High school students make college choices

As seniors around the country trade in their Common Apps for orientation schedules and SAT prep books for shower sandals, Rebecca and Katie, two seniors from Hopkins School, are finally doing the same.

Near the end of March and the first few days of April, acceptance letters and online notifications trickled in, ending the months of college limbo for hopeful applicants. Other students who had settled their plans in December faced the dilemma of how much to kick back and enjoy their senior years. Throughout this entire October to May application cycle — which experts termed the most competitive year in history for college admissions — thousands of students waited nervously for the decision that many thought could make or break their futures.

When the second of the three articles in this series came out in February, Katie had just learned that she had been deferred from the University of Pennsylvania when she applied early decision, and she had quickly submitted applications to eight additional schools in time for their regular decision deadlines in January. Rebecca was accepted early decision to the Double-Degree Program between Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and she was preparing for her audition for the lesson-exchange program with the Manhattan School of Music.

Katie, who found out her decisions from the eight schools within three days of each other, said she had an increasing feeling of dread as she received negative news from several of her choices. Although she found out that she had gotten into Colgate and Franklin and Marshall universities, she was waitlisted at Vassar College and rejected from Dartmouth College and Cornell, Johns Hopkins and McGill universities. Furthermore, Katie found out on the second day of decisions that Penn had converted its deferral into a rejection.

“It actually wasn’t that bad [getting Penn’s rejection] because the day before, I had been rejected at Johns Hopkins and waitlisted at Vassar, so I knew that things were looking grim,” she said.

But the college admissions deities had more in store for Katie, whose last notification was from Georgetown University on the third day: She was in. The school had always been her second choice behind Penn, she said, so she mailed the card confirming her fall matriculation the very next day.

“I had gotten rejected from so many schools that I was really expecting another rejection,” she said. “So I was totally surprised when I was accepted to Georgetown. Before that, I was trying not to think about any of it.”

Although December’s good news meant that Rebecca could leave much of this college-induced worry behind, the senior said life stayed exciting due to a number of new activities and achievements. She nailed her audition and was accepted to the Manhattan School of Music, where she will take flute lessons next year while attending Barnard and JTS. Rebecca also took the option of designing and completing a senior project through Hopkins. She dropped four of her six classes, continuing to take only Spanish Literature and Short Stories, and spends the rest of the day teaching classes at Ezra Academy in Woodbridge, a Jewish day school for kindergarten through eighth grade.

Rebecca said teaching lessons on the rise of Hitler and of Christianity in Rome has made her more confident that she would like to be a teacher someday, but that in the meantime, she still enjoys life at Hopkins.

“I’m really happy that I got to keep some of my classes, since originally I wanted to drop everything, but now I’m happy to still see friends,” she said. “I’m still there for a cappella, and I’ve been going to choir frequently because we have a big concert coming up … I’m still involved, which is really nice.”

Katie said her friends at Hopkins saw mixed results with their college applications. Although she said most of them are happy with where they are going next year, many were rejected from the most competitive schools.

Rebecca agreed that Hopkins, which normally sees many students accepted to top colleges, experienced some of the increased difficulty that has marked this year’s admissions cycle.

“I think this year was really difficult in terms of admissions worldwide for colleges, and I know that some of my friends found out they didn’t get into their top-choice schools or only got into their safeties,” she said. “They were disappointed originally, but when they started looking at their options, they found out that the places they have left to choose from are fantastic, and now they’re really excited.”

Private admissions counselor Jane Shropshire, the former president of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, said this admissions cycle was unusually difficult for applicants.

“It does seem to me that it may have been a more competitive year than in years past,” she said. “And I also think, interestingly enough, that it was a year in which I saw some students reaching to schools beyond [where they would normally have applied].”

Shropshire said she saw more students this year decide that, since the most competitive colleges seem almost to randomly choose whom to accept, they might as well throw in an application just in case. This phenomenon may account for the increase in applications to many of the Ivies, she said.

Amy Sack, president of the college admissions consulting firm Admissions Accomplished, said that although the students she counseled got into their top choices, she has also recently received many calls from students who would like to start the transfer process because they prefer other schools to those at which they will be matriculating in the fall.

“With the environment the way it is right now, which is more competitive than it’s ever been … I’ve already gotten calls about transferring before kids even start school,” she said. “I’ve gotten a surprising number of calls from seniors, [and] that’s an indication of a difficult year.”

As the two girls start to prepare for graduation, summer and departure, friends, family and geography are foremost in their minds.

Katie said she and her friends are experiencing the idle euphoria that strikes seniors whose college plans are settled.

“It seems like nobody does anything anymore,” she said. “Probably the thing we most talk about is all the things we’re supposed to be doing at that moment when we’re sitting around doing nothing.”

Although she knows only one other person from home who is attending Georgetown, Katie said, she came home from admitted students weekend excited about the school’s location and opportunities. Especially appealing is Georgetown’s political scene, she said, and the 2008 presidential election will be a great chance to get involved. Washington, D.C. also offers exposure to a new environment, she said.

“I think it’s the perfect distance: It’s close enough that if something happens I can come home really easily, but it’s out of Connecticut and New England,” Katie said.

Although Rebecca will be leaving behind her many local musical endeavors, including the Norwalk Youth Orchestra, wind quintet, trio and Hopkins choirs, she is already looking ahead to her lessons in New York with a world-famous flutist. Academically, she said she is open to many possibilities but will probably settle on history, anthropology and music.

Katie, who recently wrapped up productions of South Pacific and The Laramie Project as co-head of the Hopkins Drama Association, said she is relieved to have the long college admissions process over, as well as it turned out for her in the end.

“Looking back, I can’t believe how much stress there was and how much everybody was worrying about it 24/7, but it all worked out in the end,” she said. “It’s so weird to have it over with. Sometimes I think ‘Oh no, what am I supposed to be worrying about right now?’ and I realize, ‘Oh, nothing.’”

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