Uh, uh. Nope.
No, not every essay is read, even if it has been requested as part of your application...but you probably will never know whether or not they have read it.
Institutions that are interested in an essay will specifically state that they require the essay. But the fact is, if your grades and board scores are excellent, they probably won’t look at your essay or letters of recommendation. Sometimes they don't even look at the essay no matter what your academic record looks like.
Certain colleges, especially the small private institutions, will have faculty and admissions committees read the entire application, including the essay. But this is not common.
Many institutions are moving toward automatic “review” of applications. In other words, there is an algorithm on the backend (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 has 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 advantage.
Now, if the machine says you are “out,” the admissions staff will 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 be 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.
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. 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 on a student’s past successes or challenges – which 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.”
One more point about essays: A seasoned admissions officer can tell if you’ve written the essay yourself; if your Mom or Dad wrote it; or if you bought it off the Internet. We’d rather see errors in the writing of a wonderful and unique essay than perfect writing in a boring, uninformative essay (or in an essay that does not pertain to what has been requested.) But you would be wise to have whatever you’ve written be proofread: Spell check won’t cut it; it has to be a human being.