Among the college-bound crowd of America’s high school seniors, this is the time to exhale.
A happy few have been accepted by early admissions programs at the campuses of their dreams. Diana Orozco, a senior at Brentwood School, for example, has an enviable early offer from Yale University in her pocket and is ready to relax after all the drama of the college application process. “I have other priorities, like my sanity and being stress-free,” said the 17-year-old from Hawthorne.
Many more high school seniors are awaiting answers from colleges over the next couple of months or so. But they too appreciate the emotional intermission of these winter months, when they suddenly have more free time. “I feel relief that I don’t have something hanging on the back of my mind,” said Elliott Lee, 17, who goes to Arcadia High and is trying his chances at nine California state universities and four private schools.
The gap between the two groups may be uncomfortable, tinged with envy or smugness, counselors say. But beyond any uneasiness is a greater shared sense of unburdening. Although they still have to keep their grades from sliding, seniors no longer have to prep for SAT tests, struggle with application essays, push against tight January deadlines, scrounge for recommendations. Receding into the past are stress-related migraines, unusual snits with parents and all-nighters that cause havoc with teenage biorhythms.
“They’ve worked so hard on their applications, there is relief that it’s finally over. It’s been this thing that’s been hanging over their heads the whole fall semester,” said Jennifer Christensen, co-director of college counseling at Marin Academy in San Rafael. They also come to realize, she said, that there is nothing more they can do to advance their chances and their “fate is in someone else’s hands.”
She and other counselors across the state and country urge them to enjoy the rest of senior year and get involved in activities that probably took a back seat during application season. At the same time, counselors say, they shouldn’t fall too deeply into the “senioritis” that turns some otherwise sober teens into partyers and slackers. “There are privileges that come with being a senior, and it’s a really good time to enjoy this position and treat it with responsibility,” Christensen said.
At Stanford University, dean of undergraduate admission Richard Shaw has a similar message to the 36,744 applicants, of whom just 7% or so are expected to win a spot on the lush Palo Alto area campus. “You did the best you could, and now just try to forget it for the time being,” he said. “If I could hope for anything, just enjoy your senior year.”
But for some students, the anxiety is hard to shake. Some can’t keep themselves out of the school’s academic counseling office, some worry that their essays could have been a little better and some fear the rejections.
“It’s so nerve-wracking because we are just stuck waiting for two months. I really have no idea where I’m going,” said Marika Stanford-Moore, 18, a senior at South Pasadena High School. She applied to a dozen schools, including Boston University, Pepperdine, UC Santa Cruz, UC San Diego, and her top choice, USC.
She’s managing to take a breather, going to Venice Beach and shopping with friends, and she’s looking forward to the senior backpacking trip to Yosemite. Still, she finds it frustrating that she can’t do anything more to influence colleges’ decisions. “I even now go back to look at essays and my applications,” she said. “I want to make changes, but I can’t.”
Based on demographics, current high school seniors have some statistics on their side. Nationwide, about 3.2 million students are expected to graduate from high school this year, down about 3% from a peak three years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Those declining rolls may be having an effect: Some prestigious schools, including the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia, have slightly fewer applicants than last year.
Offsetting that, however, is the continuing trend of highly motivated students applying to increasing numbers of colleges, often at least eight. International applicants to U.S. colleges are up, contributing to a 19% jump in freshman applications at the UC system. Many private schools in California are reporting hikes in applications of between 5% and 7%, according to the Assn. of Independent California Colleges and Universities.
Yet whatever the odds, high school seniors have already rolled the dice. And even if they don’t know the outcome, many are delighted to walk away from the table for a while.
Elliott, of Arcadia High, was never the type to lash out at his parents. But he became snappish as he worked to complete his applications while juggling a heavy course load.
It peaked after he stayed up late to meet the final mid-January deadline.
“It’s like he was The Hulk,” said his father, Terry Lee, comparing waking him the next morning to dealing with the comic book character who has both a fierce and a mild side. “You poke the Hulk wrong and he bares his teeth,” he said. “If you leave him alone he wears the rimmed glasses.”
Now Elliott, who hopes to major in economics or Native American studies, said he is relaxed and reveling in having time to himself. “I’m not pursuing anything grand, but it’s great not to be able to worry about applications — and that’s really grand to me.”
Still, when he found out a friend was admitted to New York University on early decision, Elliott thought, “It must be nice to not worry about where you are going to school.”
Diana’s Yale acceptance erased the “horrible” application experience.
“I felt like I was going to have a breakdown,” the Brentwood School student said.
She is studying a bit less now and even willing to score an A minus on tests, a grade she never aimed for in the past.
“If there’s any time to slack, it’s now,” she told Brentwood School counselor Jawaan Wallace, who then advised Diana to keep her grades up so Yale doesn’t revoke the offer. High school seniors still visit Wallace and other counselors after the rush of application season.
Sometimes it’s about financial aid forms, often for hand-holding. In her cozy office fragrant from a candle on her desk, Wallace seeks to put them at ease.
“In today’s society, everything is so instant. It’s the first time they have to wait and have patience,” she said. “This is a good lesson.”
Parents, too, could learn that lesson. Sally Stone Richmond, Occidental College’s director of admission, said that, based on surveys of families in past years, she advises parents to back off from nagging and “not to mention the word ‘college’ for several weeks.”
“Let the students live in the present,” she said. “Allow them to enjoy that finality of high school.”