Thursday, December 21, 2000

Stressful week for college hopefuls

By Karen Samples
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ambitious high-school students have been stalking their mailboxes this month for the best Christmas present of all: their futures.

        “When I was opening the letter, I could barely stand up because I was just so nervous,” says Jamie Rose, a senior at Beechwood High School in Fort Mitchell.

        She found out three days ago that she'll have to keep applying to colleges. Cornell University, which accepts 33 percent of its applicants, deferred her application for later consideration instead of committing now.

[photo] The pressure is off for Vivian Wang (left) and Mitra Ghamsari of Sycamore High School. They both were accepted at MIT.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
        Jamie is among hundreds of Greater Cincinnati students who sought early notification this winter from their favorite colleges. Some were seeking relief from uncertainty, others emphasizing their loyalty to a particular school. At some universities, students are legally bound to attend if accepted early.

        About 5 percent of seniors at public schools choose this route, guidance counselors say. Thousands of others spend the winter scrambling to meet deadlines for regular admission.

Competition stiffer

        No matter which option they pursue, students are finding the process more nerve-wracking than ever.

        Internet sites bombard families with college advice, which makes them savvier consumers but also more stressed. At, for instance, one desperate-sounding mom recently posted her son's application essay, seeking feedback from whomever.

        Universities can afford to be choosy. Undergraduate enrollment has been stable in recent years, but between 1985 and 1992, it went up 18 percent nationwide, says the U.S. Department of Education.

        This year, a status-oriented society has teen-agers under more pressure than ever to get into the “right” schools — Ivy League or highly competitive — seen as essential for success.

        “It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the "prizes,' stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it,” a trio of Harvard University officials recently wrote.

        In a paper titled “Time out or Burn Out for the Next Generation,” they lamented pressure on today's youth to compile perfect resumes at the expense of personal growth. Students say they're waiting to hear the alternatives.

        “I know they want (applicants) who are enthusiastic and dedicated, but they want that to show up on a few stacks of paper, and I just think that's so hard,” says Vivian Wang, 17, a senior at Sycamore High School.

Accepted at MIT

        Ms. Wang and a classmate, Mitra Ghamsari, are among the lucky ones: On Monday both young women received acceptance letters from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which takes only 19 percent of applicants. The average MIT freshman scored 752 out of 800 on the math portion of the SAT.

        Ms. Wang ranks fifth in her class at Sycamore. She spent two months polishing her essay for MIT, which compared conversations with her mother to the discussion salons of the Enlightenment period in 18th century Europe.

        In high school, Ms. Wang has tried to follow her heart while keeping an eye on her resume. For community service, she truly enjoys helping a neighbor whose son is disabled, she says. She also insists on taking private art lessons, even though science will be her main pursuit in college.

        Despite this thoughtful approach to self-improvement, Ms. Wang was tense during last week's wait. In case the news was bad, she wanted to get it first, so she conspired with her younger brother to hide any important-looking mail from their mother.

        “When I walked in the door yesterday, she screamed down the stairs that she got accepted,” said Ms. Wang's mother, Shirley Wang, a software developer at Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield. “This will just make her Christmas so much easier.”

        Ms. Wang's early acceptance to MIT is an enormous relief, but it doesn't obligate her to attend. She's also applying to other Ivy League schools.

How it works

        High-school seniors have always anxiously awaited acceptance letters. But today's scene is more complex, in part because of the early application process.

        To get better control of their enrollments, more and more colleges are offering “early decision” and “early action.” Under the “decision” process, students are legally bound to attend if accepted early. Under “action,” they can still change their minds.

        Out of 1,789 four-year colleges nationwide, 277 now offer early decision and 231 early action, according to the College Board's Annual Survey of Colleges.

        Students who apply early but don't get accepted are either rejected outright or “deferred.” This means their applications are thrown into the regular pool to be considered later.

        Finding out early eases stress during senior years, students say. It also may give them a strategic advantage. Out of 466 institutions surveyed, nearly one-third extended early decision to at least 20 percent of their fall 2000 freshmen, says the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

        Students must weigh these numbers against the burden of being stuck with their first choice.

Parents take on pressure
        The stress sends parents scurrying for information.

        Kathy Groob of Fort Mitchell started visiting colleges with her sons when they were sophomores at Beechwood High School. Just keeping up with financial aid deadlines is a dizzying task, she says.

        “I felt like I had to be so on top of this, and if we screwed up, it would affect his chances,” Ms. Groob said, referring to son Jason.

        He just got accepted under early action to the University of Colorado's engineering program. To improve his chances for financial aid, Jason took the Scholastic Aptitude test four times, ultimately boosting his score by 250 points.

        Such multiple efforts are becoming common among top students. They're not only taking tests again and again, but also hedging their bets by applying to many colleges.

        Erin Standen, a senior at Sycamore High School, followed the advice she had heard: “Apply to two "reach' schools, two medium-range but decent schools and two fallback schools.”

        She especially wanted to attend Washington University in St. Louis. But on Dec. 15, she got a deferral despite her full load of honors classes, 3.8 grade point average, two jobs and four years on the varsity soccer team.

        She's disappointed but determined to maintain perspective.

        “I really wanted to go there and I didn't understand why,” Erin says of the deferral. “But I really wouldn't change anything I've done.”

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