By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010; C01
The first 570 members of George Washington University's Class of 2014 found out they had been accepted one day in early December. Within hours, they began to network on Facebook -- making friends, debating dorms, discussing "Real World: Washington D.C." and organizing a Wiffle ball team.
"Let the friend requests begin lol. Congrats again guys, 2014 all the way!" a high school senior from New Jersey posted late that night. A few days later, a senior from Illinois wrote, "The senioritis has definitely begun."
College classes don't start for eight months, senior year of high school is barely half over and most deadlines for general admission still haven't hit, but students who committed to attending selective universities through early decision programs have gotten a jump on their virtual college life.
"I already have a sense of having a class of close-knit friends," said Ryan Counihan, a high school senior from Boston who turned 18 last week and received online birthday wishes from several future GWU classmates. "We definitely have a leg up. . . . We have an extra four months or so to get to know each other."
At several colleges across the country, early decision has become an online clique, an opportunity to become a leader at a school they do not yet attend. The University of Chicago Class of 2014 Facebook group proclaims: "Well, we've gotten a head start on everything else. Let's meet each other!" A group at Brown University boasts, "The rest of the masses will find out if they'll be joining us early April."
GWU has a half-dozen Class of 2014 groups on Facebook, and the largest has more than 325 members. (Anyone can join, and there is no guarantee that all members have been accepted.) Together, the students have watched the mail for their acceptance packages, compared financial aid offerings, debated the pros and cons of living in a dorm known for having a "party culture," and marveled at how cool it will be to live in the District.
"Umm we'll be in DC for the next presidential inauguration . . . WHAT," a girl from New York posted. Fourteen others hit the "like" button, and a girl from Chicago responded, "I was thinking about that today and freaked out ahhh!"
And there are plans for non-virtual contact: More than 60 students in the New York area will meet this month or next, and a smaller group in Boston will do the same. A handful of Chicago students met last month.
Students who apply for early decision tend to be devoted fans of the school, said Steve Roche, director of GWU's freshman orientation program, Colonial Inauguration. And that makes them more likely to plunge into networking once they are accepted.
Being accepted into college begins the transition from high school, Roche said, and often a Facebook profile metamorphosis: Besides adding friends and joining college networks, students might remove prom photos and ditch their loyalty to the Jonas Brothers.
Going through that transition in the middle of senior year, rather than right before graduation or over the summer, can be jarring. So when students or their parents called Roche last week asking for orientation information, he gently told them: "Here's the information. But worry about your high school career. . . . It's December, heading into January. Don't forget that you have that extra semester."
But for many students, the carefully choreographed college admissions process is starting sooner in their high school careers. Early decision, which is used by competitive colleges to fill part of their freshman class months ahead of time, has become more popular in recent years.
GWU received 70 percent more early decision applications this fall than two years ago. The university is holding a second early decision round this month. The deadline for that and general admission is Jan. 10.
Occasionally, the early deciders remind each other that they aren't the only members of the Class of 2014 -- and that others will quickly join the groups they've set up. The real test of their Facebook friendships will come when they meet each other.
These days, students increasingly come to freshman orientation knowing 30 or 40 people rather than being just vaguely acquainted with their roommate from the awkward phone call in which they decide who is bringing the microwave, Roche said. Still, most of those Facebook-forged friendships won't last.
"It's good because it makes them feel more comfortable," Roche said. "Just in my experience, those friendships don't last more than a week or two into the semester."
Max Hoffman, 17, broadcast the news of his acceptance on GWU's main Facebook page but has resisted joining the Class of 2014 group, friending future classmates or replying to the guy who wants to be his roommate.
"I don't want to push the whole process," said Hoffman, who lives outside of Boston. "I want to enjoy high school."