College admissions anxiety stretches over holiday season anxiety


The University of Michigan wants Melissa O’Neill. She really, really wants Vanderbilt.

But just knowing that she’s gotten into one of her top college choices gives O’Neill, a Walt Whitman High School senior who plans to study political science, a modicum of relief this holiday season.

O’Neill, the 17-year-old daughter of county Board of Education member Pat O’Neill, is lucky. As the admissions race becomes ever-more grueling and tuition costs continue to spiral upward, thousands of Montgomery County high school seniors will spend winter break on edge hoping for the biggest gift of their academic careers so far: acceptance into a premier school.

The county has nearly 11,000 high school seniors this year. Many of those students are accustomed to being among the best and brightest. If one can assess their future success by looking at where they’re applying, they are.

"These kids are extremely motivated," Lynda Hitchcock, the college and career information coordinator at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Potomac, said. "They’re expected to do well, and they do do well."

This year’s crop of soon-to-be freshmen isn’t straying too much from the past. Aside from the Ivy League, students continue to look to Michigan, Indiana University, Washington University in St. Louis, Georgetown, Virginia public colleges and, of course, the University of Maryland, College Park, high school college coordinators say.

Last year, 3,086 Montgomery students applied to College Park. Of those, 1,547 were admitted and 509 enrolled, Kate Gannon, associate director of admissions, said.

O’Neill could have a sizable Whitman reunion if she chooses Michigan. So far, 72 Whitman seniors applied there this year, ranking it No. 2 among students’ top choices, said Jan Marmor, the school’s college coordinator. College Park ranked No. 1 with 197 applicants. University of Virginia rounded out the top three with 57 applicants.

Shelley Levine, a private college counselor, works with about 50 public and private school students, the majority of whom are from Montgomery. In her 18 years in the industry, she’s seen the popularity of some schools, including College Park, boom.

"The midlevel schools have jumped up to be very selective," Levine said. "The top-tier schools have jumped up to be very unreachable."

The University of Virginia, a school considered notoriously difficult to get into from out of state, is among those schools becoming more and more unreachable. In 2006, the school offered 107 students of out 319 public school applicants a spot in that year’s freshman class. Of those, 33 enrolled, said the school’s director of marketing Karen Torgenson.

This year, 378 public high schoolers sought spots at the University of Virginia; 105 were accepted. Of those, 31 enrolled.

Levine warns students not to be dismayed even during this dog-eat-dog hour.

"There is a good-fit college for every student," Levine said.

College application deadlines

» American University: Jan. 15

» Georgetown: Jan. 10

» George Washington University: Jan. 10

» University of Maryland, College Park: Jan. 20

» University of Virginia: Jan. 2

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