A year of decision for six high school seniors
The Monitor follows the months-long college-application process for six diverse students. Part 1 of two.
Each fall, hundreds of thousands of high school seniors navigate an admissions process that begins with a list of colleges they think they might like and ends with a life-changing decision.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
And although each application is but one of several million hitting admissions offices across the country, every student's story is unique. We followed six Boston-area high school seniors from diverse backgrounds through an entire year of college preparation, from their first visit to a campus to their first month in college, checking in periodically to see how they were doing at each stage of the process.
"I always wanted to go to Boston College," says Juan Martinez. "I remember driving through the Heights" – the suburban neighborhood near BC – "as a kid. I loved the bed sheets that the kids hung from their dorm windows. Everything was painted on them … announcements for pep rallies, meeting information, even ones that were just wishing BC students to have a nice day."
Vadilson Pina has known what he's wanted since eighth grade: "Even in middle school during mock trials, I loved law," Vadilson says. "My parents grew up in Cape Verde, where the highest education level is equivalent to middle school, and they definitely encouraged me. I could see myself majoring in bio and math and going to grad school to become a patent lawyer."
Even if they're sure they want to go to college, by the time a prospective student is ready to apply, he or she can find the reality of the process unnerving. How will they stack up against other kids? Will the college they want, want them? Perhaps for the first time, college-bound seniors have to give shape and substance to their hopes for the future.
Part 1: Fall madness
It's October 2006, and each of our six students has worked up a list of potential schools suggested mostly by guidance counselors, parents, teachers, and older friends. (The students also swear by college-search websites like princetonreview.com and "insider info" sites like collegeprowler.com.) All six are looking at liberal arts schools. Only Ruben Solages bases his list on a specific educational program, predentistry, because, he says, "When I was 8, my uncle told me, 'You're smart. You should be a dentist.' Now, whenever I look at anybody, I look at their teeth."
The lists are long; each is looking at eight to 15 colleges. They know from reading countless news stories and college-catalog statistics that they're about to weather a tsunami of competition for admissions. "I'm going to wait until I get into schools before I decide which ones I really want to go to," says Alex McSweeney, "so I don't feel so bad if I get rejected."
College visits are decisive
Their lists begin to morph as soon as they start visiting schools. For some, this process begins the spring of their junior year. Students get a surprisingly quick read on schools from their impressions of other students – both the college kids they meet and the other high-schoolers on their tours. "Nice" comes up a lot, as in, "The kids here seem nice." For David Stasio, the fact that a particular Boston-area college cares enough to put big TVs in the common rooms and run comedy nights for its students makes him feel that the college will take good care of him. An impromptu concert by a men's a capella group during a visit to a school in upstate New York helps catapult it to the top of Alex's list.
Kids lose interest in colleges just as quickly. A stop at a Philadelphia college on a parched summer day gives Emma Forrest the impression that the campus is "kind of lifeless." For Alex, the dorms at a few schools sound alarm bells: "Some are really dark, and the light is like you are in prison." No glossy brochure can trump an in-person visit. Kids see dingy rooms or unkempt lawns, and their interest in the school plummets. At 17, they know themselves well enough to suss out the essentials: Will I feel safe here? Happy? Could these kids be my friends? Is this what I should be doing with my life?