With more students applying to college than ever before, admissions directors are paying especially close attention to essays, interviews, and teacher recommendations.
The "polish" or details in an application - such as insights on how a student spent the summer working in a soup kitchen - are likely to tip the scale as competition increases, say admissions directors.
"A lot of people get good grades, decent scores, and are active," says Ted O'Neill, University of Chicago's dean of admissions. "We are really looking for something that we only find in the essays, teacher letters, and personal interviews - that's what sets them apart."
About 66 percent of high school grads enrolled in college in 1998, compared with 60 percent in 1990, according to the US Department of Education. And this fall, some colleges are already seeing 10 to 25 percent surges in early-decision applications.
Test scores and grades are still important, but competitive schools see elements like the essay as vital in determining who the independent, good thinkers are, and whether the student and school make a good match.
"The essay should mostly be from the heart," recommends Mr. O'Neill. "We're really looking for thoughtfulness and sincerity. Their strengths are shown in their ability to think about important things."
One essay that stood out to him discussed how the smell of the Howard Street "El" stop (for the elevated train) in Chicago brought back memories of a student's first trips into the city. The essay assignment: "Write about something that has enabled you to return to a forgotten part of your past."
Generally, O'Neill says, he can tell if applicants are sincere, and he only occasionally has reason to believe someone didn't write his or her own essay. Admissions officers can spot inconsistencies in style when they look at essays and short answers side by side.
In the interview, schools will often ask students about the books they read and probe to see whether they view the world in a unique way, O'Neill says.
Accomplishments outside the classroom are important, too. To distinguish themselves, students don't need a laundry list of extracurricular activities, nor do they have to do something "flamboyant," O'Neill says. School involvement and other activities, such as a long-term commitment to community service, are well regarded.
Another piece of advice: Make sure a college is a good fit, and know enough about it to customize the application.
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