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.'"
"They're overwhelmed just by the volume of material that they have to wade through," said Jacqueline Pegram, a counselor at Banneker. "One parent once told me that her son's idea of going through his college material was to pick up the crate where the material was located and move it to another portion of his room."
Georgetown's long-time dean of admissions, Charles Deacon, says there's a bright side to the pressure.
"It's a result of a very good thing," he said. "It's a very egalitarian movement that's happened in our country. Today, 30, 40 percent of our high school graduates see college in their future, compared to 10 or 15 percent just 30 years ago. And that 10 or 15 percent 30 years ago was a pretty advantaged population."
‘College Name … Helps You Succeed’
But, for many of these kids, just any college won't do.
"I basically, think it's … the college name that helps you succeed and have people recognize you," said Andrew Bontrous, a Langley student.
"Seems like society sort of puts pressure on people to go to a good-name college," said Ann Marie Dooley, a Georgetown Visitation student. "I would just rather go to a school that I liked, although I am looking at colleges that happen to have good names."
"I'll have a student on one side of me and the parents on the other," Brinker said. "And we're not agreeing with what is the best match for the student. And that's what I think is most important. There's 3,000 schools out there. And it's about a match. Where are you going to grow the most and do the best?"
"They want to get into the best school they can get into," said Suzanne Colligan, a counselor at Georgetown Visitation. "They want to feel good that all their hard work paid off and that they can feel proud of themselves, and that their parents can feel proud of them."
It has to be said that, for some, prestige is not the no. 1 issue.
"The only reason I really had to scratch some colleges off my list is, basically, financially, they're just too expensive," Brown said. "Some schools just are unrealistic in their price. And being in debt for the next 15 years just isn't appealing to me."
A fellow Banneker student, Narissae Francis, added it is enough, "Just as long as I get an education that I need and am able to take away the knowledge that I need to … have in order to do what I want to do with my life."
"Depending on what you think is a good school for your career, I believe that you should focus more on that," said another, Karina Uedawho. It's "not the end of the world. And it's more like, you have to be confident going into this process."
If she doesn't get into her top choice, "I might cry but, I know maybe it wasn't in my destiny to be there."
Pegram said she does not feel excessive pressure of getting all Banneker students into a "name" school.
"I feel, as my colleagues do, the pressure of getting students into schools that meet their needs," she said. "As I tell students, I've never visited a school that didn't have a name."
ABCNEWS' Michel Martin and Courtney King contributed to this report.