Are Essay Requirements Holding College Applicants Back?

New data suggest that personal-essay submission is a stumbling block for prospective students.

According to a working paper released two months ago by the Annenberg Institute, nearly 25 percent of students who applied to college during the 2018-19 application cycle started but never finished their application. Though non-submission rates varied widely (by, e.g., race/ethnicity, educational plans, parental educational attainment, etc.), one application characteristic was vastly different for successful applicants and non-submitters: completion of the application essay.

As Annenberg’s paper reports, “94 percent of students who [successfully] applied provided a valid essay response on their Common App application … compared to only 43 percent of non-submitters.” This suggests “that completing an application essay may strongly predict the likelihood of eventual submission.”

The only secondary variance that came anywhere near that mark was previous familiarity with the Common App platform, a service whereby applicants can send one universal application simultaneously to multiple schools, manage letters of recommendation, and pay application fees.

If the goal is to seem to expand educational access, then the personal essay may indeed be the way to go.Interestingly enough, the difference between successful applicants and non-submitters in mean SAT-score average was a mere 10 points. It would appear, then, that differences in test scores had no noticeable correlation with students’ application-submission success.

Nor were age, race, GPA, or educational aspiration meaningful contributors to the disparate outcomes.

Instead, the Annenberg Institute’s findings may indicate that students opted out of the application process upon hitting a roadblock that couldn’t be cleared in a few moments. To fill out a form takes only modest effort; to write an essay is a different matter. Perhaps, given the rise of ChatGPT and other AI “assistants,” future data will tell a different story. For now, however, a notable irony has emerged. The Supreme Court’s recent affirmative-action decision all but begs colleges to put greater weight on the admissions essay. Yet it seems that the essay requirement is leading to poor outcomes for many applicants.

Given this fact, it may well be time for colleges to reinstate standardized tests as a central admissions criterion. As the Martin Center has frequently noted, Covid is no longer causing disruption to standardized-test proctoring, and universities could easily reinstate them as an admissions requirement. Nevertheless, as Michael T. Nietzel wrote in Forbes last year, more than 80 percent of four-year colleges waived their standardized-testing requirements for fall 2023. While some education commentators, such as FairTest Executive Director Harry Feder, argue that standardized tests merely “assess … family wealth,” this is not true. Instead, such tests are largely what they claim to be: objective measures of aptitude that, while imperfect, offer far more information to admissions officers than do so-called personal essays.

If the goal of universities is to seem to be expanding educational access, then the personal essay may indeed be the way to go. If the goal is to actually do so, application essays may not be the answer.

Kristin MacArthur is a senior studying English, creative writing, and Spanish at Liberty University.