The essay matters more than ever. I know a student with a 31 on the ACT, another with a 34, and another with a 36 that received skinny rejection letters this past spring. I never saw their essays. Others with lesser credentials but stellar essays I did read, received large acceptance envelopes.

Harvard rejected 95% of its applicants this spring. Stanford and Yale are close behind. The Common Application has made it so easy to apply to selective colleges that admissions offices are deluged. UCLA had more than 110,000 applications this year—for four years of big classes and no parking. Brown receives almost twice as many applications today (35,438) than it did in 2011 (19,044).  Bates College had 45% more applicants in 2018 than 2017. Thus, dramatically more applicants have the credentials for selective colleges: impressive grades and ACT or SAT scores.

So, other attributes can prove decisive. From my experience, the essay now is vital—a differentiating force in the application. Poor application essays can undo thirteen years of impressive academic achievement. A fabulous essay can get you in or get you that big scholarship.

So rising seniors this summer get that essay draft done by the start of school.  You’ll then have two months to revise it before early admissions deadlines and four months before regular decision deadlines.

There are five critical elements to a game-changer essay. First, chose a topic that you are passionate about. Second, brevity is key: less is more, in scope and number of words. Third, show don’t tell: be the first-person story-teller rather than the omniscient, third-person narrator. Four, provide details, not vague platitudes.   Five, add levity, if possible: a little self-effacing humor can make them love you. There are many other essay techniques that make admissions officers and scholarship committees want you, but these five keys are a good start.

For similar reasons at selective colleges, your recommendations are also much more important than ever. So make sure senior year that you have two teachers and a counselor excited to write about your strengths.

But don’t delay.  Now that your eleventh grade is over, start planning your 650-word Personal Statement for your Common Application and construct a solid draft before summer ends.