Admissions officials at Swarthmore College suspected last year that an extra 500-word essay on its application might have fueled a 16 percent drop in applicants, the largest in years.

Concerned about the precipitous decline, Swarthmore - one of the most selective and prestigious colleges in the country - deliberately dropped that essay this year and halved the word requirement for another.

Applications soared.

By its Jan. 1 deadline, the college received 7,885 applications - a whopping 42 percent increase.

"To my knowledge, there's never been this big of an increase," said Jim Bock, who has been in Swarthmore admissions office for 18 years, 14 of them as dean.

Concerned about last year's dip, the college made a few other tweaks to its process, so Bock said he was unsure how much the essay changes influenced the boom. But "that was probably a big part of it," he said.

Swarthmore also advertised application-fee waivers for low-income students a month earlier than in past years, and incorporated all of its Swarthmore-specific questions and essay within one application - the Common Application - so no supplement was needed. Colleges were allowed to do that this year.

Admissions officers, too, visited and reached out to more prospective students, he said.

"When you put those things together, it's hard to say which one had the most direct impact," Bock said. "We pulled several levers. . . . We made it more accessible for all applicants."

Swarthmore officials were particularly concerned about reaching students from lower-income families, who may not be able to afford the $60 application fee or have all the opportunities of their peers from more affluent families. The college reminded prospective applicants in mid-November of the fee waiver as opposed to mid-December.

Bock said he didn't see the essay changes as making the applications too easy. Writing a 250-word essay can be harder than writing a 500-word essay, he noted.

But it was clear from the college's survey of high school students who chose not to apply last year that the additional essay was a barrier for some. Swarthmore had been requiring two 500-word essays in its writing supplement, in addition to a standard 650-word essay.

Many selective universities and colleges included only one supplemental essay, often requiring fewer words.

Bock said the increase in applications this year was larger than he had anticipated. Too many?

"The jury's still out on will we tweak again. Maybe so. . . . It is a question: What is the right number? And I think that remains to be seen."

One thing's for sure: It will be harder to get into Swarthmore this year, with so many applicants vying for 418 freshman spots. Last year, the college accepted 17 percent of applicants for 403 spots.