Mr. Mailman, bring me a dream ... college

To learn of admissions decisions, some also check online – every hour

When Susan Hosack arrived home at 2:30 one afternoon last week, she was surprised at first to see that her mail had already been retrieved from the mailbox and was strewn all over the kitchen counter.

But quickly she grasped what had happened. Her son, Brett Shaheen, a 12th-grader, had dashed to his home in a suburb of St. Louis during study hall to see if any college acceptance letters had come in the mail, then scurried back to classes. "He's been on pins and needles all week," Ms. Hosack says.

It's that time of year, when high school seniors who have to be prompted more than once to clean their rooms, set the table, or take out the trash are suddenly enamored with retrieving the family mail. Indeed, haunting the mailbox may be a more apt description.

It's college admissions season. Overachieving high school seniors nationwide have put four years of hard work behind them and replaced it with handwringing – waiting impatiently for the gods of enrollment to decide their fate.

Brett applied to 13 schools and is still waiting to hear from three. And it's not just the mailbox he's checking. About half of his notifications have been delivered via the Internet. He says he's been going online roughly 30 times a day to check on his status. Some schools send an e-mail letter of acceptance or rejection, others provide a password that allows an applicant to check a special database to see if they're in.

Brett is a football player, a nationally ranked squash player, a concert pianist, editor of the school newspaper, chairman of the diversity task force, and a part-time employee at a racquet club. He sports a 3.8 grade-point average and has been accepted at a roster of top schools that reads like a U.S. News Top 10 list. But he's aiming higher still.

"I find the rejections are very disappointing, but the acceptances are to a certain extent anticlimactic, I guess because I haven't gotten into my top choice yet."

While early April used to be prime admissions season, colleges seem to be sending out their notifications earlier each year – especially those not among the top two dozen or so institutions, which are hoping to get a leg up on their elite cousins.

"A few years ago, colleges mailed their decisions more or less at the same time – usually the last few days of March and first days of April. But as the competition for students has ratcheted up, many admission directors feel that you have an advantage if your admission letter hits the mailbox first," says Nancy Donehower, an independent college counselor based in Portland, Ore.

She says there are pros and cons to this reasoning, but the cons seem to be lost on most schools. As a result, seniors' period of anxiety is being stretched from a few days to four or five weeks.

In Carverville, Pa., Kiira Naftulin says if she had to do it all over again she'd apply to "way more" schools. Her older sister applied to only one, early, and got in. So when it was Kiira's turn she also applied to only one school, a state university in New England that promised to give her an answer in six to eight weeks. That was in October.

By early December the senior at Central Bucks East High School was doubting her strategy, and hedged her bet by applying to the University of Colorado and the University of New Hampshire. Then the waiting began.

"I was the last one of all my peers to hear," she says. "Everyone else had gotten into at least one school. It was very nerve-racking." She checked e-mail every day as well as the regular mail when she got home from her after-school job. Usually her mother retrieved it, but one day Kiira happened to be first to the mailbox.

Her heart sank when she found a thin envelope from the University of New Hampshire. But when she ripped it open, a postcard fell out congratulating her on being admitted. "The first feeling I had was absolute relief," she says. "It wasn't even like happy, just relieved that I had an option."

Soon she received a thick correspondence from the University of Colorado that announced right on the envelope: "Congratulations, you are Colorado bound." Indeed, she plans to enroll at Boulder. Meanwhile the state university where she originally applied still hasn't informed her of its decision.

"They can just forget it," she says.

Blake Smith, a senior at Heritage Hall in Oklahoma City, applied to 10 schools, ranging from Stanford in California to Vanderbilt in Tennessee, and heard back from most of them last week. By Friday, he was wrung out. "It was a pretty intense week," he says. "I called home from school just about every day to see what was in the mail, and I was checking my e-mail every hour on the hour."

In fact, stuck in English class first hour, he didn't have access to the Internet, but his little sister did. An eighth-grader in an adjacent building, she went online and checked the Harvard website, using a password. Even though the news wasn't good, she printed out the school's decision and rushed it over to her brother.

But news from his top two choices came through regular mail, on the same day. He found a thick envelope from Pomona College – stuffed with curriculum and financial-aid material – a sure sign of acceptance. Just below it was a thin envelope from Stanford, a dreaded rejection. "It was kind of a bittersweet day," he says.

Not all high school seniors twist themselves into knots over the process. Mike Petkovich, a classmate of Brett Shaheen's at MICDS, a private school in the western St. Louis suburbs, applied to 17 colleges. So far he has been accepted by eight. He ranks the schools in three categories: "safe, stretch, and extra, extra stretch."

He received an acceptance from the University of Missouri several months ago, which removed the always-pesky concern about not being accepted anywhere. From then on, the acceptances and rejections have alternated, though last week he was rejected by his two "extra, extra stretch" schools on the same day.

"I didn't really care; I expected it," he says. "You sort of know where you're going to be rejected and where you're going to be accepted." Currently he plans to attend the University of Richmond in Virginia and says he's very excited about it.

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