Guest post by Parke Muth, former Associate Dean of Admissions at UVA

How big of a difference can the admissions essays make in highly selective college admissions?

Parke’s post below is in response to the question posed above on Quora by prospective college applicant.

Your question gets asked in many forms and ways and I have answered it hundreds if not thousands of times. In your case, I am looking at the schools you have listed your question to go to and they are among the most selective in the world. I point this out because if these are your choice schools then how I will answer this question will be different than if I simply added words in general.

The Ivies, MIT, Stanford etc., on average, accept between 5%-10% of those who apply. In order to be one of the lucky few you have to have more than just a great essay. Essays don’t get looked at first in the evaluation process. Instead, the transcript and testing and your background and school and courses do. Without some compelling numbers and overall stellar performance, a great essay won’t get you that far.

On the other hand, having great numbers is just the start of getting in to these kinds of schools. Just about everyone that applies has strong numbers, and some are nearly perfect. Some really are perfect. And still some of those with perfect numbers don’t get in. Why? Numbers predict academic success but they don’t compel a reader to say yes. More often than not words and actions need to come in to play.

In some cases, the actions trump numbers. Great athletes whose numbers are ok often get in over those with much higher numbers. So too with those who have other special talents whether it be in a particular academic area or some other interest (fine arts, service or business are just a few examples).