As much of the class of 2006 arrived at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., last fall, it marked the successful end of a long and stressful journey through the college admissions process.
(This story is the first in a series of five. See links below for other stories in the series.)
"This is a great place to be," said Dustin Maghamfar, an incoming student. "I walked out for the first time and was like, 'I'm going to school here? Wow.'"
It was also the end of a difficult marathon for most of the families.
"It's tough because of the applications, the essays and you're right there with her," said the mother of Melanie Hall, a new student.
"Income taxes is kid's stuff, compared to your financial aid applications and waiting for decisions," said the father of Josh Uakcinski.
"We're really happy we don't have any other children and we never have to do this again," said Maghamfar's mother.
Members of Georgetown's freshman class arrive feeling they have survived something like an obstacle course, an endurance trial, a mythical quest, all at the same time. True or not, they have survived stiff competition, as some Georgetown freshmen learned at their first class meeting.
"So, who are you, you happy few who come here together today?" asked James O'Donnell, a school official. "There were 15,537 people who applied to be members of the class of 2006 at Georgetown. 1,753 of you are here today."
As the next group of high school seniors prepares to take the plunge into college applications, the stakes seem very high, as we found out when we interviewed seniors at three Washington, D.C.-area high schools — Georgetown Visitation, a Catholic girl's school; Benjamin Banneker, a selective, mainly African-American public high school; and Langley, a public high school in a wealthy suburb of northern Virginia.
To get an inside look at how students and colleges are coping, ABCNEWS' Nightline will follow three high school seniors — Caitlin May of Georgetown Visitation, David Brown of Banneker and Elizabeth Gahl of Langley — through the whole nerve-wracking process. All are applying early to Georgetown University in Washington, which granted exclusive access to its admissions decision making.
The three, and their classmates who also spoke to ABCNEWS, had high expectations of college life.
"I'm just so excited about just going to college and having new experiences, learning," Brown said.
"Once we get there, it's going to be like the best four years of our lives," said Elliott Formal, a Langley student.
"You get to meet so many different people from so many different places," said a Georgetown Visitation student, Joanna Joly.
The excitement was tempered by a pervasive sense of anxiety, even dread, among many of the students, particularly the middle-class and affluent kids for whom going to college — and not just any college — is expected.
"Every parent that will come into my room will say, 'This isn't like it was 20 years ago,'" said Meg Brinker, a college counselor at Langley. "'You applied to two places, you picked one, and you went. And we didn't have all this competition and we weren't worried.'"