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.
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?
Once they open their first application package, the world becomes a giant to-do list: Request teacher recommendations and grades; create a sports résumé; make a music CD/art portfolio; have SAT scores sent to colleges; write essays; and apply for scholarships, financial aid, and special awards. All six students feel a first rush of stress trying to comprehend all the pieces of the application. Says David: "Applying to college in general is a huge thing, but deciding where to apply and getting all the deadlines and such – it seems more stressful than time-consuming."
Applying takes much longer, and the process is more complicated, than anyone expects. By Thanksgiving, everyone is feeling the pressure of looming application deadlines (November for early decision, as early as Dec. 15 for regular decision). Alex and Juan start in the summer, Ruben waits until the last minute, and the others work off and on all fall. Regardless of hours logged, all feel an emotional toll. "This takes a lot of time," says Emma. "I spent a lot of the summer visiting colleges, which was worthwhile, because that gave me the best sense of whether I wanted to go there. I also spent a lot of time filling out applications and writing essays and generally figuring out the application process. And I worr[ied] – not so much about whether I will get into schools, but about what it will be like once I get there."
Most file applications online
All but one submit the online common application (www.commonapp.org) currently accepted by 300 institutions (the organization predicts their two-millionth submission by the end of this year). Students register at the site and then work online, saving revisions until they are ready to apply. There are two essays required: the "short answer," a 150-word piece about one of the student's activities, and the legendary "personal essay," a 250-to-500-word piece on either a topic of the student's choosing or on one of five sample topics (for example: "Discuss some issue of personal, local, national or international concern and its importance to you").
The six students concur: It makes sense to write your college essays during the summer. Only one of the six does so, but the rest wish they had. "You do not need college apps hanging over your head first semester senior year," warns Juan. (And here's one more surprise the students note: Although the "common application" makes multiple submissions easier, each college adds a supplement – often requiring short essays – that increases the workload.)
Vadilson writes about basketball, Emma about costuming a theater piece, Alex about a friendship, Ruben about his mother. What they all have in common is multiple drafts – Emma, for example, does eight. And although professionals advise parents to let students manage and complete their college applications on their own, the truth is that all six of these seniors ask for assistance, from help polishing their essays to gathering complicated financial information.
One click of the "submit" button sends the application forms to all the schools on each student's list at once, and most kids can tell you exactly when and where they were when they hit that button. Even a year afterward, Juan remembers: "It was a dress day, so I was in my school tie and full-on, dress-day apparel. I sat on the comfy couch in my student lounge and had three of my good friends around me. They were there with me when I hit the 'send' button and to high-five me afterward."
Hopes are high. Vadilson applies early to BC and Villanova. Emma is leaning toward a women's college – Smith, Mt. Holyoke, maybe Bryn Mawr. Alex wants to go to Skidmore, Juan has his heart set on BC, and Ruben is impressed with his visit to the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.
David's not sure now if he will apply to a four-year school, and takes some time to think it all through.
For now, they've done what they can do. And although college is never far away from a high school senior's thoughts, they've earned this bit of calm.
r Part 2, Nov. 1: Big envelopes, small envelopes. Where will the students go?