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High-achieving sisters hang together at AU

Freshmen descend on Washington area's universities in a blur of motion as they haul in their can't-live-without dorm paraphernalia and meet their fellow students. For one family, American University is now home to three sisters.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010

Four-fifths of the sport-utility vehicles queuing up behind the entrance to Letts Hall on a muggy move-in day at American University carried students who had finished in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

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Even in that distinguished company, the Esson clan from Cleveland merited notice: Meghan and Moira, the valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively, of Brunswick High School, with grade-point averages separated by one-hundredth of a point. Older sister Kaitlin, an AU junior who was valedictorian of Brunswick High two years ago. Mother Irene, who was valedictorian of her high school class. And father Michael, who was valedictorian of his.

"Kind of runs in the blood, I guess," said Moira, 17, pausing to rest Saturday after the eight-hour road trip and a blur of unpacking comfort-top mattress covers and rented kitchen appliances.

AU welcomed a 1,500-student freshman class last weekend with red, white and blue balloons, one of the first universities in the region to open for the fall term. Howard and Trinity Washington universities also welcomed their new students last weekend. Move-in day arrives this week at the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia, on Tuesday at James Madison University and late next week at many other schools, including Georgetown, George Mason and George Washington universities, and the University of Maryland.

The days before the start of classes are a time for purchasing textbooks and locating mailboxes, and also for ceremony and giddy moments of bonding. In one of the odder events, nearly 4,000 freshmen at James Madison will gather on the quad next Thursday to celebrate the human genome through dance.

Entire families of valedictorians are rare. But in the upper tier of big-name universities in the Washington area, students like Meghan and Moira Esson are no longer so uncommon.

Applicant numbers have doubled in the past 10 to 20 years at some schools, driven both by a growing college-bound population and surging interest in top-ranked institutions. Admission rates are down, and the caliber of admitted students is up.

AU's Class of 2014 has an average SAT score of 1275 out of 1600 possible points in reading and math, and an average high school grade-point average of 3.79. The admit rate was 43.5 percent, the lowest in university history. The share of students who finished in the top 10 percent of their high school class stands at an all-time high.

At William and Mary, 79 percent of entering freshmen finished in the top 10 percent of their class. At GWU, the average freshman finished in the 91st percentile. And more than 90 percent of incoming freshmen at U-Va. ranked in the top 10 percent of their class, for the first time.

Just close enough

On the AU campus in Northwest Washington, Moira and Meghan settled into dorm rooms that were separate but nearly adjacent, each woman throwing in her lot with two roommates who had yet to reveal themselves. Meghan got the first choice of beds and selected the upper bunk by the window. Moira got the last choice, a loft-style perch five feet off the ground and next to the door. (Meghan later switched beds with a roommate after repeatedly hitting her head on the ceiling.)

The sisters thought sharing a room might be a bit much. "But knowing that she's here is so important," Meghan said.

Kaitlin was the first Esson to enroll at AU, choosing the Northwest school after falling in love with Washington during a two-week visit with a youth leadership group in her sophomore year of high school. Moira followed Kaitlin. Meghan followed Moira, picking American over Sarah Lawrence College with dramatic flourish on the day before the registration deadline.

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