I was asked to answer this question on the website Quora.com
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).
Essays aren’t icing. You are not a cake. But they are not the determinative factor unless you already have passed through the portal of high numbers. There are a few exceptions to this but they mostly come from those who have some sort of amazing story. Those who have had to negotiate with terrorists to save their parents, those who had to step over crack addicts to get to school, those who survived a tsunami. I mention these real examples because if you hope to get in on the basis of the plot of your essay you’d better have something that only a tiny group of people in the world have been through. The stories of overcoming hardship tend to play better than doing some things that are impressive but may cost a whole lot of money and time that most others don’t have. A guy that had climbed 9 of the world’s 10 top mountains didn’t get into most of the top schools on your list even though he had pretty good numbers.
Let’s say you are your average run of the mill really smart person. Here’s where essays can make or break you. I often say it isn’t necessarily the dramatic that gets you in; instead, it’s the well-crafted essay that demonstrates you have not just the ability to communicate beautifully through the written word but that you can do so within the context of the world you live in. By this I mean that what you often know best and can write about with unforgettable detail is what is in front of you each day. Creating that world for others is both an art and a science. It can be learned but it usually takes time.
When I worked in selective admission, I would look for essays that had ‘a local habitation and a name’ (a phrase I have stolen from Shakespeare). I wanted to hear and see and touch and smell and feel the world you are in. Details that show, and, by end, tell too. If I felt I found a rare voice I would fight like hell to get that student in. But there are not many who can do this. I say this from personal and professional experience. I write quite a lot and most of it is ok or occasionally even better than ok, but only rarely do I hit a vein that does, in a small space, what I want it to — move the reader in some way.
Essays that are poorly written can doom a person who is virtually perfect in most other ways. It usually does not work the other way around. A great essay won’t overcome gaps in the numbers, or if it does, there is usually something else going on — some sort of special category for admission.
If you search my blog under “essay” and “selective admission” admission you will find many more comments on this topic. If you search under “essay test” you will find many examples of essays that were submitted to highly selective schools. And if you search under “McEssay” you will find links to an article I wrote on admission essays for US News.