You are 17 years old. You are about to make the biggest decision in your life so far. And you have only 48 more hours to make it.
Talk about stress.
For college-bound high school seniors, that pressure is not hypothetical. Most have until Monday, the traditional May 1 postmark, to decide which school they will attend next fall.
"It's agony for them," explained Jack Wright, a college counselor at Franklin High School in Highland Park. "It's a very heavy decision to them, almost like getting married. When the honeymoon is over, they still want to feel good."
One consolation for the seniors, though, is that the tables now are suddenly turned. A year of taking tests, completing applications, undergoing interviews and waiting for letters is over. Although a drop-off in applications nationwide this academic year led to some easing in the selection process, the race to gain entrance to the institution of choice remains heated--and traumatic--particularly at the most popular schools such as Stanford University, UC Berkeley and UCLA.
But this time of year, instead of students courting colleges, the colleges court potential students with invitations to parties, telephone calls from alumni and letters from professors.
Many factors can influence the choice, Los Angeles area students said this week, including financial aid, campus location, parental pressure, curricula and social life. But, as with marriage, it sometimes comes down to a certain indefinable emotion, an intuition.
For example, Gloria Rodriguez of Huntington Park High School applied as a possible biology major to UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, Stanford and Mills College; only Stanford rejected her.
UCLA and UC Berkeley, she realized, are too big and busy for her. Some last-minute confusion over financial aid brought her in close telephone contact with UC Davis and Mills, which is a women's college in Oakland.
"Mills went out of their way to take care of my problems," said Rodriguez, a top student at the overwhelmingly Latino high school. "I got a lot of personal attention from them."
With sizable scholarships from both schools, she chose Mills because she thinks she will get similar treatment in the classrooms there.
For two of her classmates, a university's setting was crucial.
Juan Estrada, who wants to study engineering, was accepted at UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Davis and San Luis Obispo are "too isolated" and Berkeley is too far away, he decided. So, Estrada, the second-youngest of 10 children and the first to attend college in his family, chose UCLA and plans to live on the Westwood campus.
"UCLA has a lot of stuff going on," said Estrada, who does not want to miss any of it.
However, Ruth Garcia decided against UCLA in favor of UC Santa Cruz for the opposite reason.
"I think I'll do better if I'm in the middle of the redwoods, away from all the pressures," said Garcia, a prospective engineer.
Money, of course, is important now that a year at private institutions can cost $20,000.
"For our kids, no financial aid, no go," explained Carrye Baker, a counselor at George Washington Preparatory High School, a predominately black school in South Los Angeles.
Diverse Student Body
Vance Guidry of George Washington received substantial scholarships at UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC Davis but chose UCLA because of the good reputation of its economics department. He was also accepted at Morehouse College in Atlanta and Xavier University in New Orleans, both black institutions, before he realized that he wanted to be part of a more diverse student body.
Besides, he said, his brother went to a trade school out of state and lost some hair from the stress of being far away from home.
"I didn't want to go bald-headed," Guidry said.
Daniel Yamada of Franklin has a dilemma others might envy. His parents say they can afford to send him to Williams College in Massachusetts, which offered a loan, work-study aid and a small scholarship. But Yamada won an academic, all-expenses-paid scholarship at Occidental College, practically walking distance from his home.
"Either way, I might be giving up a good opportunity," explained Yamada, a probable biology major who also was accepted at Amherst College but was rejected at Stanford and Harvard University. "If I went to Williams, I guess my growth as a person would be accelerated, compared to if I stayed around here."
Pros and Cons
Yet he does not believe he has to leave Los Angeles, and he would not need a part-time job at Occidental. So, he is spending the weekend on a list of pros and cons.
For Jaimi Carter at University High in West Los Angeles, choosing a college has meant swimming against the tide. She was accepted at Reed College in Oregon, Macalester College in Minnesota, UCLA and Stanford.
To many California students, Stanford is an elusive dream. But Carter decided that Stanford is too conservative and UCLA too big. Of the other two, both small, liberal arts schools, Macalester has more of the international studies she wants and "better fits my personality."
"Most people think I've done the wrong thing" by saying no to Stanford, she explained. "But people who know me well agree with me."
Campus social life influences many decisions, said Don Olson, a college counselor at University High. One student, he said, received fairly equal scholarship offers from Caltech and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the nation's premier technical schools.
"The kid said the social life was considerably better in the Boston area than at Caltech. So he is going to MIT," Olson said.
Of course, some students have little choice because they applied to many difficult schools or their grades were not high enough. Meanwhile, the ones with good options, like Andrea Carter at San Marino, struggle.
She is trying to decide between Occidental and UC San Diego after receiving acceptances at four other UCs, Pitzer College, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and rejections at Stanford, Pomona College and UC Berkeley.
"I've had a couple of nights I didn't sleep too well," she said.