The Question Is . .


Zachary Zaitlin spent months preparing an application essay to send to five to seven colleges. In less than 500 words, he addressed a significant moment in his 17 years of life -- when he was able to affect a relative by playing the piano.

But when he picked up his application to Northwestern University two weeks ago, Zaitlin had four essay questions to choose from on the application. All were specific and thought-provoking. "I thought there would be an option to write whatever you want, but there wasn't," recalled Zaitlin, a senior at Thornton Academy who plans to study musicology. "I kind of panicked."

He has decided to tweak his prepared essay so that it will answer the following question:

"When asked by Pope Boniface VIII to prove his skill as an artist, Giotto (1267-1337) drew a perfect circle freehand. What seemingly simple action would demonstrate your ability or skill and how would it represent you?"

Northwestern's deadline is Jan. 1.
"When asked by Pope Boniface VIII to prove his skill as an artist, Giotto (1267-1337) drew a perfect circle freehand. What seemingly simple action would demonstrate your ability or skill and how would it represent you?"

High school seniors everywhere are tackling essay questions on their college applications, due in the coming months. With the number of applicants increasing, admissions officials and educators say more emphasis is being placed on the essay than ever. Applicants are expected not only to use spell-check, but to write an essay that will get noticed.

"The essay can tip somebody in, especially in a very competitive pool," said Steve Thomas, director of admissions at Colby College. "Something very well-written will be noticed."

About 63 percent of high school students are continuing on to college, compared with 49 percent in 1980. Of the large number of students applying to higher education, many have strong grades and resumes that make them competitive candidates for selective colleges.

Thomas, a former English teacher, said while an essay's spelling, grammar, style and syntax all count, "what stresses (students) out more than anything else is choosing a topic."

For many youths, writing a two-page statement that could determine where they spend the next four years of their life is a daunting task.

"There's a lot of pressure, but you can't be someone you're not," said Karen Stamieszkim, an 18-year-old Cape Elizabeth High School senior. "You have to write what's true to you."

Stamieszkim began thinking about her essay at the end of her junior year, something college consultants highly recommend. She decided to write an essay about her favorite activity, volunteering. For her early decision application to Yale, she included a more recent essay in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "I started thinking about what is consistent in humanity," she said. "What makes me want to be a human being."

Sheila Adkins, a college counselor and owner of The College Connection, said essays are important because "it's the only way to project, beyond their scores, who they are." She advises students to write about one moment in their lives rather than an autobiography.

While most schools allow students to choose their own topic or answer a general question, some of the more selective colleges have questions that leave some young heads spinning for hours.

"A lot of them were crazy, like 'what would you write on a fortune cookie,' " said Deering High School senior Arielle Adams. "I think a lot of schools are no longer depending on SAT scores, but who the person is on the application."
"If you were given five minutes of air time on national television, what would you talk about?"

Gary Canter, an education consultant and owner of College Placement Services, said students now apply to eight colleges instead of two or three to improve their chances of getting into a desirable school. As a result, selective schools are raising application fees and making their applications more rigorous because "they only want the most motivated kids."

"I counsel kids not to buy into that philosophy," said Canter. "To me, it's still a buyer's market."

Cheri Poulin, an English teacher at Thornton Academy and former college admissions officer, said most students want their essays to stand out from the stack, but they should use caution when writing about controversial topics.

"Think about the message you're sending," said Poulin. "There's a fine line between humor and inappropriateness."

The 18-year-old Adams, who is writing four different college essays, said she wants them to "express who I am, and be different, creative and original."

One of her essays reads like a personal ad, and in it Adams describes what kind of college would be her "perfect match." For her application to Northwestern, she is responding to this question: "If you were given five minutes of air time on national television, what would you talk about?"

She describes her answer as a "humorous" approach to a taboo subject.

"I'm writing about my period -- menstruation," said Adams. "There's a lot of things I'm interested in, but I know about my body best . . . It's something to think about and I'm passionate about (gender issues) too."

Selena Ricks can be contacted Beth Murphy, library assistant, contributed research to this story.
Copyright © 2001 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

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