Strong essays increase your admissions chances by up to 10 times
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Strong essays can 10x your admissions chances. Unbelievable – right?
Well, we’ve dug into the data. And, it’s true. We’ll share the details throughout this piece. But, we’re going to start with two facts:
- Harvard applicants within similar academic profiles have 10x higher admissions chances when they have a strong personal score (of which essays are a critical component).
- 3 in 4 students with strong essays get accepted at one or more selective colleges where their academic profile is below the average admitted student (“reach” schools).¹
Two things explain why essays are so important:
- Academic self-selection, and
- Essays being where applicants tend to mess up.
Let’s explore these reasons and illustrate the extraordinary power of essays with a deep dive into Harvard’s admissions data – the only publicly available data source.
First, essays make a huge difference because students self-select on academics
Students tend to apply to schools where their academics (including not just grades, but also test scores and curriculum strengths) are in the ballpark with those of other students.
That makes sense, right? Isn’t it basically how you decided on your “safety,” “target,” and “reach” schools? Here’s an example that might blow your mind (we’ll explore it more below): A whopping 84% of Harvard applicants are at or above the academic bar, meaning admissions officers believe they’re academically capable of succeeding at Harvard.
What does this mean for admissions readers? It leaves them to sift through a bunch of test scores and transcripts that look a lot alike; it leaves them needing another factor they can use to distinguish applicants.
As it turns out, many admissions departments call this distinguishing factor the “personal” score. (It’s on the x-axis of the chart below.) If you’ve guessed that this score comes from your essays, you’re correct! (Although things like recommendations, interviews, and activity lists also figure in it.)
The personal score is way (waaaaaaay) more important than the academic score. We know it’s surprising, but the data backs this up. For truly excellent scores (aka 2s — ignore 1s for now, they’re too rare to be significant), “personal” 2s are much rarer than “academic” 2s. At Harvard, as we’ll discuss, only half as many applicants have strong personal scores as have strong academic scores. An excellent personal score is a rare and valuable commodity.
So how do colleges calculate the personal score? Since recommendations and interviews factor into it, you can deduce that it’s not about grammar and style. (This is very important.)
No. The personal score is about a student’s potential to succeed in college and beyond.
Colleges measure that potential via your experiences — do the experiences you put in your essays (and that your recommenders put in their letters, and that show up on your activity list) show you’ve got the traits that lead to college success?
This is a good place to segue into the second reason strong essays play such a large role in admissions:
Second, essays are where applicants mess up
Only 1 in 5 students applying to selective colleges have compelling essays. Students generally spend too much time overthinking the “style” part of their essays — going for elegance, wit, metaphors, or philosophical musings (all things we discourage) — and too little time brainstorming their potential-showing experiences (the thing we’re laser-focused on).
Whether or not you use our coaching and feedback service, we’ll share our secret with you. At Prompt, we focus on getting the student experiences right and explaining them in a concise, compelling, and clear manner. While spelling and grammar matter, they’re secondary to content, structure, and clarity.
Let other students worry about writing style. Focus instead on what you’ll say (ie: showing you’ve got what it takes to succeed in college), and you’ll get a major boost. In fact, it might even be enough to push you all the way into your “reach” schools.
Case Study: Harvard admissions data shows essays significantly impact who gets in
Disclaimer: We’re only using Harvard to illustrate this because of a 2019 court case that made its admissions data public. As admissions nerds, we dug gleefully into the numbers.
Based on our experience coaching tens of thousands of applicants, the Harvard data is a good stand-in for how most selective schools work. That being said, each institution will have its own approach. In general, the smaller and more highly selective the school, the more essays matter; for larger public schools, they often matter less.
Below is a short synopsis of what we uncovered.
As we said, 83% of Harvard applicants are at or above its academic bar. Yet, Harvard’s admit rate is 7% in a good year and was under 4% this year. Clearly, Harvard is heavily weighing other traits beyond academics.
Harvard rates applicants in four categories:
- Athletic, and
Applicants receive a rating of 1 (highest) through 5 (lowest) in each category. Below is a chart that shows the percentage of applicants that receive each rating. (We’re leaving out the athletic scores as only 27% of admits have a 1 or 2 athletic rating, with 11% being 1s aka recruited athletes.)
It’s very rare to earn a 1 in any category. About 100 applicants per year get a “1” in academics – versus less than 40 in extracurriculars and less than 10 in personal! Unless you’re insanely exceptional, you’re aiming for 2s.
Within the 2s, though, the most common ranking is in academics (42% of applicants, as shown above). It’s therefore not that valuable. In contrast, only 21% of applicants have a 2-ranking in personal. It’s thus much more valuable.
For personal and extracurricular, schools start candidates at a 3 (neutral) and move them up or down based on the content (good or bad) in their essays, activities list, recommendations, and interview.
Let’s take a look at the admit data in the chart above. You’ll notice that earning a “2” in at least one category is essentially critical to getting in — the move from a 3 to a 2 in any category represents a stark improvement in admissions chances. But of all the categories, the biggest move you can make is becoming one of the 21% of applicants receiving a personal score of 2 (see the blue highlight in the first chart). For those applicants, the admission rate is over 1 in 4; they make up nearly 3 in 4 admits (see the dark orange above).
Another way of showing the power of a personal 2 is in the chart above. It’s the jump that most improves your chances of admission. In academics, moving up to 2 triples your admissions chances (not bad). An extracurricular 2 quintuples them (pretty good). But nothing beats the 10x improvement you get by moving your personal score up to 2.
1. Personal 2s are the rarest and the most powerful: Nearly 75% of admitted students have a 2 personal score. Yet, only 1 in 5 applicants earns a personal 2.
2. Essays are a critical component to earning a personal score of 2. It’s both what you write about and how you write about it. (The personal score also considers your recommendations, additional information, and interview.)
Strong essays can move your personal score from 3 to 2, increasing your admissions chances by 10x. We hope this leaves you excited to get cracking on your essays!
If you want more help making your essays exceptional, take a look at:
Get feedback from a specialized writing coach
The Common App personal statement: Complete guide 2021
Guidance for every college’s supplemental essays
Common App hub
The Big Reveal from Harvard’s Admissions Lawsuit: Essays Really, Really Matter
¹ Analysis from students working with Prompt’s writing coaches. These students had strong essays. We then compared their standardized test scores to the average admitted student
² The data is sourced from and integrated across multiple publicly available court documents from the 2019 Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard court case.