Each fall, high schools seniors toil over college applications, knowing that a huge question mark looms over their heads: Where will they live for the next four years of their lives, and how will those years impact their futures?
(This is the final story in a series of five. See links below for other stories in the series.)
They may not realize the delicate dance of the universities to which they apply. Admissions committees carefully weigh the pros and cons of each potential student, trying to attract a strong and diverse group of students.
Elizabeth Gahl, a senior at Langley High School in the Northern Virginia suburbs, noted the arbitrary nature of the selection process.
"For a lot of people, applying to college is an exercise in futility," Gahl said.
The simple law of supply and demand dictates that not all candidates will be granted admission. But the university must also carefully consider which candidates they think will, upon being admitted, decide to attend. While students worry about their uncertain futures, universities struggle to maintain a high yield of students who matriculate.
Last fall, ABCNEWS' Nightline set out to take an inside look at the college admissions process. Having followed Gahl and two other applicants from the beginning stages, Nightline was able to gain exclusive access to the power struggle as it shifted back and forth between the applicants and the university.
All three were strong students with excellent grades, strong test scores, and extracurricular activities. But like many of their college-bound peers, they had mixed feelings about what they were about to face — hope, excitement, and even dread about their essays and about the pressure.
"They expect a 17-year-old to know what their favorite word is, or know the best quality about them or something," Caitlin May, a senior at Georgetown Visitation High School, a private all-girls school in Washington told Nightline.
"I don't want to get stressed, because I'm just so excited about going to college and having new experiences," said David Brown, an applicant from Washington's Banneker High School, a predominantly African-American magnet school.
The process began with admissions officers making the first cut. When they couldn't decide, they sent the file to a committee, comprised of faculty members, students, and an admissions officer. The committee members attributed a score to each applicant. Those who met or exceeded the cutoff point were admitted. Those below were not. At the end of March, the all-important letters went out.
"For the decision mailing itself, we'll mail out 15,500 letters, plus additional follow-up pieces for the admitted students," said John McGowan, a Georgetown admissions officer. "Altogether, we'll send about 30,000 pieces of mail through here."
Some applicants found they just could not wait, so admissions officers field calls from the anxious. Given that Georgetown received 10 applications for every place in the freshman class, the news is not always easy to deliver or hear.