Russia to the United States, character dancing to folk dancing, competitive ballroom to jazz, hip-hop and ballet — these are the themes that 16-year-old Annie Novikov hopes to weave into the life narrative she's writing for applications to the University of California and private colleges.
"Once I get a story I want to write about, the story will pretty much write itself," said Annie, a senior at the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies.
It hasn't written itself — yet — but Annie is grateful to have time to brainstorm.
For the first time, University of California applications opened online for hopeful high school students on Aug. 1, months earlier than in previous years. Like many other seniors, Annie has leapt at the chance to get started.
"The whole process is really big and scary, but as it gets nearer everything gets clearer," Annie said. "It helps a lot because it puts more pressure on you to work fast, yet you have more time."
The extra time allows students to refine what many consider a source of stress: the personal statement, an essay that gives admissions committees a peek into the person behind the test scores, grade point averages and class rankings.
It's part of a single application that covers all nine undergraduate UC campuses; students rank their top choices on the form.
Allison Young, a college counselor at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, said she hopes that making the personal statement available earlier will put it on students' radars so that "the reality of getting it done and starting it will sink in."
Seniors this fall are required to write no more than a combined 1,000 words on two topics; first, a description of the world a student is coming from and second, a "personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience" that's important to the applicant and makes her or him proud.
The UC application filing period is Nov. 1-30.
Previously, applications were not open until then. Students had just a month to complete and submit them, causing headaches for many seniors, their parents and their counselors.
"We're talking about teenagers, so we're talking about born procrastinators," said Kristi Henry, a college counselor at Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. "There were students who felt the deadline was very tight."
This was one reason to push an earlier start date, a decision that UC made earlier this year.
"It would be like a madhouse. Not to say it's not always a madhouse, but if you want to plan and stretch out the stress, then this is the way to do it," said Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman for the University of California system.
"It gives you time to prioritize," said 17-year-old Dagmawi Haile Mariam, a senior at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. "That can really be the difference in getting into a college you want."
Young says it's also a reprieve for college counselors who help students review their essays and make sure their applications are in order before they're filed.
"It's very hard, for public schools especially, to have time for all that," Young said.
Some students are concerned that they'll stress less, but longer.
"I freak out a lot when thinking about colleges," said Jake Kessler of Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, who was immediately motivated to get a jump-start on his application. "Now I have three months to worry."
After seeing his older siblings go through the process, 17-year-old Hank Hobgood chooses to relax. The Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies senior wants to wait before he begins the application. So far, he's casually looked at it and plans to dig in later.
"If everyone usually got it in November, I figure I can do it in September or October," Hank said. "I don't think it's worth stressing over."
Classmate Brandon Lee said he appreciates that UC made the application change, but the 17-year-old isn't rushing to finish his essays. He wants to shoot for a private school, so he's focusing on completing the Common Application as well as surviving a grueling course load of AP classes such as European history, chemistry and calculus.
Klein said that taking advantage of the earlier date is optional; whether applications are filed Nov. 1 or Nov. 30, all will be considered equally.