By Alan Gelb
Originally published on 8 May, 2012.

One of the nice things that students sometimes report to me when they receive their acceptance letters is that the admissions counselors have made reference to their essays. It’s good for me to know that the essay appears to have made a real difference in their applications. Of course, it’s not at all surprising that this should be the case.

A recent survey from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling ranked the essay as the fifth most significant determinant in getting into college—after grades, test scores, and class rank, but ahead of recommendations and extracurricular activities. Perhaps even more significantly, these admissions counselors named the essay as the single most important “tip factor”—that is, the thing that can really tip your application in your favor, all other factors being equal.

So, as I say, it makes sense for my students to get that kind of feedback from the counselors, because they really have managed to distinguish themselves by telling good stories. The diabetic boy who likes to tap dance. The girl who plays old-time standards on her saxophone at a nursing home. The boy who actually enjoys mowing his grandmother’s lawn. These stories make their authors pop out as people–and I find, so often, that this process of discovery is genuinely transforming for the students themselves. When any of us can find insight about ourselves through writing, we come away the richer for the experience. That’s why I like to tell the students that I work with that they should be prepared to actually take pleasure in this experience that at first seems only like a hurdle to jump over. I tell them to prepare to be surprised, and generally, by the time we finish our work together, they are.