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 the Highland Park section of Los Angeles. "It's a very heavy decision to them, almost like getting married. When the honeymoon is over, they still want to feel good."
Many factors can influence the choice, Southern California area students said this week, including financial aid, campus location, parental pressure, curricula and social life. But, as with a 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, 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'll get similar treatment in the classrooms there.
For two of her classmates, a university's setting is crucial.
Juan Estrada, who wants to study engineering, was accepted at UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Davis and San Luis Obispo are "too isolated" and Berkeley 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," said Carrye Baker, a counselor at George Washington Prep, a predominantly black school in South Los Angeles.
Vance Guidry of George Washington received substantial scholarships for UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC Davis, but he 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 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 High has a problem 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.
List Will Be Studied
"Either way, I might be giving up a good opportunity," explained Yamada, a probable biology major who also was accepted at Amherst College but rejected at Stanford and Harvard. "If I went to Williams, I guess my growth as a person would be accelerated compared to if I stayed around here." Yet he does not feel 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.
Jerry Jertberg, director of educational support services for the Placentia Unified School District, said that it is the larger state universities that are asking seniors to make a decision now.
"With the new funding problems, they're trying to get an idea of what next year's funding will be, so that puts the pressure on," he said.
He said that about one-third of the college-bound seniors from Placentia high schools attend community colleges, which allow students to sign up well into the summer.
One consolation for the seniors is that the tables are suddenly turned. A year of taking tests, completing applications, undergoing interviews and waiting for letters is over. Instead of students' courting colleges, the colleges this time of year court potential students with invitations to parties, telephone calls from alumni and letters from professors.
Little Support for Choice
For Jaimi Carter at University High School in West Los Angeles, that means 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 just a dream. But Carter decided that Stanford is too conservative, and that UCLA is too big. Of the other two, both small liberal arts schools, Macalester has more of the international courses she wants and "better fits my personality."
"Most people think I've done the wrong thing" by saying no to Stanford, she said. "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 the 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 because their grades were not high enough. Meanwhile, the ones with good options, such as Andrea Carter of San Marino, struggle.
She is trying to decide between Occidental and UC San Diego after having received acceptances from four other UC campuses, Pitzer College, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and rejections from Stanford, Pomona College and UC Berkeley.
"I've had a couple of nights I didn't sleep too well," she said.