berkeley). Through the Academy to Innovate HR, Isa has completed two certifications in Diversity & Inclusion and Learning & Development.