At 16, Jessica Maxwell is swirling with questions about her future: College or university? In North Carolina or Alabama? A photojournalism career or one in sports medicine?
At the Loudoun County college fair Wednesday night, she went from table to table, seeking advice about one of life's most trying experiences: applying to college.
"It was really helpful," the Loudoun Valley High School junior said afterward. "I looked at some smaller colleges I didn't know about."
For the third consecutive year, Potomac Falls High hosted the college night. So many students and parents attended this year that the school's parking lot was shut down before the doors even opened at 7 p.m., and parts of Algonkian Parkway were blocked off. Shuttle buses from the area's elementary schools brought hundreds more to the fair.
They swarmed the high school's two gyms and cafeteria to chat with admissions representatives from 175 schools. Above the din, officials said they may hold next year's fair at Dulles Town Center to better handle the crowds.
Campuses that attracted the most interest included the College of William and Mary, James Madison University, George Mason University, Radford University, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Lawrence A. Groves, associate dean of admissions at U-Va., estimated that 500 students stopped by his table in the main gym.
Kristen Scott was one of them. The 16-year-old Potomac Falls junior also inquired about the University of North Carolina and the University of Pennsylvania.
"I'm looking for a nice atmosphere," said Scott, who lives in Sterling and would like to stay on the East Coast, perhaps even in state.
Curtis Scott, who scanned the admissions materials with his daughter, expressed shock at how complicated the application process has become. Recalling that the first time he even saw his future alma mater, Brown University, was when he arrived for his freshman year, he said, "It was nothing like it is today." There was no campus visit, no online tour over the Internet.
B.J. Marchi, of Countryside, who was waiting outside the college fair to meet her daughter, said her family has been inundated by applications, financial aid forms and other paperwork. "This is just overwhelming," she said.
The admissions process is particularly competitive this year, college representatives said, because of the large number of students applying. Some admissions officers volunteered tips on getting in.
"We look for a well-rounded student who works hard inside and outside of class," said Regina White, an enrollment aide at Virginia's Lynchburg College. "You need to do more than just read a book, take a test and get an A."
As students searched for schools that would offer them a chance to play varsity sports or major in music, admissions representatives also were on the hunt.
In seconds, they must catch a student's attention, entice that individual with a brochure and persuade them to fill out a card expressing interest in knowing more about the school.
"I say, 'The University of South Carolina is a great buy and offers you a great education,' " said Alicia Walker, an admissions counselor with the Columbia, S.C., school.
Students immediately inquire about the university's vitals--minimum SAT scores and grade-point averages for admission, Walker said. Parents ask the obvious follow-up question: How much is this going to cost?
At least 10 people at a time crowded the Harvard University table for most of the two-hour forum to hear about the benefits of an Ivy League education. Around the corner, the bespectacled, bow-tied admissions representative from Hampden-Sydney College, near Farmville, Va., was giving his own sales pitch.
First he talked about the advantages of a small liberal arts college for men; then he moved on to history.
"It is the 10th oldest school in the country," said Steven M. Haas, assistant dean of admissions who graduated from Hampden-Sydney this year. James Madison and Patrick Henry were early members of the college's board of trustees, he added, and William Henry Harrison was a graduate.
One of the most frequent questions he gets is, "Where are the girls?"
Other questioners posed more serious queries.
Jennifer Allen, of Cascades, snatched materials from about 10 colleges. Even though she is only 16, the Potomac Falls junior already has ideas about her future: She's considering an English major at an out-of-state school and, possibly, a journalism career.
There is one issue, though, she hasn't considered.
"I'm trying not to think about the money," she said.
CAPTION: Hundreds of parents and students fill the main gym where about 80 colleges set up shop.
CAPTION: Loudoun Valley High student Adam King and his mother, Lisa, look over literature at college fair Wednesday at Potomac Falls High.
CAPTION: Broad Run Senior Kristin St. Raymond, left, and her parents, Barbara and Philip, talk with a representative from Harvard University.