By Jennifer Mrozowski
and Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer
For thousands of frenzied Tristate high school seniors, the pressure is on this month to make decisions that will affect the rest of their lives - applying to colleges.
Many college-bound students are filling out dozens of scholarship applications, attempting to craft the perfect essay and scampering to improve grades, while juggling sports, clubs and community service to strengthen their applications.
Ashlee Cook, a junior at Hughes Center, talks with Berea College admissions counselor Dwayne Compton.
(Tony Jones photo)
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Applications are going out during a time of record college enrollment and fierce competition for slots as the sluggish economy forces even degreed professionals to return to college.
"Three years ago, when there was a dot-com boom and it seemed like you could go from high school into any one of these high-tech companies, a lot of these talented young kids were going straight into the workforce," said Terese Rainwater of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
"Now jobs are down, and one of the historic responses to low job availability - or a more competitive job market - is for people to either return to or go to college."
www.commonapp.org: Has an application that can be photocopied and sent to any of 230 colleges and universities.|
www.collegeboard.com: Has a section on planning for college, taking tests, selecting the right college.
www.fafsa.ed.gov: Free Application for Federal Student Aid - online form to complete and submit over the Internet.
www.fastweb.com: Free, searchable database of scholarships, fellowships, loans and grants.
For high school seniors, that translates into tougher competition for their dream schools. Xavier University, for example, reports a record number of freshman applications for this time of year. Applications at the University of Cincinnati are up 30 percent over last year.
"I'm experiencing so much pressure," said April Sutton, 17, a senior at Glen Este High School who works up to 30 hours a week as a data entry clerk for a downtown company.
"You have teachers who, honestly, are looking out for your best interests, but it's aggravating to have them constantly grilling you on what you're doing, what you've done, what you haven't done, what scores you got on standardized tests."
Parents and friends can add to the pressure.
"It seems like every single person is doing more than you or is better on track than you," said Ms. Sutton, who has applied to Berklee College of Music in Boston and Five Towns College in New York, and plans to apply to eight more schools.
Aston Eaglin, an 18-year-old senior at Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School, said she plans to send out applications in December. Ms. Eaglin, who's eyeing the University of Cincinnati, Duke University and Central State University, admits she's nervous about the process.
"I'm kind of scared about applying and being accepted," she said. "But I'm also worried about moving away from my mom. We've never been apart, and I'm scared to be on my own."
The stress doesn't end after the applications are sent. Students who have applied "early decision" to their dream college are anxiously awaiting results in the mail.
Early decision requires students to apply to just one college or university, understanding that if accepted, they will attend that school even before knowing how much scholarship money is offered.
Students who apply early decision are eligible for special scholarships and often learn whether they're accepted in December. If rejected, they have to quickly apply to backup schools.
"I won't know if I'm accepted early decision to Wesleyan (University in Middletown, Conn.) until December 15," said Lindsay Meck, 17, a senior at Talawanda High School. "And if Wesleyan doesn't offer me a lot of money, I may be stuck paying higher tuition than I would if I had gotten to shop around school offers."
Many students don't apply "early decision" because of the added pressure to narrow their choices.
"College is a big enough decision," Ms. Sutton said. "I can't commit myself to one college when another with better qualifications might come along."
Such seniors can instead apply under "early action" or "regular decision." Early action allows students to receive early notice of admission but postpone their acceptance decision until May. Students who apply under "early action" may be eligible for the next round of special scholarships.
Regular decision is the traditional process, which has an application deadline around January.
How will they pay?
Then there's the worry of paying for college. Most students are aware that tuition and fees increased - an average of 7.9 percent at two-year public institutions this year, 5.8 percent at four-year private institutions and 9.6 percent at four-year public institutions, according to the College Board.
Ms. Eaglin said she plans to enter the National Guard to help finance college.
While scholarship money and aid is available - the College Board reports student aid increased 11.5 percent in 2001-02 over the preceding year - many don't know where to look.
Daniel Strong, a 17-year-old senior at Campbell County High School, intends to apply for 40 scholarships in the next three months.
"Scholarships are like winning the lottery," said. "Millions try out, but only a few are lucky enough to win."
Securing scholarships is just one of a laundry list of tasks to work through.
Along with filing applications, tracking down references and visiting college campuses, students are working to improve college test scores. Plus extracurricular activities and socializing with friends.
"It's real hard trying to go to school and maintain good grades, work, be involved in school activities, do community service and fill out all of these applications and scholarship papers," said Ashlei Miller, a senior at Roger Bacon High School.
"I just really need a day off to sort everything out."
The application process is more stressful than many people think, said Mark Lampe, senior counselor at Wyoming High School.
"Even the best and brightest who are shooting for highly exclusive schools have the stress of `Will I get in?' knowing only one in six do," he said. "Even if they do get in, they wonder, `Can I be a superstar there?' "
Parents feel it, too
The tension is high for parents as well, as they witness the anxiety in their children, said John Beischel, senior counselor at Princeton High School.
"I'm in a district where I have a lot of first-time college people. It's a pretty daunting process if you've never been through it. A lot of parents who open up the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) say, `Oh, my God, this is like applying for a loan.' "
Counselors say the process can be streamlined, but it takes planning. Admissions officers say students can apply online by using the Common Application (www.commonapp.org) , which allows students to complete one application that can be photocopied and sent to any of 230 participating colleges and universities. Some schools waive application fees - around $30 to $60 - when students apply online.
Experts, however, caution students not to let the process become their sole focus.
Some colleges ask for senior midyear reports, so it's important to keep grades up, said Vince Rahnfeld, a guidance counselor at Sycamore High School.
"Colleges more and more are looking at final transcripts and sometimes even revoking an admissions decision," he said.
Mike Mills, director of admissions at Miami University, says seniors should be taking at least four academic units.
"Any college has language that allows them to rescind an offer. Every year we get two to three instances of these really uncomfortable phone calls we have to make rescinding an offer. ... You've got to finish strong."
In some cases, students are brought to tears in Peggy Schmucker's senior counseling office at Colerain High School.
Students are asked to do all of this extra work, she said, but they don't get any more time in their day.
"Everyone tells them it's one of best years of their lives. It's not. It's one of the most stressful."
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