I think what admissions reps. are trying to get across is that for the larger institutions, numbers are the first line of defense (GPA/test scores). But there comes a time when an admissions rep. must select one student out of let's say, 10. Of those 10 applicants, each one may look exactly the same in regard to the # of AP/Honors classes taken, GPA and test scores so how do they pick that 1 out of the 10: essay and letters of recommendation.
The essay is your one chance (short of a required or voluntary interview) to let the school know who you are and why they should take a chance on you. When I say "take a chance" remember they are seeking those students that will be successful on their campus. A large part of finding that success is not only one's affinity for academics but, how one's personality will match to a campus and the obstacles they may face. For instance, a student with a 4.3 GPA and great SAT/ACT scores needs to make sure that a school like Vassar, believes this particular person will deal with frustration well, will be able to grow through adversity, lead by example, reflect good choices be they social or academic, open to diversity, etc.
During my first year of being a guidance counselor, one of my students was accepted to Harvard University. I reached out to the admissions office at Harvard and asked why, why was he accepted. I needed to understand as a new counselor in order to correctly advise students down the road. The response was so simple. "James" had a 4.4 GPA and exceptionally high SAT scores although not perfect. His out of class activities were limited to 3 but heavy involvement in each still, he was not a captain nor president in any of them. But, the admissions rep. went on to say his essay, his interview, his recommendations all reflected to them, a young man of strong, solid character, with a love of learning and curiosity hard to match.
I never forgot that conversation. This particular student wrote an essay on how traveling to other countries over the years taught him that "human beings have needs, basic needs of love, food, shelter but how we meet those needs vary from nation to nation. " The essay explained how a young man of financial freedom offered by his parents as he grew, found a level of understanding, a commonality between cultures. That commonality changed how he interacted with others and the course he wanted to set for himself as an adult.
So the essay is, essential! Some will tell you no. Some colleges will say you do not have to submit one but I say, go for it. If you really want in, you really need to go the full road, inclusive of an essay.
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