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High-schoolers under pressure

Here's a multiple-choice question for the families of high school students facing yet another round of SATs and other standardized tests.

Why has the college application process grown so stressful and all-consuming?

A. It's supply and demand: There's a record number of graduating seniors heading off to college, just as some colleges and universities are capping or rolling back their enrollment.

B. It's about money: Prepaid tuition plans, as well as Florida's Bright Futures scholarships that offer free and reduced tuition to top students, have created intense competition at some of the state's 11 public universities.

C. It's cultural: "Over-involved'' parents have forced their own opportunity-narrowing dreams on their children.

D. All of the above.

Oh, for the days of the senior slump! Instead, it's crunch time for the Class of 2009: Seniors have a final shot at the SATs in early November as they polish their college essays and fill out applications -- while keeping their grades up and sticking with extracurricular activities to boost their resumes.

High school juniors, many taking test prep courses, face PSATs next week; even ninth- and 10th-graders are taking standardized tests to prepare for the big one.

The college application process frenzy, building in recent years, is expected to peak this year, with a record 3.3 million students graduating from high school in the spring. Of course, college-bound kids (and their parents) still have many choices -- though they may need to adjust their expectations.

"There is plenty of opportunity to go around,'' concludes the National Association for College Admission Counseling's newly released State of College Admission 2008 report.

For some kids, the pressure to perform well on standardized college tests starts early. "The amount of money going into private tutors for eighth- and ninth-graders is astronomical,'' said Sandi Sirotowitz, who co-founded Educational & Diagnostic Services in Plantation in 1978. "The stress is huge.''

And potentially dangerous. A study by the Partnership for a Drug-free America found the top reason teens gave for using drugs was to cope with the pressures and stress of school. By the time they are seniors, some students spend so much time, effort and worry on college that they miss out on their final year in high school.

"There are a couple of people I avoid this year because they are so obsessed with college and so intent on getting into a name school like Georgia Tech or MIT,'' said Daniel Rodriguez, 17, a senior in the engineering magnet program at Coral Park High School. "Every time they open their mouth, it's something about college.''

Elena Korallis, an 18-year-old senior at MAST Academy, had a friend who devoted most of his senior year to applying to 29 colleges. "He was absent from school the whole year,'' she said. "It was crazy. I have friends who are juniors who are already really freaking out about college.''

For Elena, the college stress is predominantly financial -- she has two older siblings facing decades of college loan repayment. The yearbook editor dreams of finding a small-size "creative'' college outside Florida, perhaps in Vermont.

"My mom says I can go to any college I want -- as long as I get a full scholarship,'' she says with a laugh.

Supported by a parent respecting her choices, Elena has the right idea -- proactively searching for colleges that suit her, according to college advisors.

"There are so many good schools out there where students can get an excellent education and have a wonderful time -- if they would just broaden out a bit,'' said Gail Payne, who has been a College Assistance Program advisor for Miami-Dade Public Schools for 25 years. "I think many of our students are applying to the same known schools -- Emory, Duke, the University of Virginia.''


Getting in to the top schools is expected to be as tough as last year, when some highly selective colleges turned down more than 90 percent of applicants. Harvard said "no'' last year to more than 1,000 seniors with perfect 800 scores on the math SAT; Princeton turned away thousands of students with straight As throughout high school.

The University of Florida, once considered a "safety'' school for many, has become increasingly selective, last year rejecting 12.8 percent of applicants with math/English SAT scores of 1400 and above, and 12.5 percent of applicants with grade point averages of 4.0 and above.

But while competition has increased at high-profile schools, the overall acceptance rate at four-year institutions has remained stable at close to 70 percent, according to the NACAC report. That statistic may not comfort those suffering from the "Dartmouth or die'' syndrome, as Miami independent college counselor David Altshuler calls it.

"Parents are stressed because they perceive that only if you go to the top schools will good things happen. But it's wrong and harmful for children to focus only on those top schools.

"There is a random and arbitrary aspect to the process that no one understands,'' Altshuler said. "It may be they need a tuba player from the Midwest and you're an a capella singer from a metropolitan area.''

One of the best ways to reduce stress is to expand your outlook and options. Altshuler and Payne, a CAP counselor at Coral Gables High School, help students zero in on colleges that make sense for them, whether it's a virtually unknown liberal arts college or a nontraditional engineering university, like the one Daniel wants to attend in Michigan.

"It's about who you are, not where you go,'' Altshuler said. "It's about fit, it's about match.''

Payne counsels kids to apply to perhaps six schools, 10 tops. Identify a couple of "reach'' schools, a couple of "safety'' schools, including a Florida public university, and a few in between.

"They have to be able to say, 'I would be happy to go to any of these schools,'‚'' Payne said. But many students, she finds, are unwilling to stray from the high-profile college course. "I think the parents have put the pressure on them,'' Payne said. "So many of these students would be very happy going to another school.''

The consequences of "overinvolved'' parents -- also dubbed "helicopter parents'' for their hovering ways -- are becoming visible in young adults, said Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice president of student affairs at the University of Florida who is trained as a counseling psychologist.

"There are students who come to the university really not prepared to deal with the challenges of college,'' she said, referring to anything from a roommate dispute to a grade lower than an A. "Rather than seeing failure at an early age as a development tool, more and more parents are trying to keep their child from experiencing any kind of disappointment or failure.''


An emphasis on grades and test scores has dulled the excitement of discovery and education of childhood, she said. "You don't want to see someone whose identity is solely attached to their grades and yet we see that more and more. Instilling in students the love of learning, that's what's important.''

Daniel Rodriguez, the Coral Park student, discovered Kettering University at a national college fair last spring, to which he was "dragged by my mother.''

Thanks to mom, Daniel found an exciting and unusual college option. In four to five years, he can graduate with an engineering degree by alternating full-time study with full-time work at one of hundreds of companies that partner with Kettering in Flint, Mich. Neither he nor his mom had heard of Kettering.

"There are a lot of colleges that aren't traditional,'' Daniel said. "It comes down to what school is right for you.''


  • National Association for College Admission Counseling 
  • Search schools by major, location and other characteristics.

    Watch a virtual tour or listen to students talk about their experiences there.


    • Go to a college fair. Make a list of things you're looking for in a college and use the experts at your school. Include location and climate, class size, tuition, academic and sports programs, extracurricular activities.

    • Keep the applications to 10 or fewer. Find a handful of schools where you could be happy, from a couple of "reach'' schools to a few "safety'' schools and a few in between.

    • Get a head start with your college essay. Write and polish an essay the summer before your senior year, or early in your senior year.

    • Visualize success. In the days before the test, visualize yourself doing well. Take deep breaths, close your eyes and repeat positive 'I can do this' affirmations.

    "Preparing your mind is an important step to doing well on these tests,'' said Broward psychologist Harvey Parker.And don't forget a good breakfast.