WHITEWATER -- From piles of homework to emotional drama to peer pressure, the stress of high school seems like a necessarily evil for everyone at some point in life.
But for those teens who are facing it now, there's another pressure -- the fear of not going to a good college.
"I would go to bed stressed out and crying and not happy. It's a terrible process actually," recalled Elizabeth Johnson about applying to college and waiting for the acceptance -- or rejection letter.
High school students are applying to more universities than ever before and confronting tougher standards than their parents did to get in.
"It's a lot of work," noted Johnson, a Marquette University student. "When all my friends were out Friday night, I'd be sitting there with my mom and my aunt doing these applications."
Marquette University Dean of Admissions Dr. Roby Blust said getting into college is "more competitive. More students are applying to college, so that gives a little bit of uncertainty to what schools they might gain admission to."
He recommended students "start early" by choosing challenging courses during all four years of high school, in addition to getting good grades and doing well on college entrance exams.
He says teens used to send applications to three or four colleges to insure they'd get accepted by at least one. Now they apply to six or seven.
"For the last 14 years, the applications have gone up at Marquette. When I started at Marquette, we were receiving 5,000 freshman applications. This year we're almost at 24,000 applications," explained Dr. Blust.
The story is repeated at other campuses across the state and country, whether it's a private or public school.
This year, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater stopped taking applications a month earlier than usual, on April 1, because the school had already accepted more than enough students interested in joining the freshman class this fall.
"We anticipate we'll have just over 2,100 new freshman in our freshman class," said Matt Aschenbrener, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment and retention at UW-Whitewater.
He said his campus got nearly 7,000 applications this year and only accepted 4,500 of them.
As demand increases for spots, colleges generally don't add more students.
"We would love to have more students. Part of our problem is campus housing. We try not to turn students away from our campus housing," explained Aschenbrener.
Dr. Blust said Marquette keeps its freshman enrollment numbers about the same every year to maintain similar class sizes.
"What this has allowed us to do is focus on quality, academic quality; focus on diversity, which are two very important pieces of our entering class," noted Dr. Blust.
The spike in applications is not due to demographics. College admission directors say the overall number of high school students has been declining in Wisconsin and nationally in recent years.
"Students are looking at college more as an option. They've heard about it more. Some jobs out there require that experience," said Aschenbrener.
But it's not just the job prospects that are drawing more to college campuses -- the social and service opportunities are touted in the hip marketing messages delivered by today's modern universities.
"That transformation they get at a college or university is equally as important as that diploma," enthused Dr. Blust.
It's also a lot easier for today's teens to apply to more than one college.
"Online applications are the norm in terms of colleges and universities. So that's certainly been a factor," added Dr. Blust.
Marquette's dean says his university doesn't even offer a paper application and therefore doesn't charge an application fee.
Marquette is also one of many colleges that now accepts the "common application" -- which high school students can fill-in once and then blast out to all their potential choices.
"The last and most important reason is the understanding that a college education is incredibly important," noted Dr. Blust, "making sure students have the best choices available, and that's being pushed by parents, by counselors, by lots of folks."
Johnson described her parents as "pretty tough" for telling her she had to start looking at colleges her sophomore year of high school. She says she spent that summer visiting 42 different campuses up and down the East Coast!
"We went to Yale. I remember being there the fourth hour of some garden tour, and I'm like: 'Dad, we gotta go!" laughed Johnson.
She said her high school counselor suggested she apply to three "reach" schools she knew would be a challenge, two universities she liked and had a good shot at acceptance, and two "safety" schools she knew she'd get in because her grade point average and test scores were well above the average for accepted students in the past.
"So that was the spread there," she smiled. The odds worked, because Johnson said she got admitted to six of the seven.
But experts say the urge to apply everywhere doesn't game the system -- it only raises the stress.
"We had a student last year that I know applied to 22 colleges including Marquette. And so that's way too many," insisted Dr. Blust.
That's why Marquette offers admission to 13,000 applicants, but only about 1,900 end up enrolling.
Dr. Blust recommends seniors do not apply to a college or university "unless -- if everything would work out from the financial aspect to the admission aspect -- that you wouldn't gladly go there."
Even if a high school senior doesn't get accepted at a university, there are 1,600 community colleges with open admission policies that accept any student with a high school diploma.
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