This is the fourth post in a continuing series about a high school senior who is attemping to navigate through the college admissions process. She is Samantha Fogel, a student at The Derryfield School, a private college preparatory day school for grades six through twelve in Manchester, New Hampshire. Samantha and her college counselor, Brennan Barnard, are documenting her application process in a series of occasional posts that include the voices of her parents, teachers, friends and others. Her story may help debunk some myths surrounding selective college admission while providing a window into a time of transition for one young woman growing up in rural New Hampshire.

In the first post, which you can read the first post here, Samantha Fogel and Brennan Barnard wrote about the beginnings of the college search.  Fogel explained how starting the application process was like “being sent out to sea by myself with 20 different maps.” The second post, with thoughts from Barnard as well as her parents, Erin and Jeff Fogel, speaks to the issue of how to parent a child trying to finish high school while undergoing the anxiety-ridden college application process.  The third post looks at her unconventional search for colleges to visit to help decide where to apply. And this post is about how she decided which college to apply to through the early decision process. With early decision decisions upon us at many schools, the piece has resonance right now.

Samantha Fogel, high school senior who is applying for college. (Photo by Annie Branch)

From Samantha Fogel:

If one were to lay out all the words to describe Samantha Fogel, “decisive” would never once surface. I’m all too familiar with the uncomfortable feeling of cold feet. However in the face of choosing a college, I opted to simply don a pair of wool socks and make the decision to commit to one college. The idea of applying to a school early decision appeals to me for a myriad of reasons, most stemming from comfort and convenience. The potential for a higher acceptance rate with an early-decision application provides me with a small comfort that my chance of being accepted is greater. In addition, if I were to be accepted, I am relieved of the pressure of deciding between more than one college when acceptances begin to roll in this March.

However, this contractually binding agreement is an enormous commitment, a condition with which I’ve never been completely comfortable. These pros and cons weigh heavily in my mind as the deadline slowly approaches. However, given the advantages, I am certain that I will apply to a school early decision. I recently came across the jarring and painfully blatant truth that I needed to actually decide on a school.

Upon my visit to Bates College in Maine earlier this fall, I immediately fell in love with the campus, academic opportunities, and sense of community at the school. I came home with a smile and an enthusiastic “Go Bobcats!” attitude, certain that this would be my top choice. However conflict arose when, prompted by my fear that I had not looked at enough schools, I made the trek up to Maine once again to visit a fellow New England Small College Athletic Conference school, Colby College. Although there was a slightly different atmosphere on campus, I found myself pulled towards Colby as well. Comparing and contrasting the schools brought me full circle, as they appeared almost identical in both advantages and disadvantages, distinguished only by the intangible and indescribable concept of “the vibe.”

I stumbled blindly through making my decision for almost a month, alternating my top choice between Colby and Bates depending on my mood. There were a brief few weeks where I was almost sure Colby would be the early decision. I began to grow confident in this choice, yet something in the back of my mind felt unsettled. Pushing it down, I reassured myself it was just my characteristic cold feet with Bates. Still a top contender, I scheduled an interview there as a proactive measure for my application in January. On the drive up, I kept my mind open, considering this visit as a last chance to solidify which school would become my early decision application. It was not until I arrived on campus that second time that I truly understood the idea of “gut feeling.”

As I walked into the admissions building, I saw myself not as an uneasy prospective applicant, but as a student, comfortably at home on campus. A strong believer in vibes and trusting my gut, I had been uncomfortable with not getting that feeling towards other schools in the past. When asked if I could “see myself at (insert given school)”, I would often hesitate. Yet at Bates, even in those two visits, it felt entirely right, I could truly see myself there. Although the idea of this degree of commitment to anything terrifies me, my mind is set at ease when I think of how natural it felt when I stepped on the Bates campus.


From Brennan Barnard:

It is said that “the early bird catches the worm.” This is great if indeed you eat worms; otherwise, early is not the treat that it seems. The same holds true when it comes to college admission.

For the right student, an early application —whether Early Decision (binding) or Early Action (non-binding)— can be a wonderful thing. Typically, a student can learn whether they were accepted to a college in December and can rest easily knowing they have a home after high school. For the large number of college applicants who do not have clarity about their likes and dislikes, the pressure to apply early amounts to a pile of worms.

The past decade has seen an exponential growth in the use of early admission plans to help colleges boost application numbers and secure a rising percentage of qualified students in the fall. It is an arms race of sorts and the unfortunate victims are students who are still struggling to develop identity and a sense of self. What was once a journey of introspection and growth has shifted to one of gaming and strategy and process. In fact, it is more commonly referred to as “the college process.”

My colleague, Matthew Hyde, the director of admission at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, argues that we should reframe how we view and discuss college admission, not as a process but as an “experience.” He writes:

“I would assert that the search for a college and the ensuing application effort is a true rarified ‘rite of passage’ – a life moment that when tended to appropriately can add depth and meaning to one’s ‘sense of self.’ I also encourage (and always hope to inspire) students to not just lead with introspection, but to find the fuel to self-celebrate at every turn through this experience.”

With his thoughts as our guide we need to reassess the push to early applications.

When I first began as a college counselor 15 years ago, while others at Thanksgiving and Christmas time were watching football games and shopping and baking holiday treats, I was squirreled away in my home office frantically writing college recommendations to meet the January 1st admission deadlines. About a quarter of the graduating seniors in early 2000 applied to a college early in November and the rest were rushing to the post office with me on New Years Eve.

Only five years ago, the senior class at The Derryfield School had 55 percent of our class submit at least one Early Action or Early Decision application. This year that number is closer to 90 percent. Is this because the class of 2015 is a bunch of “go getters” who know where they want to go to college and whose amygdalas (the part of the brain that is partly responsible for emotion and motivation) are more developed? Do today’s seniors have advanced decision making skills? Sit in the senior hang-out at our school for ten minutes and one will quickly learn that this class is no different than their predecessors, with one major exception. The level of stress and anxiety that fills the hallways in late October is profound in 2014. This is not a phenomenon unique to our school culture; my counseling colleagues throughout the country report the same.

So, why this pressure, amplification and acceleration of the college admission process? Is it coming from college counselors like me who don’t want to spend the holidays held up in the office? Is it the maniacal admission officers sitting in their offices dreaming up ways to developmentally stunt the growth of high school seniors? Is it parents who look forward to nagging their children all summer to have their materials ready early in the fall to rush out to colleges? Or perhaps these are just students who cannot wait to get out of high school and live wild and free?

No, none of the above. These edicts and policies come from much higher up the food chain of administration at colleges and universities. Institutional governing boards and presidents fixated on rankings and the bottom line are driving this procedural shift. The educators on the ground are simply following marching orders while we watch young people and their families grow anxious and weary.

Kudos to all those students who know they like worms. This plan is great to allow you to savor the remaining months of your high school years. To the rest of you, I apologize on behalf of the adults in your life that this developmental milestone has become thwarted into a business model that disregards the growing research on adolescent brain development and denies you your appropriate high school experience. Please know that uncertainty and confusion at this stage are perfectly normal and it is right to be exploring and questioning at this important time of life.

(Correcting name of mascot)