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Countdown to College Can Be a Pressure Cooker

March 27, 2006|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

High school senior Winnie Garet would be perfectly calm as she awaits decisions from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Brown universities -- if only she could avoid her friends and family.

"Just a few people at school who are crazed can infect everybody else," said Winnie, 17, a student at San Marino High School. "And at home the one who's actually hopping around is my little brother, who's like constantly, 'Are you in yet? Did you get into Harvard?' "

This is the season of high anxiety for thousands of students awaiting word on their college applications. The pressure is on for many high-achieving students to get into elite schools. It is fed by their own hopes and frequently by the high expectations of parents, some of whom moved to communities like San Marino for the schools.

Students are employing tried-and-true coping mechanisms, such as concentrating even more on class work, hitting the gym or going to a movie on a school night. Still, the stress of facing what many students perceive as the most important moment of their lives can create tensions among friends and family and lead to squabbles that can mar what should be happy occasions.

It is an annual frenzy that many high school counselors view as inevitable.

"If you've been in this business long enough, this is the time you want to look them in the eye and tell them it's going to be all right, 'cause many of them don't believe it will be all right," said Mary Fitzpatrick Johnson, assistant principal for guidance and instruction at San Marino High.

"They can make the most unbalanced statements like, 'My whole life depends on this,' and I try to be very calm and tell them I hope that's not the case," she said.

Consider this exchange from a discussion group on the popular website, which provides information and advice on a range of college issues:

austinj: "I wonder if I can hibernate for 7 days ... "

MeanieChristinie: "Counting down makes it go slower. Being sick with the flu, as I am now, makes it go slower."

lastcall17: "How are you guys enduring this?! ... I keep checking online hoping there will be some like magical note or something ... AGHH!!!! I just can't stand the wait.!!!!"

Sally F. Rubenstone, a senior counselor and editor at the College Confidential website, said that seniors are especially alert during this time to signals or signs of admission verdicts. Students take to wearing lucky socks or T-shirts until the long-awaited letters arrive. They are also on the lookout for omens.

"For instance, I remember a student I advised who was delighted when her favorite grade-school teacher turned up in her aerobics class on the eve of her admissions decision," Rubenstone said. "She was convinced that this encounter was a message that her college news would be good -- and it was."

The idea of going off to college can leave students racked with indecision about their goals. Catherine Li, 18, another San Marino senior, applied to 14 schools, in part, she said because she couldn't decide whether she wanted to go to the East Coast or to stay close to home.

"I didn't apply to any safe schools," she said. "I'm secretly hoping that I get rejected by most so they can decide for me. The hardest part will be when I have to make a choice, maybe Berkeley on the West Coast or Yale in the East ... But my parents have told me if I get into Yale I have to go there and I kind of understand where they're coming from."

Some students have avoided the angst by applying for early decisions from their first-choice schools. In those cases, they received word in mid-December, alleviating much of the anxiety.

But even for those students, dealing with friends who are still uncertain of their fall futures can be awkward. Debbie Chen, 17, a senior at Whitney High School in Cerritos, applied early and was accepted to Stanford University on a scholarship. She is at ease, but many of her friends are not.

"We just try to encourage each other," Debbie said. "I can remember when I was waiting to hear and feeling like I was in 'The Twilight Zone.' I had only applied to Stanford, so I knew if I didn't get in it would not only be disappointing but I'd have to start the whole process all over again."

The increasing focus on college rankings has only added to the tension as a large number of students end up applying to the same schools, educators and others said. Students feel pressured to distinguish themselves however they can, cramming their academic schedule with advanced placement exams that offer college credit and filling their free time with community service and other activities.

There is no hard and fast rule on when colleges notify students. Some, including Cal State and UC schools, have begun to do so. Others, including the Ivy League schools, notify students on or around April 1.

Some students have adopted a philosophical outlook.

"There's such an element of randomness to it, it's really out of our control right now," Winnie Garet said.

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