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While people everywhere deck the halls, high school seniors hold their breath and wait — with visions of acceptance letters dancing in their heads.

Crunch Time

Alana Paul isn't worried about the arrival of a jolly old elf in a red suit.

It's not his bag that interests the 17-year-old Governor's School senior. Instead, she's got her eyes on the postman. His mailbag is much more alluring — in fact right now, it's the center of her universe.

Inside are gifts more promising than gold: fat letters from colleges far and near, padded with kudos and fetching yesses. Inside, too, are disappointments: skinny letters, so weightless that stamps seem unnecessary. Waiting, waiting, waiting. From November to May, the lives of high school seniors everywhere hang in this tentative, nail-biting balance.

With the exception of students who applied early decision to their first-choice schools and now wait nervously for replies, most high school seniors now are in the midst of a mad dash to get college applications in before the early January deadline.

Take Paul, for instance. Dickinson, Washington, Duke, Mary Washington, William and Mary. To most high school seniors, five would seem an exhaustive list. But for the senior at the Governor's School for Government and International Studies, applying to five colleges is just the half of it. She spends five to six hours a week preparing her applications. "It's pretty much like taking another class," says Paul, "And it does add a lot of stress."

Already, she has applied to two schools early-action — she should hear before Christmas whether or not she's been accepted. Yes or no, she still has eight applications to go. "I guess I'm pretty indecisive," says Paul.

She says knowing she wants to go into environmental science has helped limit her college choices — to 10.

Aside from the jitters she'll feel waiting for her answers, Paul's experience, and that of other high-school seniors, is remarkably different from students just five years ago.

Largely thanks to the Internet, the college application process is a strange new animal — a morphed breed of technology and protocol that guidance counselors, students and parents tackle with mixed success.

"The old days of writing to a college for a viewbook and waiting for it are gone," says Bart Gummere, guidance director at Collegiate's Upper School. Official college Web sites virtually make a campus tour of Stanford University, 3,000 miles away, as easy as an hour road trip to the University of Virginia. And when students apply on average to six colleges apiece, negotiating Internet time is much more advantageous than real travel time, not to mention the savings to the wallet.

"The Web is so immediate," acknowledges Gummere, who says that nearly 20 percent of his 110-member senior class uses the Internet to apply to college online. And in five years, he expects they all will. "Students today can find out who the soccer coach is or the orchestra leader is, and they investigate that. It's a great development."

But Gummere says not everyone is completely sold yet: "Online applications are going to pose some real problems," warns Gummere. "The students are not very confident about sending the application electronically," he says, explaining that until colleges promote electronic applications as the standard, hard copies will provide more assurance. For some, the postal service still beats cyberspace.

At Henrico's J.R. Tucker High School nearly 40 percent of the 367 seniors have applied to colleges online. "It makes it a little confusing," says the school registrar Ashley Pittman. "It's a matter of getting part A with part B in the end, and that can be a little bit of a headache."

"Our seniors are more together,"[than in previous years] says Lisa Kaplan, the school's guidance counselor. "We got applications as early as September." Kaplan credits part of the early action to Virginia colleges attracting a large draw not only from Virginia students, but from students throughout the country. For colleges like Virginia Tech, the out-of-state tuition rate is a bargain at $5,922 a semester. For Virginia residents, that's just $1,810 a semester, not including room and board. "We see an increase in the Tech applications, and I think it has to do with the football team," muses Kaplan.

But it's something more. "The bar is being raised at schools like Longwood, Radford and ODU," explains Kaplan, "because the students in the 3.2 to 3.4 range aren't getting into Tech and JMU like they were." And for a graduating class in which more than half its students will rely on financial aid, competition for state and federal money is as stiff as GPA standing. "My number one student in the class this year wanted to go to University of Pennsylvania, but now he's looking at JMU or U.Va. because of financial aid [opportunities]. The whole application process "is foremost in their minds now along with scholarships," says Kaplan. "Thirty or so come by the office each day to see if any have been given."

Wanda Fisher, guidance counselor at Atlee High School in Hanover, says parents are playing a new role in helping their kids apply to college. Just as 35 percent of the 360 Atlee students turn to the Internet to access information, so too do their parents. Each student will likely apply to five colleges, some will apply to seven. "[Parents] are more involved now in search of the same information," Fisher says.

The guidance counselors agree that what really drives students crazy about the college application process is the essay. Across the board, colleges now require students to write essays, once used only by the most competitive schools.

Collegiate's Gummere thinks the angst of applying to colleges and the rigorous competition can get out of hand, particularly for students who commit to a college and apply early. "It puts a lot of pressure on them," says Gummere, "I worry that they'll be quick to make decisions."

But for most students the college decision process begins even before junior year. It's a choice that means everything. Amid dreams fulfilled, for now, by the fat letters of admission, Gummere prepares other students for the reality of no. He sticks by his favorite adage by Twain: "Never let school interfere with your education."

"Some kids get very emotional, some take it very much in stride. After all the time they spend on it, the actual decision of a 'yes' doesn't solve all their problems, and a 'no' doesn't ruin their lives."

With 10 applications, Paul says she expects to get into at least half and is hoping to go to school out of state: "I want to see more of the world," she explains, even though her parents would rather she stay in Virginia.

With all those application essays nearly under her belt, she's had a lot of time to ponder the most prevalent question of all: "What person, event, or thing in your life has had a significant impact?" Today, Paul credits her grandmother.

"I'll be finding out about the two early-action schools around the holidays. I'm very anxious," she says. "This is definitely the most important decision I've made in my

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