It was a three-day, two-night marathon.

At Haverford College, about 40 rising seniors from Philadelphia public high schools across the city hunched over the most important piece of writing of their academic careers: the pivotal college essay.

With the help of volunteer coaches from Philadelphia Futures, a nonprofit group that prepares students from low-income families for college success, the students composed draft after draft after draft, searching for the right words, the right details to create a self-portrait that shows college admissions officers who they are, and what sets them apart.

"Basically, you have to prove yourself," Luis Miranda, 17, said during a break. Handsome and soft-spoken, Miranda lives in Kensington and goes to Edison High, where roughly only a quarter of 11th graders read and do math at grade level. "You have something to prove."

The marathon also served to improve writing skills and introduce students to the rigors of senior life.

"In school, I don't do much that challenges me," said student Jamal Robinson, "and Futures pushes me."

For Philadelphia Futures, the mission is simple: get students to and through college. The work begins as early as ninth grade through long-term mentoring, academic enrichment, college guidance, and financial help as part of its Sponsor-a-Scholar initiative. The motto is, "Make it happen, no matter what."

"We want these students to have a vision for themselves," executive director Joan Mazzotti said.

Since the initiative began in 1990, about 895 students have completed the high school portion of the program. Of those, 370 have earned postsecondary degrees, 328 from four-year schools. That graduation rate represents 41 percent of Futures scholars, a rate much higher than the national average for low-income, first-generation college students.

This fall, 45 Futures scholars among the Class of 2011 will head to college. On average, 98 percent of the program's students pursue postsecondary education.

The journey is often rife with challenges, such as dwindling financial aid, the reality of living in rough neighborhoods, and gaps in academic performance.

One Class of 2011 valedictorian, Mazzotti laments, had an SAT score in the low 600s. The student's mother thought her son could apply to any four-year university. Now a mentor had to explain the benefits of community college.

"Imagine the look on that mother's face," program coordinator Gabriel Bryant said.

To close the gap for male students, particularly African American and Latino males, who statistically lag behind in college attainment, Bryant started a Young Men's Initiative. The added supports include roundtable discussions, a film club, a Leading Man newsletter, networking events, business-card exchanges, and regular camping trips.

"We have tried to provide a pathway," Bryant said, "that breaks the cycle of violence and uneducation, and present a college culture that allows these guys to have a proper understanding of manhood and a future."

Miranda, who ended his junior year at Edison with a 3.9 GPA, aims to boost his SAT score and save money for college. He has worked at a barbershop since he was 13. Outside school, Futures, and work, he does not have time for much else.

Miranda said his troubled neighborhood gave him a reason to go to college. He plans to study criminal justice, explaining simply, "I like law."

He begins his essay, "Tires screeching, windows busting, blood everywhere," describing a car crash that left him on crutches for two months during his junior year, and his father out of work.

"It just made me realize how you can't take life for granted," Miranda explained of why he chose that moment. "Life is too short. And you should take every opportunity that comes your way, no matter how hard the struggle."

Contact staff writer Kia Gregory at 215-854-2601, kgregory@phillynews.com, or @kiagregory on Twitter.