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College Application Essay Increasing in Importance

With deadlines looming, it's the time of year when students get in a frenzy about writing the all-important college application essay.

Their angst is not misplaced. The essay was rated of "considerable importance" in the admission decision by 27 percent of admissions officers in 2009, compared to 14 percent in 1993, according to the 2010 College Admissions Report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

With so many more students applying to college now and increased competition for spots at selective schools, the essay is a quick way to get a thumbnail sketch of an applicant, says David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the NACAC. It's a way to get a sense of the applicant's writing ability and personality, he says.

"Convey something of yourself and be genuine about it," advises Hawkins. Avoid coming off sounding arrogant or too verbose. The college is trying to get a feel if you are someone they want on their campus—someone they'd like to meet.

From an admissions officer's perspective, students should limit the number of applications they submit to the number they can do well, says Hawkins. Students need to devote sufficient attention and leave themselves enough time for the essay.

So, how much help should you get?

"It's perfectly acceptable to have a parent, counselor, or teacher take a look at it," says Hawkins. "But it's so important for students to write it themselves."

There are lots new online services, such as Essay Exchange and Ivy Ally selling examples of college essays. While helpful to get a sense of what works, Hawkins cautions not to rely too much on generic, canned essays as templates. Admissions officers can see patterns and identify essays that look alike.

Plagiarism is nothing new when it comes to essays, but the Internet makes it easier for students. There is no reason to expose yourself to the ethical dilemma and risk a college seeing an essay that's already been used, says Hawkins.

It does happen, however. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education revealed one writer's booming business of writing application essays, papers, and even theses for pay.

Finally, remember to answer the question, stick to the word count, and proof read your essay carefully. There's nothing like a typo to help an admissions officer winnow down the pile—even if it's otherwise a great paper.

And to keep some perspective: While the essay matters, it's not the most critical factor. The NACAC survey shows grades in college preparatory courses and strength of curriculum were considered by colleges to be the top factors in the admission decision, followed closely by admission test scores and grades in all courses.

For more advice on essay writing, check out the College Board's website.

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