Perry Factor looks like an ideal college applicant. The Harvard-Westlake senior scored 1530 on his SAT and maintains a 4.036 (weighted) GPA. He's volunteered for years at his former elementary school, is a production editor on the high school paper, sings in the school choir and is on the jujitsu team. Nevertheless, Factor said he's "not entirely confident" about getting into his top college choice, Rice University in Texas.
"There are always horror stories about looking like the perfect candidate and not getting admitted," he said.
Like Factor, teens around the nation -- and their parents -- are finding an increasingly competitive atmosphere for college applicants.
"There are more students applying than ever before ... yet there are not necessarily more spaces," said Tami Gelb, college counselor at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles (YULA).
Take UCLA for example. Twenty years ago, 65 percent of applicants gained admission. Ten years ago, that number shrank to 46 percent. And for this year's freshman class, only 23 percent were admitted, boasting on average a GPA of 3.79, 19 honors courses and an SAT score of 1352 -- 100 points higher than the average a decade ago.
Nor can students rely upon stellar grades alone. Now schools are looking for the "angular" students to have depth of experience in a particular area, in addition to a variety of extracurricular activities. Such specialties "can help students distinguish themselves from thousands of other applicants as unique and distinctive," Gelb said.
In addition to worrying about acceptance to their college of choice, seniors must complete a raft of tests, essays and paperwork related to the college application process. For example, many schools require students to take not only the SAT, but also SAT IIs, which test specific subject areas. As Gelb described it, "It's like taking another class for one semester."
For some, the pressure to get into college can be overwhelming. Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and educator, said that college deans refer to some incoming students as "crispies."
"They are so exhausted from grade grubbing and worrying about what's going to be on the test that they're burned out," Mogel said. "They find no pleasure in learning."
One parent described families obsessed with pursuing opportunities solely to increase their child's chances of admission to a top college as "raising an application."
Yet as daunting as admissions odds may appear, the situation is often overblown. In a U.S. News & World Report article, Martin Wilder, vice president for admissions counseling and enrollment practices at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, said that while it has never been more competitive to get into the most selective colleges, it has also never been easier to attend college. Harvard or Yale acceptance rates hover close to 10 percent, but the nationwide college acceptance rate is 70 percent.
And for all the families "raising applications," there are others who maintain a healthier perspective.
"There isn't just one college with your kid's name on it," said parent Fran Grossman, who is experiencing this process for the first time with her son, David, a senior at Shalhevet High School.
She and others emphasize the value of visiting prospective schools prior to making a decision. David, who plans to major in political science, wanted a school in the Washington, D.C., area with a strong Jewish presence. After visiting several D.C. campuses, he decided to apply early admission to American University. (Early admissions, which have higher acceptance rates, must be submitted earlier than standard applications. If admitted, the student must attend that school and rescind other applications.)
"He hadn't even thought about American before starting the process," Grossman said. "His choice really crystallized after his visit to campus."
"Know yourself first and go from there," Factor advised. He created nine necessary criteria, including access to Jewish life and having Division I sports teams, for his college of choice.
Benji Davis, a senior at Milken Community High School, has managed to keep the application-related stress at bay.
"Wherever I end up, I'll be happy," he said.
Davis applied for early admission at George Washington University after touring a dozen East Coast universities through Road Trip: East Coast College Tour, a program of Sinai Temple's USY and ATID groups. The program gives students a chance to take campus tours, meet with admissions representatives, stay in college dorms and explore the town.
"If I don't get in, I know there are other places," he said.
YULA's Gelb noted that two factors impact whether a student gets accepted, but only one of them is under the student's control. While individuals can influence their transcripts and test scores, they cannot determine the make-up of that year's class.
"Maybe [the school needs] an oboe player for the orchestra or a punter for the football team. That's not controllable," Gelb said.
She urges students and their families not to overly anguish about the college admissions process. With more than 3,000 schools nationwide "there's a college for everybody," she said. "All our students do get into college, and get into places where they're happy and doing well.... Where you go isn't nearly as important as how you do when you get there."