When high school seniors suddenly start disappearing from class during the first two weeks of April, most teachers know where to find them: near the mailbox.
Forget actually going to college. The college-admissions "process," as it is now known at many schools, is a rite of passage in and of itself - and a highly public one at that. Senior year used to be simply punctuated by application demands. But it's been transformed into a sustained, yearlong drive toward acceptance, during which seniors must expose their deepest thoughts to anonymous admissions committees, spend long hours prepping for high-stakes standardized tests, and come to terms with lifelong friends now playing the role of main competitor.
Yet as the competition gets tougher every year, making admission even to "safety" schools unpredictable, many students are finding creative ways to deal with the pressure that escalates with the culmination of the whole process - the day the letter arrives.
At Philips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, N.H., April 3 was the big day, when letters from a large number of Ivy League schools arrived. Senior William Frazier told a friend to meet him at the school's post office that morning for moral support - and then went over even earlier by himself, unable to stand the suspense any longer.
"We've been waiting since December," the Cleveland native explains. "It's just nerve-wracking. I couldn't sleep at night."
William was accepted at Georgetown and Yale Universities. But several of his friends were less fortunate, which put him in an awkward position. "You have to be modest," he says, even though "you want to scream at the top of your lungs."
Sarah Laszlo, a classmate of William's, heard from three schools on April 3: University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern, where she was accepted, and the University of California at Berkeley, where she was rejected. Of course, she'd already gotten into MIT the week before, which took some of the pressure off.
"That day was the most tense, terrible day," she says. "People were all standing there [in the school post office], they would have their stack of letters, open them, read the first line, and either put them aside or throw them away."
Still, she says, getting rejected was made somewhat easier for everyone by watching other students go through the exact same thing.
Indeed, many seniors seem to find new camaraderie in rejection. Several dorms at Exeter have what students call a "wall of shame" and a "wall of fame," where seniors post their rejection and acceptance letters - a way of coping that has cropped up at other high-pressure prep schools.
While to some the walls may sound like the equivalent of being put in the stocks, William, who was rejected from New York University and Columbia University, insists that "it really helps make you feel better."
And even a rejection has a positive side: It puts an end to the yearlong ordeal. Exeter's college counselor, Mark Davis, says that one of the more disturbing trends he's seen is the increasing number of students who apply early, making the waiting period that much longer.
"It sort of fed the frenzy," he explains. Since the likelihood of getting in early is no better, it merely "front-loads the whole process," and leads to more deferrals.
Moreover, many schools are uncertain about how many students will actually come once accepted, so they beef up their waiting lists. Some students find themselves not only deferred in December, but then wait-listed in April - so they don't get a definite answer until May or June.
And these days, it's not just top-name schools that are stringing students along. Many big state schools are equally competitive and sought after. "Schools like the University of Virginia and University of North Carolina are as selective as the Ivies in some cases," says Mr. Davis. "Plus the financial factor is huge."
Ironically, this widespread competition is starting to topple some stereotypes when it comes to prestige. "The traditional understandings of who is more selective ... really may not stand the test of time," Davis says. "Things change very quickly. NYU is a great example - their selectivity has risen so sharply that it's caught us off guard."
Although many students continue to see Ivy League schools as the top prize, there's some evidence that this is beginning to change. Sarah is choosing MIT over Penn, for example, and William jokingly admits that he was initially drawn to Yale because he liked the school colors.
After all, "admission to a particular college really isn't the reward for a good high school career - it's the next step," says Davis. And, he adds flatly, "the Ivy League is a football conference."
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