Saturday, October 30, 1999

Pressure's on to commit now to a college

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For most of us, the first day of November comes and goes in utter calm. It is a break between seasons, a pause before holidays, one of those rare days on the calendar when we can simply relax.

        It might surprise us, then, to learn the level of anxiety Nov. 1 strikes in the hearts of many Tristate teens. Months' worth of activity has surrounded the date. Teams of students, parents, guidance counselors and teachers have worked feverishly to ensure college essays are written, applications completed and letters of recommendation assembled in time. You and I may have forgotten such a thing as “Early Decision” existed, but bright college-bound high school seniors definitely have not.

        Early Decision is the brainchild of some of America's most highly selective colleges and universities. It is an admissions program that allows high school seniors to apply to a single, choice university by Nov. 1, learn of their acceptance or rejection by mid-December — months ahead of traditional notification — and then be bound to enroll. The program has existed in some form for nearly 30 years, but has intensified since 1995, when several major institutions made the program binding. Now some selective colleges accept better than one-third of their students by the program, and the pool of early applicants has exploded.

Nail-biting time
        With Early Decision, the pressure is on, and the stakes are high. You can select only one target. You must have your choice made, your entrance testing completed, and your entry materials assembled months before your classmates who enter through regular admission. And you'd better make the right call — if you're admitted, you are bound to attend.

        For the right student, this doesn't look like pressure at all. It looks like liberation. He has done his college exploration early, found a school that fits well, gotten the application process out of the way and has his spot locked up by December. “It allows them to get on with it,” says Susan Marrs, principal and director of college counseling at Seven Hills Upper School. “It can make the remainder of the senior year a happier time.”

        More power to those students. But, as is happening with more and more things in young people's lives, the accelerated option that fits a chosen few is now becoming almost mandatory for the masses. “Some observers have even used the word "hysteria' to describe some students who, influenced by peer pressure, want to apply early "somewhere' — without considering which colleges might be best for them,” cautions a publication from Harvard University.

Winners and losers
        The day early-decision notification arrives is a day of triumph for some students, full of handshakes, high fives and proud smiles from the great-aunts. For others — no matter how strong their academic record, no matter how many other colleges might want them — it is a day of bitter rejection.

        “Kids can build up their first choice to such a level that it's "This is it or we're all going to be disappointed,'” says Mark Lampe, a guidance counselor at Wyoming High School. “There is such an emotional response. The amount of work that goes in is so great, and you've been writing these reflective essays and doing this self-assessment. Even if a kid knows his chances are one in six of getting in, the farther you go in the process, the more attached you become to it.”

        That student might have had better odds of acceptance by bypassing the early-decision process, building up his academic record with a great senior year, and exploring the field until he found a college that wanted him as badly as he wanted it.

        Like many other facets of child-raising in the late 20th century, early-decision programs must be carefully considered. Rushing into them — or rushing one's child into them — is as pointless as all of us crowding through a single door when so many other doors stand open. No matter the hype that surrounds it, Nov. 1 is still simply a day, not a life-or-death decision.

        Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202, or e-mail her at