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College-application essays are a waste of time—except when they’re not.

This is what I’ve gathered from admissions officers who plow through thousands and thousands of words each year. Searching for insights in essays raw or polished, they might find a vivid sketch of a life or nothing at all. One essay informs a committee’s discussion of an applicant; the next essay evaporates from memory.

In an article today, I describe the Common Application’s new essay prompts, which will shape the responses admissions officers at 510 American colleges will read during the 2013-14 application cycle. An advisory panel of 15 college counselors helped create the prompts. They spent much time discussing wording and word limits (the new maximum is 650 words).

It’s fair to say they sweated the details in seeking prompts that were neither too narrow nor too open-ended. Why all the fuss?

The answer, I think, is that many people involved in the admissions enterprise believe—or want to believe—that personal essays are essential. As long as students are free to write autobiographical vignettes and creative riffs on quirky topics, then nobody can say the process is just about numbers, which it often is.

If nothing else, essay requirements are a crucial part of the admissions narrative: Your story matters to us, kid; therefore, you matter. This is a hopeful exercise. In the end, of course, a student’s story might matter only if his or her test scores and grade-point average are high enough to merit a close reading.

Recently, Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, gave me a refreshingly honest take on the value of essays. Not every single one, he said, played a role in admissions decisions. Perhaps one in seven did, he guessed, or maybe one in eight. In his mind, that didn’t make them any less valuable.

Danya Berry, a member of the Common Application’s panel of counselors, thinks essay requirements encourage students to master writing skills in high school. “If you can’t write a succinct, five-paragraph essay, you’re not going to succeed in college,” she said.

Ms. Berry works at the Dayton Early College Academy, where most students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Before graduating, all students must complete a 20-page autobiography, one of many writing assignments that help them generate ideas for admissions essays.

Often Ms. Berry is amazed by what students write. Some type what they would never say. A while back, a sophomore revealed in an essay that she was homeless; each day after school she had taken shelter in an abandoned building. She’s now in her third year of college.

That many selective colleges require essays also encourages students who lack sterling credentials, Ms. Berry has observed. “If they only looked at their SAT score and GPA, they might think they wouldn’t have any opportunity for admission,” she said. “Without the essays, they might think there’s no place for them to put down, ‘Hey, by the way, I’ve had two internships …’”

College-application essays are a waste of time—except when they’re not.

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