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Getting into college is a tough test High school seniors keep their options open and widen their choice by increasing the number of applications

Welcome to the other March madness.

It's a month of highs and lows and angst for college-bound seniors awaiting word from schools and wrestling with where to spend the next two to four years.

University at Buffalo or University of Rochester?

Big Ten spirit or Ivy League intellect?

Stay close to home or study in the big city?

Deciding on a college is becoming even more complicated, as students apply to more schools to open up their options.

Guidance counselors said applying to three to six schools was the norm just a few years ago. Now, the average is six to 10 colleges.

Sending out 12, 15 or more college applications isn't unheard of, either.

It's making it tougher for colleges to plan.

"I'm waiting to hear back from Fordham and Northeastern," said Stephanie Narduzzo, a Clarence senior.

Notices that haven't been sent are due out by April 1.

"I've been impatient this month," said Stephanie, 17. "I just want to know."

One reason for the jump in applications per student is that it's easier to apply now with access to online applications, said Elizabeth Horrigan, chairwoman of guidance and counseling at Clarence High School.

Meanwhile, greater selectivity among the elite universities motivates some students to apply to more institutions, in hopes of getting into one of the brand names.

"Students are more concerned about covering their bases," said Horrigan, a guidance counselor for 27 years.

By applying to more schools, students also can weigh how much scholarship money and other aid colleges will offer them, said Carl Behrend, instructional leader of the guidance department at Orchard Park High School.

"College is an expensive proposition," Behrend said. "This gives them the chance to compare and contrast."

Stephanie narrowed her original 13 choices to six schools -- UB, Fordham and Northeastern universities, and Bentley, Manhattan and Marist colleges.

Jennifer Bender, a senior at Orchard Park High School, applied to eight universities -- Notre Dame, Virginia, North Carolina, Duke, Penn, Miami of Ohio, Fordham and Rochester.

Like Stephanie, Jennifer is waiting to hear from more schools before making a choice by May.

"I'm not sure exactly what my major's going to be at this point, so I wanted to go to a school that's strong in a lot of areas," said Jennifer, 17.

While there is no magic number, guidance counselors are a little concerned about students applying to a large number of schools.

Behrend cautions students and parents about the cost.

Counselors also worry that a student who's sending out 15 or more applications hasn't given the process enough thought. And in some cases, high schools may simply not have enough counselors to advise the students, said James A. Boyle, president of College Parents of America, a Washington advocacy group.

"I think the important thing is to home in on the choices to the greatest extent possible, as early as possible, so they aren't applying to so many schools," Boyle said.

Boyle likes the idea of sending out six applications -- two to "reach" schools, two to colleges where the student has a good chance of being accepted and two to "safety" schools.

For colleges, it's tricky business. Based on experience, colleges know roughly how many new students they can accept each year to end up with the enrollment they want. Many use a "yield" rate of about 30 percent.

UB, for example, will have reviewed about 17,000 applications for the fall. The university will accept roughly 9,000 applicants to get 3,200 who will actually take a spot as an incoming freshman.

But the admissions process can become more difficult with all of these "ghost" applications floating around out there, forcing schools to dip deep into their waiting lists as they scramble to fill slots.

"It puts schools in a very difficult position," said Robert Franek, a vice president with the Princeton Review, which publishes an annual guide to best colleges.

It also doesn't look good, from a prestige standpoint, if a college is extending offers only to be snubbed more often.

"It is true," Franek said. "Most colleges are very conscious of their yield number."

Making matters worse, Horrigan, the Clarence counselor, has noticed students double booking schools -- reserving spots at two colleges, then making a final decision in August.

"Decide now," Horrigan tells them. "You're holding a spot from someone else."

So how to choose?

The right distance from home, academic curriculum, the college's culture, living quarters, campus safety and cost are all factors that should be weighed, counselors said.

"Scholarship money will be a factor," Jennifer said. "I know Notre Dame and Duke won't offer me as much, whereas Rochester has offered a $10,000 scholarship for every year. So it is something to think about."

"I always liked New York City and Boston, so I picked from schools there," Stephanie said. "Being away from home, I think it's important to be independent."

Most importantly, counselors said, visit the campuses before choosing. If need be, visit again.

"But not on an official visit," Boyle said. "Walk around the campus, peek in on a lecture. It may be a little intimidating, but go to the student union and talk to students."

"It's your gut that's going to tell you whether you belong in a certain school," he said.

And if it turns out a school wasn't the right choice, students can always make a change, Horrigan said.

North Carolina and Notre Dame are the early favorites for Jennifer, Orchard Park's valedictorian.

"But," she said, "that could all change after I hear from Duke and Penn."

It is, after all, March madness.

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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>Dream colleges

A Princeton Review survey of 3,890 college applicants listed these 10 universities as their "dream colleges":

1) New York University

2) Harvard

3) Princeton

4) Stanford

5) Yale

6) Brown

7) Columbia

8) Duke

9) Cornell

10) UCLA

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