Students Learn Life Lessons in College Hunt

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.

The Students

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.

Admissions Committee

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.

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.

Determining Factors

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."

A Business

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.

"I think it's very unfair to think that the only reason that this person is going to the school is to play sports, or because they are a minority, or because they live in an outreach region or something like that," Brown said. "So I believe that everyone that's admitted to the college definitely has the qualifications."

Charles Deacon, Georgetown's dean of admissions, said "diversity is very important" to decision makers at the university.

"We reserve the right to put together the class that we think is most relevant and interesting to each other, and for our purpose of graduating students who'll be successful citizens of our country and contribute to the world," Deacon said. "It's not just the test scores or the grades, but it's a combination of everything. So, there's an awful lot of subjectivity that goes into it at the selective colleges."

May recognized that subjectivity.

"I think there are definitely cases where people get in and it's not fair to get in," she said. "But, you know, life isn't fair in general. And I definitely think it was a good learning experience for myself and everyone that I know to go through it. It's going to be the exact same thing when we try to get a job one day or apply to graduate school, so why not learn it now?"

Brinker tries to prepare her students for the possibility of disappointment.

"What I tell my students," she said, "is that schools, when they receive your application, are not looking for reasons not to accept you. They are looking for the reasons that they could accept you."

Words of Wisdom

Throughout all of the doubt, stress, excitement, and anticipation, each of the students Nightline followed said they learned lessons about the process and about themselves.

"Regardless of what happens, if you get deferred or rejected, just know what type of person you are and have confidence in yourself, regardless of whatever happens," Brown said.

After accepting Georgetown's offer of early admission, Gahl advised all rising seniors to "really start early and decide which colleges they wanted to go. Try to find a school that you really like and look everywhere."

Brinker agreed.

"It's not about the name, it's about the match," she said. "You don't eat the same food as your friends every day. You don't wear the same clothes as your friends every day. You're not going to like the same schools."

Deacon's advice would be to "not treat this as a game that you win or lose, but a journey into an unknown. And it's going to be an interesting opportunity for you to get to know yourself a lot better, because you're going to be asking yourself, 'Who am I and what kind of person do I want to be?' and, 'How will that then match up with these opportunities out there?' "

For now, the universities have made their selections. And the students, having received their letters, made selections of their own. But just weeks after the class of 2007 takes form, the future class of 2008 already is starting the process, looking at schools and requesting applications, complete with essays that they will write and the universities of their choice will review.

ABCNEWS' Michel Martin contributed to this report.