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College admissions essays bring angst for students

Associated Press | 9/17/2008, 5:13 a.m.

The SAT scores are in, the GPA is established, teachers’ impressions are formed, and there’s only limited time to beef up the resume of extracurricular activities and community services.

By the time high school seniors start filling out their college applications, much of what admissions officers will use to give a thumb’s up or down is set. No wonder there’s such angst over the college admissions essay.

So much so that assisting students with their essays has become a big business, the subject of books and counseling and editing services.

How much does the essay really matter?

“Applicants and their families have somewhat of a belief in the redemptive value of the essay,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “It’s an urban myth that a student who has goofed off his whole academic career can get in with a come-from-behind epic struggle in which the essay serves as the primary tool.”

“It’s not a substitute for a rigorous curriculum, good grades and evidence that you’re going to do well,” he said.

Still, the essay can make a difference.

At the University of Virginia, Parke Muth, the associate dean of admissions, talks about the “10 percent rule.”

“If you have 18- or 20,000 applicants, for some of those students, the essay makes a huge difference, both positively and negatively,” he said.

Admissions counselors at the University of Virginia read every essay looking for the student’s voice.

The first challenge for the writer: picking a topic.

Any topic can work — or fail, Muth said.

“It shouldn’t be an essay about community service. It should be about a moment of time,” he said. “Start writing an essay about John who you met at a homeless shelter who talked to you about his life. Like any piece of good writing, then you’re going to make that come alive.”

The biggest problem for students, he said, is starting with too wide a focus.

“By the time they get to the details, they run out of space,” he said. “I’m all for cutting to the chase.”

Many schools ask open-ended questions. Last year’s common application, used by scores of colleges and universities around the country, asked students to discuss an issue of personal concern, a person, fictional character or historic figure who influenced them, a life experience or a topic of their choice.

Hilary Brandenburg, who will attend New York University in the fall, wrote about her summer internship at fashion house Liz Claiborne in New York.

“I used my experience as a way to frame myself and what I was interested in studying at the schools that I applied to,” said Brandenburg, 18, of Washington, D.C.

“I had a lot of different topics I started,” she said. “At school we were told to come up with a list of anything we thought would be interesting about ourselves. We went through a lot of workshops and they gave us prompts and then we had to think about ourselves.”