Originally Posted: Apr 30, 2016
Last Updated: Jul 28, 2020
Ever year, there are changes to the college application processespecially where essays are concerned. The SAT is going back to an “optional” Writing section, and many elite colleges, including Cornell, Columbia, and UPenn have already announced that they will no longer require applicants to complete the optional Writing section on standardized tests.
I bring this up because there is a larger trend of colleges that no longer require essay writing as part of their application process. (These include several state schools that work under the assumption that a combination of transcripts and increasingly effective standardized tests will provide an admission “matrix” that is strong enough to assess candidates without considering an essay.) The hope is that doing away with the college application essay allows more accessibility to applicants, not to mention that it saves admission officers time as well. However, before you get excited about the idea that you don’t have to write an essay to impress the school of your choice, there are several questions you need to ask yourself.
Is the essay actually not required?
First things first: make sure that the essay is, in fact, not required of you. Some “no essay” colleges will still ask for an essay if you are below certain metrics in GPA and standardized testing, so check on this to make sure of their requirements before applying. Admission statistics are usually available in the admission section of a college website and will give you a clear indication of where you rank.
The college specifically says no essay, but should I send an essay anyway?
In general the answer is no. For many colleges that do not ask for an application essay, this would be a waste of time at best, and, at worst, would suggest that you’re not capable of following directions. Follow the guidelines carefully—don’t send an essay if a college doesn’t want one. The exception: many “no essay” colleges still require essays in order to apply for scholarships, so don’t think you’re off the hook if you need financial assistance.
The college says the essay is optional—can I not send an essay?
If a college says the essay is “optional,” you should still send one. It can only help you. The reason essay optional schools include that option is so when they are deciding between students with similar qualifications, they can look to see if there are other possible factors to judge. If you’ve sent an application essay, it shows the college you have initiative, and it might give you a leg up over your competition.
Related: How to Write a Great Admission Essay
What can I do to stand out if I don’t have an application essay?
You’re right to think of the application essay as a good way to stand out to college admission reps. But there are other ways of achieving this too.
- Focus on writing in your high school classes. The best thing to do is excel in your classes—particularly those in English and literature. These are seen as placeholders for your essay-writing skills. Basically by foregoing your essay, the school is looking more closely at your grades in classes where you have done some writing to prove that you are adept enough to join their program.
- Secure solid recommendations. Though some colleges do not require recommendations either, if they do, figure out who and how to ask for them. Find people who know you well and can speak to who you really are as well as your accomplishments (it doesn’t hurt if those people also happen to be community MVPs—but remember that a good, personal recommendation is way better than a generic one from a state senator who doesn’t know you at all). Without an application essay, you don’t have a place to really talk about your extracurricular leadership, so make sure your recommenders discuss this aspect of your life.
- Have a killer résumé. Another aspect of the essay is that it allows you to promote your extracurricular prowess—something that is left out of a standardized test score. Many students have the option of submitting a résumé with their college applications as a supplement, but they still submit pretty weak ones, often because they either don’t know how to put one together or they feel it’s not important. Do some research, get a solid template and make sure your résumé is well balanced with accomplishments, not too long (one page is best), and free of typos and construction errors. If the college asks only for an “activity listing,” make sure your accomplishments shine through.
What else can I do?
If you have the option of submitting supplemental information, make this a priority. That includes any samples of your high school work or portfolios that relate directly to the field that interests you. Make sure to contact the college to see if adding something like this to your application is appropriate. Though it’s true that it may be “easier” to apply to a school that doesn’t require an essay, you are also more likely to get lost in the shuffle if you don’t highlight your unique qualifications. Take care to get a handle on the factors you can control—getting good grades and high test scores, having excellent recommendations and a nice résumé—and the admission office will be more likely to have a good impression of who you are and why you should be accepted.
That's the rundown, folks. What other questions are on your mind about essay-optional or no-essay schools? Let us know on Twitter @CollegeXpress!