The month of December is a popular favorite, with holiday spirit and the return of wintry weather. But December means something else for seniors, including those at Andover High School: it's crunch time in the college admissions process.

The process is known to create a busy and often stressful start to students' senior year. So what exactly does this process consist of? For most, it begins with researching different colleges, and learning about their majors and programs. Next, students may use multiple resources, such as college websites or guide manuals, to determine what colleges they might realistically be accepted into. Many will visit schools to "get a good feel" for the campus and the community, enabling them to discern if they would want to live there for the next four years.

However, the application process is usually the most daunting step. Most schools ask students to fill out a common application, in which they elaborate on general personal information. The common application also demands the personal essay, a writing piece in which a student is given perhaps 1,000 words to explain who they are, and what they can bring to the campus. Additionally, many schools require students to submit supplemental essays on various topics. Schools will almost always require students to receive written recommendations from previous teachers. It is the student's task to give these teachers the necessary materials in order to write and send their recommendations. Most schools still require testing (SATs or ACTs), and students will have to take these four-hour standardized tests, and have their scores sent.

This is clearly a lengthy process, and high school guidance counselors are typically at the helm of aiding seniors. Mike Marcoux, and Peggy Cain, the two most senior guidance counselors at the high school, say this process has changed over the years.

Mr. Marcoux has been in the guidance department for 27 years, and Ms. Cain is a close second with 26 years. During that time there have been "enormous changes," says Cain. Marcoux and Cain agreed that students have "branched out" and are now look at colleges outside of New England. Acceptance rates have lowered as the "competition has become more intense."

"We are at the peak," said Cain, talking about the growing numbers of students who apply.

Early applying is more prevalent and while seniors used to have an average of four to five months to organize their applications, early deadlines can limit that to six to eight weeks following the start of senior year. Seniors are applying to more schools in past years, with eight to ten being the average, said Marcoux and Cain. Additionally, the economy has affected the number of applicants applying to state funded colleges and universities. Marcoux said that students who in years past might have applied to "all private schools" will now apply to both private and public universities.

Cain said that testing is one of the major stressors of the process. The SATs and ACTs put pressure on students, and students are encouraged to take them multiple times. However, Cain remarked that less emphasis is being put on testing as colleges are aware that "test preparation can create inequities." Marcoux said that the common application essay can be stressful because "fewer schools do interviews, and the essay takes full reign over [conveying] who a student is."

Both counselors agreed that the most common dilemma students face during the process is making the decision about where to apply. Marcoux said that the decisions are "more up to students now," with parents and counselors playing less of a role.

"I can't tell a kid where to go" said Marcoux. "It's his or her decision."

Many seniors are not only handling the college process, but are also working on a rigorous course-load. Cain suggested that seniors should "ask for help when they need it," but believes that "every student can do it." Those entering the process are advised to start earlier, and to know their schedules to balance these months.

Marcoux said that the process is best done in "small chunks." He suggests people work hard on one portion of an application, take a break, and continue.

Marcoux and Cain strongly contend that the majority of "outcomes are good. Colleges are a fit and will turn out very well." Every year, both are visited by college freshman who have nothing but fantastic things to say about the school they are attending. Both want seniors to remember that a college's main priority is to build their freshman class. With that in mind, Cain wanted students to realize that "admissions are not a measure of who you are." Receiving a rejection letter "does not mean that you weren't qualified," she emphasized. Marcoux and Cain firmly agreed that there are many excellent schools, and that one can even "pick eight top choices" and be satisfied with any outcome.

"December can be an emotional month," said Cain. "There are lots of people who are more than willing to help."

Eric Bryden is an Andover High School student writing as an intern at the Townsman.

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