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These Are Times That Test Souls of College-Bound

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The SATs are over, calculus is starting to make sense and the prom is just a few weeks away. High school seniors seemingly are settling down to the final sprint of high school life, presumably downhill all the way.

But for seniors who are college-bound, the waiting game has just begun, and it’s an uphill struggle.

While June graduation looms just around the corner, students are checking more important dates like mid-April, when the nation’s top schools in the East send off their final selection letters, and May 1, the deadline for students to decide on California colleges. And because Orange County has one of the highest percentages of college-bound students in the state, there are thousands of seniors going through high anxiety.

“There’s a lot of anxiety for these kids,” said Rich Johnson, coordinator of pupil services at the Capistrano Unified School District, which has 1,373 seniors. “At this point, they are thinking about the rest of their lives.”

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According to state Department of Education figures, at least 64% of Orange County seniors apply and are accepted to the Cal State or University of California systems. Many others attend private colleges and other major universities, which flood the county with acceptances every year.

For those seniors lucky enough to have received their acceptance letters early, they only have to make up their minds on where to go for the next four years. But those who are still waiting run home every day to nervously look in the mailbox.

Forget about the senior year being the best time of high school, said Vincent Rossini Jr., 18, who is still waiting to hear from the Naval and Air Force academies. Although he has been accepted to four University of California campuses--Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego and Irvine--and USC, Rossini said he is still running to the mailbox every day after school.

“It’s stress-out time,” Rossini said. “First thing I do when I go home is to check the mail to make sure I’m still accepted. I have a hard time sleeping ‘cause I’m thinking, ‘Am I going to flunk out, or am I going to be a Rhodes scholar?’ ”

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Like Rossini, Capistrano Valley High School senior Veronica Briseno, 17, also has acceptance letters already, in her case from UCLA, UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount. But she is still anxiously waiting for word from Stanford, her “dream school.”

While most students plan to have fun on their spring breaks, Briseno plans to use her free time pondering which college to attend.

“It’s so scary,” she said recently during a break between classes. “It’s so permanent. What if I make the wrong choice? What if I don’t like the college I choose? I have all these ‘what ifs?’ ”

To make up her mind, Briseno says, she examines what courses are offered at the universities, what kind of financial help the school can provide, even the general atmosphere of the school.

“It’s really a tossup between Berkeley and Loyola right now,” Briseno said. “But I might not fit into Berkeley ‘cause it has such a liberal reputation. I think I might adapt more into Loyola’s environment.”

Briseno is not alone in her indecision. At Capistrano, a bulletin board is filled with the names of students and the schools that have accepted them.

Students are encouraged to circle the schools they plan to attend. But while dozens of colleges are listed on the board, hardly any are circled.

For parents, the temptation to help their children make the right decision about which of those schools to circle can be overwhelming. Vincent Rossini Sr. said he agonizes as he watches his youngest son struggle to make up his mind.

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“I have to hold myself back because I don’t want to push him,” the elder Rossini said. “I remember when I was making up my mind and my first days at college. It was a shock wave. I don’t want the same thing to happen to him. But at the same time, I want him to do it on his own.”

While high school seniors are often accused of easing up during their last few months of 12th grade, “senior-itis” is mostly a myth, says Al Finlayson of Villa Park High School in Orange, where he and four other counselors advise 365 seniors.

“How can seniors relax when they’re juggling acceptances and rejections?” Finlayson asked.

During November and December, students snaked around the counselors’ office with applications to be mailed and letters of recommendation to be signed. At that point, they’re too busy to be worried, Finlayson said. But in the spring, seniors frequent the guidance office, biting nails and boning up on college guides.

“Students are holding their breaths now,” Finlayson said. “This is the time when there’s a lot of plane flights (with students) coming out of Orange County because they have to revisit campuses to make sure they want to be there.”

The waiting game can be even worse for students who have received neither acceptances nor rejections yet.

For students who are rejected, there remains the choice of filing an appeal with a school or attending community colleges, where they can later transfer to other institutions, said Pat Ibanez, who heads the Capistrano district’s College and Career Planning Center, which sees an average of 100 students a week.

For students contemplating review of an application, the center suggests they send letters of appeal along with updated semester transcripts and strong recommendations.

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“For some students there is a heavy sense of rejection when they don’t get accepted by the college of their choice,” Ibanez said. “We always advise them to take preventive measures by applying to a ‘safety-net’ school.”

While spring is the most anxiety-filled time for seniors, it can also be the most gratifying, Finlayson said.

“When the kids get accepted, we get a gleeful squeal once in a while and they come in for a congratulatory shake of the hand,” Finlayson said. “They’re proud of their acceptances. And we want them to be proud. Part of the joy of this job is watching them be happy.”


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