Our middle child, Anna, came home from school crying last week.
This is not unusual for teenage girls. In fact, it happens so frequently, that we sometimes have to feign concern. While we might gasp loudly and blurt with outstretched arms, “Oh, Sugar Dumpling, what’s got you so upset?” my internal monologue is really saying, Good Lord, what is it this time . . . probably boy drama, or another project is due, or skinny jeans went out of style . . . I’d better record “Survivor” because this might take a while.
But last week, Anna plopped onto the couch looking quite pitiful. With puffy eyes and a wobbling chin, she explained, “It’s just . . . everything! I have another paper due in English, a Stats test on Friday, the SAT this weekend, and I somehow have to upload my portfolio for my applications to Syracuse and Delaware. And between all that, somehow finish my college essay!” Her face contorted as tears plopped onto her sweatshirt.
Our daughter isn’t the only 17-year-old who is feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders. Many of the 3.3 million US high school seniors are under pressure from parents, guidance counselors, teachers and themselves to distill their life experience down to one single, flawless 650-word college essay.
But are the tears and missed “Survivor” episodes worth it? Do essays really matter all that much to admissions counselors?
There are varied reports on whether or not essays are seriously considered by colleges. Three former admissions counselors from Dartmouth College, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Chicago stated in a Nov. 14, 2014 article in Time Magazine that they read and seriously considered every essay that came across their desks. However, they all acknowledged that no student with lackluster grades and test scores ever got into their schools based on a great essay.
Mitchell Stevens, a sociologist who studies higher education, spent 18 months in the admissions office of a top-tier liberal arts school working alongside counselors through two full admissions cycles. In a Nov. 13, 2014 article in The New Republic, Stevens stated that the “hard numbers” – GPA, test scores, class rank, and number of AP and honors courses – reigned supreme in their admissions decisions. The applicants on the low and high ends of the school’s standards were decided upon quickly, but even for the middle pool of applicants, essays “rarely got even cursory attention from admissions officers.”
Stevens said the factors that mattered more were: “How likely was an applicant to accept our offer of admission? Had we already accepted anyone from his or her remote zip code? Had the applicant received any special endorsement from a college alumnus or a faculty member? Did someone in the office owe a favor to the applicant’s guidance counselor?”
Furthermore, in its 2014 State of College Admissions Report, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors found that the most important factors in admissions decisions were grades in college prep courses (82%), strength of curriculum (64%), SAT/ACT scores (58%), and overall grades (52%). While opinions on essays were evenly spread, with only 22% reporting essays as having considerable importance, 38% moderate importance, 23% limited importance, and 17% no importance at all.
Regardless of this disheartening research, the fact remains that the essay serves as the one place on the Common Application (the online standard application accepted by approximately 500 US universities) where military children can set themselves apart. If there is a weakness in class rank, GPA, or consistency of curriculum; a personal essay that mentions moving three times during high school, living overseas, or a parent’s lengthy deployment, might not only catch the attention of admissions counselors, but also will spotlight the resiliency, adaptability and strength of military child applicants.
Military children in particular must seize opportunities to mention their uncommon experiences in their applications. Honor, sacrifice, service, hardship, adventure, and worldliness — these traits don’t show up in the “hard numbers” of a student’s GPA or test scores.
So dry your tears military high school seniors, and put your pens to paper. It’s time to give those college admissions counselors an education in military life.