So they often look to the student's essay to get a glimpse of who he or she really is.
"The essay is really the one piece, along with what teachers say about a student, that can be the most compelling and most exciting," says Jennifer Gandy, a senior admissions officer at Harvard. "The essay is usually the first thing that goes up on the screen, we say, 'Look at this kid, look at this thing he or she wrote.' So I would hope as students are going through this process, the essay would also be what most excites them."
If there's one piece of advice for students beginning their essay journey, it's to write in your own voice, says Gandy, interviewed in the Write for the Future blog in the Huffington Post.
"We are looking for the essay to shed some light on the personal qualities of the applicant and what their personality actually is, and how the person comes through in the writing is really important."
Want to have a private conversation with an admissions department at the college of your choice? You can, according to college counselor Ralph Becker.
"Think of the essay as if it were your chance to sit down with the admissions officer and unveil yourself," says Becker, founder of Ivy College Prep in Tustin, Calif., writing in the Gazette Newspapers in Long Beach Calif.
For the very top of the candidate pool -- 29,700 students, according to Becker's complicated calculations -- your essay "must almost perfectly capture the key elements of who you are. This is usually best done within a narrative essay where your actions create character. You’ll need to edit, proofread, revise, get second opinions and make these essays as flawless as possible."
"The essays must be personal and revealing, giving a sense of the true, honest you," Becker writes. "You need to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Nothing good is produced when you play it safe. The essay demands risk, adventure and bold, stark honesty."
You need to be on the right side of the "bubble," and your college-admission essay is the key.
"I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a student get into their dream school on the basis of the essay alone," says Donna Spann, writing in the Tyler Morning Telegraph in Tyler, Texas. Still, "sometimes, a strong essay can . . . convince admissions officers that an on-the-bubble applicant has the ability to do well at the school."
And for high school juniors already looking ahead to summer vacation, "it’s already time to be thinking about that essay," says Spann, CEO of Capstone College and Career Advising. "The prompts have been released, and it’s time to start turning that blank computer screen into a polished essay."
Arnie Rosenberg is the founder of The Center for Essay Excellence. He writes regularly about college essays and their importance to the college-admission process. Contact him at Arnie.Rosenberg.Editor@gmail.com.
© 2014 The Center for Essay Excellence