This is it. The ruthless ritual that balances the past 12 years of a student's academic career against the uncertainties and promises of the future is under way.
Seniors, take heart; you're not alone.
As college application deadlines approach, many seniors are praying for that last creative rush in order to turn out the perfect essay; others are pushing everything aside in a procrastinating panic, while a select few have already mailed theirs.
"I just kind of let everything pile up," said Los Alamitos High School senior Jennifer Potter, 17, with a shrug. "I'm sure I'll end up doing everything at the last minute."
Unfortunately, those who wait until the deadline may be more prone to stressing out than those who attack the process methodically.
Jessica Kaplan, 17, another senior at Los Alamitos, has a file folder for each college to which she has applied. By keeping track of where everything is and when the deadlines are, she has been able to avoid any last-minute panic.
"I knew I needed to put time into it," Kaplan said. "This is something that is really important to me, and I wanted my applications to be the best they could be. I knew if I got everything in ahead of time, I'd feel much better."
Dennis Parmer, a Los Alamitos guidance counselor, stresses that if a student has any letters of recommendation that teachers or counselors need to complete, "ask them early."
"Do not wait until a few days before it is due," he said. "We become stressed out, too, if we don't have enough time to write that 'glowing' letter for you."
The application process varies by college. For University of California applications, which are due Monday, an autobiographical essay, personal transcript and several other forms are required.
When it comes to the essay, Mildred Watson, another counselor at Los Alamitos, recommends that students "just take it easy."
"Sit down and take a deep breath, then \o7 write\f7 ," she says. "Just get it out, then worry about fine-tuning it later on. Don't stress over the essay; it's just one part of the total application."
But what should be in the essay? Should it be funny, sad, creative or generic?
"They're looking for something that comes from the heart," said Jerre Glasgow, a counselor at Foothill High. "They want to know about what's really important to you."
Ruthann Haffke, a guidance technician at the College and Career Planning Center in San Juan Capistrano, said the UC system wants "a real practical essay."
"Don't try to force yourself to be creative," she said. "They prefer an essay that's deep on one or two things rather than an essay that touches on many."
Jerry Harvey, a former admissions officer at Amherst and Harvard, as well as a former administrator at UC Irvine and UCLA, advises even the most advanced procrastinator to "allow some time for reflection."
"You also need time to get other people's opinions," he said. "You don't necessarily need to do what they suggest, but they could find grammatical or mechanical errors that you may have missed."
So many suggestions, so little time.
In his 20 years of dealing with distraught seniors, Dale Ferber, a counselor in Los Alamitos' Career Center, has noticed that "the main stress comes from the fact that this is the first \o7 major \f7 decision that a student has to make that will have such a tremendous effect on that student's life. Before this, it was, 'Do I take Spanish or French?' This is the first time the student has been involved to such an extent in such a decision."
Senior Chantal Charette, 16, of Los Alamitos, has dreamed of going to UC Santa Barbara since her days in middle school. "I'm scared that if I don't get in, I'm going to freak out," she said. "They don't even tell you why you didn't make it. They just say, 'Sorry.' "
Joe Haney, 17, a senior at Huntington Beach, refuses to get caught up in the application hysteria. "I don't allow it to get to me as bad as other people do," he said. "There are things that are a lot more important. I mean, if you think you have to go to Harvard to succeed in life, then you're not going to succeed in life. I don't think people realize that."
Said Ferber: "I've seen people crushed who haven't gotten into their first choice (of colleges). That's not the important thing. The important thing is getting into a good school that has varied majors of your interest."
Glasgow said for students "not to put all their eggs in one basket."
"Unless you have a 1,500 on your SAT and a 4.0 grade-point average, there's no guarantee," she said. "Go for the dream schools, but also apply to schools you're sure you will get into."
So, seniors, if you're scared of having the next four years of your life decided by nameless, faceless strangers in faraway admissions offices . . . at least you're not alone.