College bound: When schools reply, the real decision looms

Applicants face a new deadline and a sharper choice: Where do they really want to go?

Each fall, hundreds of thousands of high school seniors navigate an admissions process that begins with a list of colleges and ends with a life-changing decision.

Though each application is but one of several million hitting admissions offices nationwide, every student's story is unique. We followed six Boston-area high-school seniors from diverse backgrounds through their year of college preparation, from their first visit to a campus to their first month as a college student, checking in periodically to see how they were doing at each stage of the process.

There's a bright, happy bubble between the time applications are finished and when decision letters arrive: Until then, every application is a potential "yes." In January and February, the kids relax a bit and reconnect with friends and schoolwork. But the college process is never far away, as most exchanges with the world of adults – even strangers – narrow to one note. Says Alexandra McSweeney, "I must say that the common two questions from every person I encounter – 'Do you know where you want to go to college?' and 'What are you majoring in?' – are getting old."

Decision letters begin arriving as early as February. "It is impossible, waiting for the mail to come," says Juan Martinez. He's on edge when a letter from Boston College arrives, "'cause at that point I knew it was where I really wanted to go." He'd been accepted. "I danced around my house for a bit and then flew to my mom's office to share the good news.… It was a great day."

Acceptance rates for these students range from 28 to 83 percent; most get a mix of acceptances, rejections, and wait-listings. It is the most stressful part of the whole process for Vadilson Pina. Not only is he waiting for decisions, but he's also waiting for financial aid offers. "It's a big factor in my decision," he says.

Juan recounts his roller-coaster of a year: "Once I sent everything in, the waiting became the killer. Those four months were torture. Then after I got the letters, it became the anticipation of going away to school."

Kids who applied to "safety" schools because they were pretty sure they'd get in, are indeed accepted – then wish they'd applied only where they'd wanted to go. Juan, for example, wishes he could have saved his parents the application fee for a school in Pennsylvania because "there's no way I would've gone," he says now. Others discover that when facing the real, final choices, they need to take a second look at schools they'd previously dismissed. Still others find themselves devastated at a closed door, vacillating between two choices, or worried they don't really know what they want. Rather than ending with decision letters, the college process intensifies. "It is difficult waiting for the mail every day, but the decision process is almost more stressful than waiting, because now it's all up to me," says Alex. Vadilson agrees: "I think a lot about if I'm going to make it on my own."

One by one, and for some it's a lot easier than others, all six students come to their decision. Emma chooses Smith, for many reasons but mostly because of the STRIDE (Student Research in Departments) program, where she'll get to work one-on-one with a faculty member. Vadilson will head to Haverford. "It's small and will help me in my transition," he says.

Ruben Solages will become a day student at Regis College, which has the predentistry program he wants. It's closer to home than the University of Hartford, and, as he admits with a shy grin, "My mom needs me. And I need my mom."

Alex is wait-listed at Skidmore, so chooses the University of Vermont instead, which has a good vet school and riding stable. Juan's heading to BC in the fall – no contest. In August, David will register for classes at Bunker Hill Community College.

Biggest factors: finances, 'fitting in'

What mattered most, in the end? These students were remarkably savvy about family finances and college costs. Juan applied only to Jesuit schools, because he could go tuition-free as the son of an employee of a Jesuit school. Haverford's financial package was a big determining factor in Vadilson's decision to go there rather than BC. David Stasio, who has worked to help support his family since he was a sophomore, "didn't want to be ridden with loans. I don't want to be paying off debt for 30 years." Five of the six talked about money as a major factor. For some, it was the decisive one.

Just as important, maybe more so, was the deeply personal "fitting-in factor." All six needed to feel at home, to feel as if they could belong. "I could imagine myself walking around there, going to classes there," says Emma about Smith.

Not surprisingly, the students who were focused – who knew what they wanted – had more success with their top choices than the kids who hadn't yet found their path. Students who could be articulate, both on paper and in conversation with adults, also had an edge. But skillful communication wasn't everything: Experienced admissions staff consider the student's complete case to create a fuller picture. It makes sense, for instance, that Emma was looking to study history. She'd spent time as a Civil War reenactor, was involved in a local historical society, took two AP history courses, and received a perfect 800 on her SAT II history test. The better the students were at conveying who they were during the application process, the more likely they'd be accepted at the college that best suited them.

Surprises and disappointments came with the territory, but most important, all six students were ultimately pleased with their final choice. Come graduation, they finally knew what the future held, at least as far as they could see it.

Looking back from chosen college

The end of the story goes like this: David will start at Bunker Hill Community College in January. "I decided to take a semester off to get myself and other things in line. I think it's for the better." Vadilson is acclimating to life at Haverford. The classes are manageable, but he expected more social excitement, he says. Alex was homesick at first, but has made good friends and loves her room. The academics, she says, "have not been that difficult compared with the classes I took in high school, except for my psych class – that's pretty tough." Ruben's happy for the work he did at application time and says, "This was really a big thing in my life last year because it got me where I'm at today. Regis College! Which I happen to like very much."

Juan's surprised at how at-home he feels now, after only a month of living at BC. He loves being able to choose his own classes. Emma feels that being at Smith is worth every bit of work she put into the application process. When her family left after dropping her off, "I cried a little," she says, "but then I went back to my room and started unpacking and talking to my roommate, and by the end of the day I felt settled in. The first few days, though, I'd be walking across campus and suddenly think, 'Wow, I'm at college, this is so exciting.' "

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The six students the Monitor tracked represented a wide range of schools (public, private, charter), ethnicities, academic success, and interests. Here's where they ended up – and their best advice to high-school seniors contemplating college:

Emma Forrest: Somerville (Mass.) High School.

Colleges: Smith (yes), UMass Amherst Commonwealth Honors College (yes), Bryn Mawr (yes), Mt. Holyoke (yes), Swarthmore (wait list), Brown (wait list).

Attending: Smith College.

Best advice: "Consider early decision if there are colleges you really like. I regret having to wait until April to hear back. Visit colleges. They all sound pretty similar in their publicity, but actually going there can really give you an idea of whether you'd be happy there."

Ruben Solages: Prospect Hill Academy, Cambridge, Mass.

Colleges: University of Hartford (yes), Regis (yes), University of New Haven (no), Mass college of Pharmacy (no), Clark University (no), Drew University (no), College of New Jersey (no).

Attending: Regis College.

Best advice: "Write the essay during summer vacation!"

Alex McSweeney: Brimmer and May School, Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Colleges: St. Lawrence University (yes), Hobart William Smith (yes), University of Vermont (yes), Chapman University (yes), Union College (wait list), Skidmore (wait list), Gettysburg (wait list), University of San Diego (wait list), Pepperdine (no).

Attending: University of Vermont.

Best advice: "If you can finish the essay and even some of the common app before school starts, the stress level is way lower during the year. The only thing I'd do differently now is apply early action so I would know my options sooner."

Juan Martinez: Brimmer and May School.

Colleges: Boston College (yes), Fordham University (wait list), Fairfield University (yes), Xavier University (yes), Loyola College in Maryland (yes), University of Scranton (yes).

Attending: Boston College.

Best advice: "I wouldn't have applied to as many 'other option' schools. I wish I could have saved my parents the money for the application because, looking back, there is probably no way I would've gone to some. I regret I didn't apply early."

David Stasio: Revere (Mass.) High School.

Attending: Bunker Hill Community College.

Best advice: "I would have tried harder and slacked off less."

Vadilson Pina: Prospect Hill Academy.

Colleges: Boston College (applied early, deferred; regular admission, yes), Haverford (yes), Villanova (applied early, deferred; regular admission, yes), Fordham (yes), Providence College (wait list), Holy Cross (no), Brown (no), Harvard (no).

Attending: Haverford.

Best advice: "Do early action. Send your regular application in early, not the day of the deadline."

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