Like many high school seniors, Lindsay Abbassian plans to spend her Thanksgiving break applying for college.
She's already applied to three schools but faces a Dec. 1 cutoff to apply for scholarships at Butler University in Indianapolis. Other high school seniors face a Nov. 30 deadline imposed by their schools, which want to reserve time to collect teacher recommendations and other paperwork that goes along with the packet.
Either way, the next days and weeks are crunch time for college hopefuls. Jan. 1 looms as the cutoff date for applications at many colleges and universities.
This year is more angst-ridden than ever, as the number of college applicants -- and the number of applications per student -- are expected to continue the trend from last year, when most Ivy League schools received record-setting numbers of applications.
Harvard received 22,753 applications for the roughly 1,675 seats it had available for the Class of 2010, reports the Web site collegeadmissioninfo.com. Princeton accepted just 1,792 from an applicant pool of 17,563. The roughly 1,300 students in Yale's Class of 2010 were selected from 21,101 applicants. Brown accepted 2,525 applicants out of over 18,300.
Early admissions programs are getting more popular, too. So get your application in early, guidance counselors warn.
Desperate to get their requests in on time, some students will pull all-nighters and be a wreck at school the next day. Others will actually skip school to finish their applications.
In an effort to make herself the ideal college candidate, Abbassian has packed her life with activity and achievement. She gets good grades. She's already taking four college-level courses. She plays on the tennis team, and has gone to dance classes for years.
She's active in the National Honor Society and numerous other clubs, including one that educates youngsters on the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
If there's anything she regrets, she says, it's "over-loading herself."
That's what it takes, many students fear, to get into the most prestigious schools.
Hoping to hedge their bets, students take advantage of online applications and a common application form to flood the market with resumes. Some students apply to more than 30 schools as a shotgun approach to improve their odds of acceptance, though many counselors recommend four to six.
In general, anxiety is exaggerated. Most universities accept the majority of applicants.
Still, there's a lot on the line for the prospective Class of 2012. While students can spend $200,000 on a college education these days, U.S. Census bureau figures show college graduates earn an average of $1 million more over their lifetime than those with only a high school diploma.
The stakes are even higher for an immigrant child like Mahmoud "Moe" Bahrani, who hopes to be the first in his family to attend college in this country.
With good grades and test scores and as an outstanding athlete, he's confident he'll get in somewhere.
For all the stress students go through applying to college, Bahrani said, he enjoys the process as a way to find out more about himself and what his goals are.
"You're not just trying to get into college; you're becoming an adult," he said. "It's a really important part of your life. It's a good time to delve into who you are."
By March, most students will get either a skinny envelope with a rejection notice or a fat envelope inviting them to enroll.
Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire sets Nov. 30 as the deadline for students to finish their applications, so the school has time to gather transcripts and letters of recommendation from teachers.
That way, students can get the process over with before winter break and final exams without the "albatross of college" looming over them, Stevenson college consultant Bob Foltin said.
"It's always a little nutty around this time of year," Foltin said.
If you're thinking your younger child has a year or two to get with the program, guess again. Margo Bartsch, a Glenbrook South High School graduate and now a college essay coach with a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, has a word of advice for students: Start thinking about getting into college during your sophomore year.
"Junior year is almost too late," she said.
Students should start thinking about their future careers and researching colleges after freshman year and take an ACT or SAT prep course after sophomore year.
By the time they get to crunch time for applications, Bartsch said, it'll be much easier.
"It's a pretty big investment," she said. "You should think about it more than two or three months ahead of time."
Common college application mistakes
Applying to the wrong school because of its prestigious name, because a friend is going there, because your mom went there, etc. The school should fit the student's needs, regardless of pedigree.
Not following directions: It's surprising how many bright students answer a different question than the one that's asked, or simply miss deadlines. Reading and following application directions is the simplest but first hurdle.
Redundancy: Students often repeat information about themselves in different essay questions, or in different parts of the application. Make it easier for the people reviewing thousands of applications and tell them what they need to know once, effectively.
Not releasing test scores: Students must authorize the release of their ACT and SAT scores, otherwise admissions officials can't judge them.
Sending too much information: Some students include 10 letters of recommendation, or all their glorious accomplishments from grade school. Colleges want one or two referrals and only high school achievements. Cohen said colleges are looking for students who had some impact on their school or community. "You don't want to be a serial joiner," she said, "but you do want to stand out in the areas that interest you."