But after four months of slaving over their essays, meeting with their guidance counselors, filling out forms for financial aid and trying to make a good impression upon alumni interviewers, the students Nightline profiled experienced a change in the power dynamic as the deadline for accepting offers approached. Gahl and May were accepted early, and while Brown was deferred in the early applicant pool, he was accepted during the regular decision process.
All three of the students were accepted to more than just one university, and they had important choices to make. This is, after all, said to be a decision that would shape their futures.
"I've heard from Duke, UNC, NYU, University of Rochester, Michigan, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, and Georgetown," Brown said.
Georgetown, like many universities, courted its accepted students with regional receptions, weekends for prospective students, phone calls and welcome letters.
Each of the students profiled by Nightline had different priorities in making their final decisions.
Brown was concerned about diversity and location, so he went on the road to visit several campuses. And while all three students applied for financial aid, this was an especially critical factor for Brown, who said, "If I get a good enough package, then I'll just have to follow the money."
A generous offer from Duke ultimately tipped the scales for Brown.
May stressed that elusive thing called the "right fit." Atmosphere, to her, was more important than any other tangible factor. She found what she was looking for when she visited Notre Dame.
"In the end," she said, "I think what really made my final decision was going and visiting Notre Dame. I don't know how to explain to other people exactly what you feel when you go to a school, but you just kind of know it. I guess I just loved the atmosphere, the friendship that students at Notre Dame have."
Gahl, who speaks of perhaps being a theology major, was the only one of the trio profiled by Nightline who decided to attend Georgetown. When she went back to visit Georgetown after being accepted, she was particularly interested in the school's Catholic identity.
"Georgetown was always my first choice," she said, "so I'm really happy about going there."
While Gahl, May and Brown all received several attractive offers, many high school seniors face the reality of rejection from the schools of their choice.
Meg Brinker, a college counselor at Langley High School, has her own perspective on the college admissions process.
"It's a business," she said. "It's part of a learning process. It's part of your rite into adulthood. For some people it's the first time they were told, 'No,' and the first time they have been disappointed."
This year's admissions process at Georgetown took place against the backdrop of a national debate about affirmative action at the University of Michigan, which is confronting a U.S. Supreme Court challenge to its admission policy. While Georgetown is a private university and not subject to the same legal scrutiny, race and privilege are still issues relevant to admissions.