Yes and No.
Sometimes it helps, but usually only if the college specifically asks for the materials, and you will rarely know if they have or not read documents that you submit. If you have a grade or grade trend anomaly that has a legitimate reason, it can sometimes help to submit a letter of explanation. But often, that is not even read or considered.
Honestly, every institution approaches supplemental materials differently. You can tell a great deal about a college by the way they deal with supplemental materials and the application, i.e., are they personal or bureaucratic, do they view you as a person or tuition dollars.
Some institutions have specific ideologies and they want to make sure that the person you are – outside of a set of numbers – will be an asset to their community. In those cases, yes, they will review your supplemental materials carefully. The fact is, if you are applying to one of those institutions, you had better be very aware of their ideology and be able to make it clear to them (via creative essay, personal statement, extracurricular resume, etc., or however they request this information from you) that 1) you know all about the college and 2) you would thrive there.
Aside from these exceptions, in general, many admissions offices are under tremendous pressure to function with fewer people and grow enrollment, so they manipulate the use (or non-use) of supplemental materials to meet their needs.
I am aware of a major research university that several years ago not only told their admissions staff to stop reading essays and letters of recommendation, the staff was made to shred all those documents so that staff wouldn’t be tempted to read them. The thought was, if they read the documents, it would slow down the decision-making process.
The type of supplemental materials “requested” by an institution is the result of hours of meetings trying to glean how to manage your attention (indeed, the design of the application and all its parts is intended to manipulate you.) The comments in such meetings may be similar to the following:
1. “If we request an essay from applicants, it will reduce the numbers of applications we receive, because students won’t want to do the essay, instead of applying to us they will apply to schools that don’t require that of them.”
2. “Maybe if we just make it a short personal statement instead of an actual essay, maybe that will encourage more students to apply.”
3. “If we ask them for 2-3 letters of recommendation, that’s more work for the student, so maybe we should just request 1 letter of recommendation – or none.”
4. “We need more applications and a longer wait list, so that we have a deeper pool of students to choose from if we don’t get enough tuition deposits. If we require essays, statements and recommendations, we might not get enough applicants to choose from if we need to admit weaker students to ensure our numbers and tuition revenue.”
5. “But if we don’t require the essay, it sends a message that we aren’t a serious academic institution. If we don’t require the essay, we may end up attracting thousands of weak applications.”
6. “That’s OK because the more applications we bring in, the more students we can deny or place on a wait list, and the more selective we appear, and the higher our ranking.”
7. “We don’t have enough staff to read supplemental materials, so let’s just not accept or ask for them.”
As a result of budgetary cutbacks that reduce staff and increase workload, many institutions have ramped up their reliance upon automation in the application read/review process. This is intended to automatically admit the stronger students and keep the weaker applications separated out for deeper analysis if the institution believes they may not make their enrollment goals with only the top students.
How does this work? There is an algorithm on the backend (crunching the same data that enabled the college to automatically begin communicating with you as soon as your PSAT scores became available) that crunches your numbers – SAT/ACT, GPA, RIC) and decides whether you are in or out. This means that your entire relationship with a college may have been via a machine; no one knows who you are or that you even exist – except as a number the institution can manipulate to its financial advantage.
Now, if the machine says you are “out,” the admissions staff may begin to look more closely at the eliminated applications and admit/deny these students until the admissions department reaches its enrollment goals. At that point, the admissions officers may begin searching for more information about you, such as explanations of grade anomalies. They may find this information in your essay or in your letters or recommendation, or in a letter that you include with your application if they have requested those materials from you.
Here’s an aside: If you are required to submit an essay, the most important point to remember is this: If the institution stresses an essay or a personal statement, pay VERY CLOSE ATTENTION to what they request of that essay or personal statement.
In other words, if you write a generic essay to send to all your college search choices, and it is clear to the admissions officer reading your essay that you have not paid attention to what they wanted to see in the essay (subject, length, structure, etc.), your application will be denied simply because it is clear that 1) you cannot follow instructions or 2) you didn’t care enough about applying to their institution to follow their instructions. And they will be right on both counts.
For example, if you look at the Purdue application this year, they offer three choices of essay topics, each one carefully considered to allow different types of students to write something that matters to them. This presentation of their essay request shows that they DO value the essay, and if you want to get into Purdue – and especially if your grades and board scores aren’t stellar – then you’d better pay attention to this part of the application.
Other institutions, such as Indiana University-Bloomington, specifically state that they do not want to receive essays – so if you submit an essay, this also shows that you cannot follow directions. Again, the major reason for an institution to not request an essay is that essay-reading slows down the application review process. They don’t want admissions officers reading essays when those officers can simply be crunching through the numbers on applications and making their decisions based solely upon a student’s past successes or challenges.
Here is an excerpt from the Indiana University-Bloomington denial email (IU-Bloomington does not accept essays):
“We admit students whose previous academic performance meets the standards and enrollment goals set by our faculty and Board of Trustees. While we also consider documentation of extenuating circumstances, personal statements, recommendations and family history, decisions are made individually and based primarily on overall academic performance, standardized test scores, and the competitiveness of our applicant pool.”
This is why it’s so important to do well in high school from 9th grade through 11th grade. The fact is that most admissions decisions are based on 8th-11th grade trends; they only look to senior grades at the end to ensure that you continued strongly and didn’t get “Senioritis.”
So bottom line, it’s kind of a moot question as to whether or not they review any supplemental materials you submit. If they ask for materials, or you simply supply them without being asked, your grades and board scores will be what gets their attention. If they do request them, make sure you pay very close attention to what they are asking of you.