College admission essays take center stage as schools rely less on SAT/ACT

With college application deadlines rapidly approaching, colleges and universities across the country say the movement toward test-optional policies could end up placing more emphasis on applicants’ personal essays.  

Related: Most US colleges have dropped ACT/SAT requirement for fall 2021 admission>

The coronavirus pandemic and resulting test cancellations have left many students without scores to submit—and have prompted most colleges and universities to stop requiring them. And with COVID-19-related school closures throwing other key quantitative markers like grade point averages and class rank into question, admissions teams are likely to depend on other inputs, like essays, more heavily than in the past. 

“Decision-making certainly will become a bit more qualitative this year,” Timothy Brunold, dean of admission at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, told EdSource

Applicants focus on sharing their stories

Aware of the shift, prospective college students are working to communicate their perspectives—often without the assistance of in-person counselors or meetings at writing centers—while balancing virtual learning and pandemic lockdown. 

“I’m spending so much more on them to make sure [the essays] are good,” Lauryn Cummins, a senior at Terra Linda High School in San Rafael, California, told EdSource. With her sights on attending a University of California school, Brown University, or the University of Miami, Cummins says she’s “putting a lot more effort than I would otherwise” into her writing submissions after SAT testing session cancellations blocked her from taking the standardized exam. 

This year’s writing prompts from the Common Application, which more than a million students use each year to apply to numerous colleges and universities, encourage applicants to describe how the pandemic has affected them. Bryan Jue, director of marketing and outreach for undergraduate admissions at University of California Irvine, asserts that prospective students should lean into this opportunity to provide context as they craft their personal statements, adding that the university is offering free online workshops on essay writing. 

Related: How will admissions officers evaluate applicants this year? >

Some students, meanwhile, have expressed apprehension about how heavily essays will be weighed. “This year it feels so much more important since it may be really the only insight they are going to get about us,” shares Angelina Duran, a senior at the Academy of Scientific Exploration in San Fernando, California, who cares for younger family members and faces access barriers as she completes her online work. “It really makes me feel more pressure.” 

Higher ed experts within the UC system and beyond are hoping to appease the anxieties of future students and offer some advice. Jayne Fonash, former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, assures students that their essays will be reviewed for “intellectual curiosity, initiative, drive, and determination.” 

“I think students put a lot of pressure on themselves for the essay to be perfect when, in fact, it simply should be a heartfelt, clearly and succinctly written story about an important aspect of their life,” she says. “[The statements] don’t have to be about an event that changed the future of the world. Their life may not have a lot of drama, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t a lot of life lessons.”

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