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They studied hard for three years with an eye on their GPAs, took college admissions tests multiple times and devoted hours to sports practice or play rehearsals, community service projects or clubs.
They spent weekends touring college campuses with their families and hours at the dinner table talking school size and location, and public university versus private.
Now one last hurdle lies ahead for high school seniors wrapping up their college applications: Writing a 250-word-minimum personal essay— one that will introduce them to the school, showcase their individuality and give them an edge among thousands of other students in the college application pool.
"Colleges want to see some color, they want to see some character come through. They (applicants) all look the same on paper, so they’re looking for something for the student to stand out," said Alan Iachini, supervisor of school counseling at Bridgewater-Raritan High School.
About 80 percent of four-year colleges require essays or writing samples, according to a 2009 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. With the number of college applications rising — more students graduated high school in 2009 than ever before, and students are applying to more schools, thanks in large part to the ease of filing online — many colleges and universities are attaching more weight to essays as a way to sort through the pile.
"It’s hard to be unique when everyone’s trying to be unique," said Astrid Adriaens, 17, a senior at Westfield High School, who plans to write about her family’s Belgian heritage. She said this is the first writing assignment she’s had where "you hand something in and it’s yes or no."
Westfield classmate Peter Surace, 17, whose essay is about a decision that caused him to grow, said choosing a topic was easy, "but to be yourself on paper is very hard."
He said he’s heard college admissions counselors look at each essay for just minutes. "You have three minutes to stand out," he said.
Essays have been a part of the admission process since at least early in the last century, when attending college was largely a privilege of the elite and getting in may have required a day-long personal interview and a writing sample done on the spot.
In the College Admission Counseling survey, which included responses from 300 to 400 colleges, the top factors cited in admission decisions were still academics: A student’s grades in college prep courses, strength of curriculum he or she took, standardized test scores and overall GPA.
But a growing number of schools — 27 percent, more than twice the percentage fifteen years earlier — now rank the essay as "considerably important."
Private schools consider essays important more often than public ones, and among "selective" colleges and universities, which accept fewer than 50 percent of applicants, some 56.6 percent attach "considerable importance" to the written pieces.
David Hawkins, the association’s public policy director, said many colleges see the essay as a way to tell who would best fit their school — and who would be most likely to attend if accepted.
"Many college deans will say they get thousands and thousands of applications from highly-qualified students," Hawkins said. "An admission office might be trying to decide between similarly qualified candidates. And in some cases, it may boil down to the essay."
At the College of New Jersey, Assistant Director of Admissions Matt Middleton said essays are the "icebreaker scenario" that can help a student who is "on the bubble." TCNJ receives about 10,000 applications per year, and has 10 counselors reviewing them, he said.
Peter Nacy, Seton Hall University’s assistant vice president for admissions, said a good essay there can make the difference between a student’s being accepted in a particular major or not, and even between the level of scholarship a student receives.
Seton Hall gets about 14,000 applications a year. Nacy said admissions officials sometimes send a personal note to students if they enjoyed an essay.
"I’m not saying it’s an easy process, but college isn’t easy," he said. "It’s the first time they’ve been asked to perform."
The College of New Jersey’s Middleton said the first paragraph is key: "You’ve got to get the counselor’s interest going."
He said most essays tend to fall into three categories — how a student persevered in a class or an activity; the most influential person, "inevitably a parent or a family member"; and occasionally something "a little more creative."
"It’s OK to write about relatives or experiences on the soccer field, but you’ve got to find an interesting twist. Before you pick your topic, think, ‘Is this the kind of topic ten other people in my class will write about?’ If the answer is yes, steer clear of it," he said.
Drew University’s vice president for enrollment management, Alyssa McCloud, said, "I don’t know there’s anything they shouldn’t write about."
"What we’re primarily looking for is some insight into who the student is and what’s important to them," she said. "We’re looking for additional substance that will help us get to know the applicant."
With the increased focus on essays also comes increased concern about plagiarism. Rob Killion, executive director of Common Application’s Board of Directors, said they are evaluating plagiarism detection services, after being contacted by different firms. No decision has been made.
Turnitin for Admissions, which sells plagiarism detection services, last year launched a program for college admissions. Company product and business development manager Jeff Lorton estimated that as many as 15 percent of admissions essays may involve plagiarism or misused content.
With all of the focus on essays, many student and their families are looking for help.
Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, said the number of college consultants in the United States has grown from about 1,500 five years ago, to nearly 7,000 now.
Consultant Lisa Bleich of Westfield said she works with about 25 students a year on the college search, including helping with the essay. She said she does not write the essays, however. "Of course not. That’s the biggest taboo," she said.
A former professor, Bleich said she helps students find their "voice" by asking questions, so they can write the essay "that only they can tell."
Robyn Solomon, a school counselor at Westfield High School, five years ago started a workshop to help seniors through the "stressful" job of writing their essays.
A former English teacher, Solomon said if students lack a topic, she helps them brainstorm and suggests they "just start free writing."
"It’s really a reflective piece on yourself," she said. "You want to come out of the essay knowing more about the student."
One 2010 Westfield graduate, Jennifer Cortese, 18, said she felt more stress about the essay than the SATs. She said her grades were a little below the range at many of her targeted schools, so, "I knew a lot of my application was riding on the essay."
The former high school drum major’s final essay, about her fondness for reptiles, was praised by her guidance counselor, Liz McDermott, and helped her win acceptance at 6 of 7 colleges where she applied. Cortese is now in her first year at Temple University.
"I really wanted to show the colleges that I was applying to exactly who I was," she said. "Once I realized exactly what I wanted to get across, it was no longer intimidating."