The college-application process, always angst-ridden, has been more trying for many high school seniors this year. Picking a compelling topic - and standing out from other applicants - is key, so seniors are grappling over whether they should write about that day of unimaginable terror.
They're also worried about lost SAT scores - thousands have failed to surface because of mail disrupted by the anthrax scare.
And at colleges, admissions offices are wringing their hands, worried that the sluggish economy, combined with new fears of flying, could diminish enrollment - especially at expensive private colleges.
About essays, there's no consensus.
"I wouldn't tell students not to write about Sept. 11. Some of the essay questions almost beg students to use that topic," said Pat Tamborello, a guidance counselor at Plymouth-Whitmarsh High School.
A short essay on Northwestern University's application, for instance, asks students what should appear on the next U.S. postage stamp.
"I wrote that the World Trade Center should appear, not only as a reminder of what happened but as a sign that shows we will never forget about it," said Stephanie O'Dea, 17, an Abington senior.
Mark Lapreziosa, admissions director at Arcadia University, will not discourage students from writing about the terrorist attacks. "We read these essays to see how and what students think. So it's better that they write about what's important to them," he said. "We find those more revealing."
Lapreziosa said Arcadia already had seen a flurry of essays about Sept. 11, reminding him of a similar pattern after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.
Others, though, worry that college officials will be so inundated with terror-related material, their eyes will glaze over.
Anthony Mancini, a counselor at Cherry Hill High School East, steers students away from writing about the World Trade Center tragedy. "They need to create essays that reveal something unique about them," he said. "I think it's fair to assume that Sept. 11 has affected us all."
Mark Davies, dean of admissions at Bucknell University, said one student wrote about the Sept. 11 death of her fireman uncle. "Unless the events of that day affected you personally," Davies said, "perhaps it would not be the best thing to write about."
Nevertheless, many students are submitting essays with a Sept. 11 theme. "It's not about doom and gloom. It's about their realization that everything is temporary," Tamborello said. "And that's amazing for teenagers to be talking about, since they think they're invincible."
Patriotism - a topic long dormant among the college-bound - is also a new theme this year. A student seeking admission to Arcadia University, for example, wrote that Sept. 11 "was a day of . . . loss and fear, but it was also the day Americans put away their selfishness."
For some students, the terrorist attacks have crystallized their expected course of study in college.
David Thompson Jr., 17, an Abington senior, said he had long been interested in architecture and applied for an early decision to engineering powerhouse Lehigh University. But since the World Trade Center collapse, Thompson would like to focus more specifically on the engineering questions surrounding skyscrapers - how tall they can safely be built, and how best to construct them in the future.
Adding to student angst was last week's report by the College Board that anthrax-related closures of postal facilities near Trenton caused SAT answer sheets from about 7,800 students to get stuck in the mail.
Students who took the test Oct. 13 at 89 locations in the region and nationwide were affected. The College Board said they could register at no charge for the Dec. 1 SAT, or take a makeup test to be scheduled later next month. They also can ask for a refund.
Locally, the test centers affected are George Washington High in Philadelphia and William Penn Senior High in York.
College officials said they would be flexible with students who encountered mail problems. At some schools, early-decision applications were due Thursday.
Even as students worry about outshining their competitors, colleges have worried that applicant numbers will decline.
Swarthmore College admissions dean Jim Bock expected to see a decline in applications from western states and an increase locally, but so far the reverse has been true.
"Initially, a lot of kids and parents were talking about wanting to stay close to home. But as things have returned to normal, I don't see any trend in that direction," said Mark Pellico, chairman of guidance at Abington High.
Some students are even relying on reverse psychology. Figuring that fewer students will want to apply to Manhattan-based schools, particularly New York University, more are actually expressing interest in applying to NYU, according to several high school counselors.
Educators also worry that tighter scrutiny of the student visa program will cause a drop in international students. But University of Pennsylvania admissions dean Lee Stetson said that early-decision applications from foreign students were up 17 percent.
Officials say that, since filing an application requires no risk on the student's part, the real test will come next spring, when students must commit to a school.
James M. O'Neill's e-mail address is email@example.com.
For More Information
Students concerned about SAT score delays can call the Educational Testing Service at 609-771-7600, or check the College Board Web site at www.collegeboard.com.