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A life story, in 500 words or less A torturous procedure: The self-revealing essay is unquestionably the hardest part of filling out a college application, according to this high school senior.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Thousands of Maryland high school seniors are filling out college applications this month. It is a time-consuming, costly and, for some, torturous procedure. A big part of the task is an essay, designed for college aspirants to reveal something of themselves, their plans and their dreams, and to show off their writing skills.

Meghan Cronin, an intern at The Sun and a senior at Howard High School in Ellicott City, is in the midst of the application process. Education Beat asked her to write a guest article about the college essay. WITH COLLEGE application deadlines looming in early January, I've become a machine, whipping out essay after essay in an attempt to finish before Christmas break. It's one of life's stressful experiences.

The essay is unquestionably the most difficult part of the application. After filling in my Social Security number, grade point average and Scholastic Assessment Test scores, I have to pour out my most deeply held thoughts in 500 words or less. On the basis of these thoughts, a stranger who works for the school of my dreams will judge my personality.

Most colleges and universities require applicants to submit at least one essay, generally a personal statement, in response to some sort of "tell us more about yourself" prompt.

Paul T. White, the Johns Hopkins University's director of admissions, remembers a personal statement from several years ago, submitted by a young man who went on to become a Rhodes scholar.

"He wrote about his father reading to him when he was a child and instilling in him a love of writing," Mr. White recalled. His response conveyed the closeness between father and son, as well as a love for literature that resulted from their interaction.

"It's still one of my favorite essays," says Mr. White.

A well-formulated personal statement is key to college applicants because it can be twisted, turned, reshaped and reworked to fit different needs. Because I couldn't narrow my choices, I decided to apply to nine schools. If I didn't have an essay that could be recycled, I'd still be applying in 1997.

My personal essay is versatile, however, and with some adjustments, I can use it for every application, including the University of Pennsylvania's ("You have just finished your 300-page autobiography. Send us page 217.") and Stanford's ("Send us a photograph and explain its significance.").

Some students use the personal statement as an opportunity to express humor or something distinctive or bizarre about themselves. One applicant wrote a detailed "how-to" account of eating Oreo cookies. Another submitted a plea to Rice University that his pet elephant be admitted with him. As the student pointed out, if the elephant didn't meet classroom standards, he would always provide a good shower. (Both are examples found in "Essays That Worked," a collection of successful college essays.)

According to a Johns Hopkins official, many colleges and universities find that dull questions elicit dull responses. As a result, many schools are turning to more offbeat prompts.

Johns Hopkins changed its essay format this year to give students a choice from among four creative essay possibilities in addition to a required "Why is Hopkins a Good Match for Me?"

The school's choice is designed to appeal to students in different areas of study. For example, engineering hopefuls may choose to respond to the following: "Take a piece of wire, a Hopkins car window sticker, an egg carton and any inexpensive hardware store item and write an essay about your invention."

"We wanted to try something different to allow applicants to demonstrate creativity," says Mr. White. The admissions office has already received one applicant's model of an invention, although building one isn't required.

My favorite offbeat essay topic is from the University of Chicago, which requires applicants to write a dialogue that meets these criteria: One, it involves two people meeting at the frozen food section of a supermarket, and it incorporates the applicant's favorite country song. And two, it includes one line each from pages 1, 13, 31 and 107 of a novel. (The college suggests "Sister Carrie" by Theodore Dreiser.)

Cindy Cruz, an admissions officer at the University of Chicago, hopes her school's essay choices will provide the applicants a refreshing break from monotonous personal statements.

"Students have to write the same things over and over," she said. "We want to make [the essays] interesting for them."

Although admissions counselors argue over the importance of the essay, few can dispute its significance as one of the few opportunities for a personal glimpse of the applicant. "Everyone looks like a manila folder," says Rich Edgar, director of admissions at St. Mary's College in Maryland. Unlike test scores and grades, the essay is an applicant's chance to stand out.

Envisioning what might please a college official can be brutal. Bo Dixon, headmaster at McDonogh School, offers to read his seniors' essays and give advice from the point of view of an overworked, sleep-deprived admissions officer. "It's one in the morning, I'm reading your essay, but I have 15 more before I climb into bed," says Mr. Dixon, who reads between 70 and 80 essays a year.

For those of us who can't turn to a Bo Dixon, parents often do the trick. My parents (bless them) have read and commented on every word written for my nine applications. Other students seek advice from teachers, friends or guidance counselors before settling for a final draft.

If revision is the key to successful writing, my essay's a winner. Are you listening, College Park? Listening, Stanford? Columbia? University of Virginia?

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