Students try to find the best fit as college decision day nears

Some high school seniors cringe when they hear the word "college."

Nearly all year long adults have asked where they applied to college and where they want to go. Students across Georgia and the nation are trying to answer those questions by May 1, a deposit deadline for many colleges.

Many teenagers realize they're making the first adult decision of their lives and don't want to make a mistake.

"Senior year is not a joke, it's difficult," said Natalie Decker, who attends Holy Innocents' Episcopal School. "You have all this work for school and then you have to make this major decision of where you are going to spend the next four years of life ... You want to make a choice that will make you happy in the end."

Waiting for an athletic scholarship

Jordan Brown applied to seven different universities, including his late father’s alma mater, but where he goes will likely hinge on two things: money and basketball.

The 18-year-old Westlake High senior, was leaning toward Bradley University, a private college in Peoria, Ill.

"From what I’ve seen it looks like it has a traditional feel to it," Brown said. "The campus is compact and away from the city."

He also applied to the University of Texas, University of Houston, St. John's University, North Carolina State University, Hampton University and Morehouse College, where his father graduated.

"The cost will play pretty big in my decision, but my mom wants me to go where I’ll be happy," said Brown, a shooting guard for the Westlake Lions.

Brown didn't get the scholarship he hoped for, but he'll still be at Bradley next year.

Student wants to be a "financial pillar" for parents

Nghia Tran's father smiled the night his son learned he was accepted at Georgia Tech.

"For him to smile -- that's major. My mom, her face just lit up," said Tran, a senior at Osborne High School in Cobb County.

Tran peeked at Tech's Web site on March 14, a day before the official results were supposed to come out.

"I had to do a double-take on it because I couldn't believe I actually got into my dream school," he said.

"I'm not a genius, but I'm a hard worker," he said.

Tran was born in Vietnam and his father fought for the South Vietnamese government against the Communists. He was imprisoned after the war. The family moved to the United States when Tran was 3 years old.

His dad works the night shift as a machine operator for a company in Smyrna. His mom is a seamstress, but lost her job a year ago.

Tran plans to study aerospace engineering, something he has liked since childhood. He wants to succeed at college and land a well-paying job.

"I'm going to college for a reason -- to be a financial pillar for my parents," he said. "My parents had to sacrifice so much for me, the least I can do is ease their troubles later on in life."

Duke, but maybe Harvard

Orane Douglas sent his first application in toward late October, then kept going – 15, 20, 25 – until, right before Christmas, he hit a stopping point: He started to hear back from schools.

Tulane. Xavier. Emory. Morehouse. Amherst. Wesleyan. Holy Cross. Georgetown. Harvard. Duke. The last two were his top choices – if he got in.

"In college, one of my priorities is to network with people who can help me in the future," said Douglas, a senior at Carver School of Health, Sciences and Research in Atlanta.

"What I want to do is unique: I want to be an anesthesiologist and CEO of a hospital," he said. "When I looked at schools, I was also looking for links to strong medical programs."

For Duke, he filed his application the first week of December. In March, he got a letter from that school’s Black Student Alliance inviting him to an event. He learned he was admitted the first week of April.

“I’m wait-listed at Harvard. I’m wait-listed at Georgetown," he said. "Duke will give me a full ride. The deadline for students to accept admission to Harvard is May 1, so I’ll hear in mid-May to June if I get off the wait list and get accepted."

His mom is OK with it, even if it means sending him out-of-state. He got her blessing "as long as I chose a school that fit, that could benefit me," he said.

Early decision makes for relaxing spring

Natalie Decker has known since Dec. 11 she would be attending University of Pennsylvania next year.

The senior from Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School applied in October through early decision, which requires students to attend if admitted.

“It’s been nice to sit back and not to have to worry,” Decker said. “I knew during the end of my junior year I wanted to do early decision.”

The family had hired a private counselor, Joni Towles, to help Decker with the college application process. Towles made sure Decker wasn’t settling just to be done with the process.

"I grilled her and made her prove why she didn't want to apply elsewhere," Towles said. "I explained she could change as a person between junior year and the end of senior year."

But Decker was certain. She started researching colleges during her sophomore year and began campus visits junior year. The visits, she said, helped her realize what she didn’t want from a college.

Natalie determined Penn would challenge her academically and provide options for different majors. She was impressed with the clubs and activities and said "people seemed more normal there."

"I love it there and I'm so happy to be going," Decker said. "But I think college is really what you make of it. I don't think there is just one perfect school. There are too many out there."

Looking for the the perfect college fit

Corbyn Nchako wanted to get in the right college, so he applied to eight. Even the long shots.

Aiming high had always pushed the Snellville honors student to succeed. He’s aced gifted biology and tackled 10 college-level Advanced Placement courses. Nchako figured his drive could land him a coveted seat in the Ivy Leagues.

Nchako, a future cardiologist, wants a resume-builder with rigorous academics, a satisfying social life, diversity and an attractive financial aid package. Prestige would be a plus.

"I got into every single school -- Emory, UGA, Auburn, Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell and Georgetown!" the Shiloh High School senior said. "My parents and I were jumping up and down."

Nchako is narrowing his choices with college visits, checklists and advice from his proud parents, who are from Cameroon.

Last week, the teen sat in on a neuroscience class at Columbia University. A few days later, Brown University flew him in like a star recruit.

"There are going to be days when you are like, ‘I don’t know if I’m smart enough to get into these schools,' but try as hard as you can," Nchako said. "I am excited to find out what is in store for me."

The pull of home, HOPE keeps her in Georgia

Jazmine Wilcox applied to two colleges: Mercer University and the University of Georgia.

“Mercer accepted me first, so I said ‘Hey, I will go to Mercer,' ” said the 17-year-old from Clayton's Lovejoy High.

Cost and location were major concerns. Wilcox wanted to stay in-state and use the HOPE scholarship.

"UGA and Mercer had everything I was looking for: good school, nice community, beautiful campus,” she said.

She didn’t get into UGA, but she’s not disappointed. While the HOPE scholarship would have covered her tuition at UGA, Wilcox said Mercer gave her awards to cover about half the costs. She's applying for scholarships and grants to cover the rest.

“I was trying to go to school on a totally full ride," she said. "I want to go to graduate school and I don’t want to have a whole bunch of loans to repay when I finish.”

Her parents played a major role in her decision, too.

"Both wanted me to stay in state to be close to them, and I love my parents," she said.

Staff writers Gertha Coffee, D. Aileen Dodd, Mary Lou Pickel, Gracie Bonds Staples and Kristina Torres contributed to this report.

Tips for applying to college

Having spent the past year (or longer) applying to college, high school seniors shared tips for students beginning the process:

  • Be open to different colleges. A recommended college you've never heard of could be the perfect fit.
  • Research and read about what the different colleges have to offer.
  • Be honest about what you want – large or small campus; urban, suburban or rural setting; close to or away from home.
  • Start work on the applications early. Write essays the summer before senior year.
  • Visit the campuses to figure out what you want or don't want from a college.
  • Check out blogs, Facebook and other Web sources. UGA, Georgia Tech and others have admissions blogs.

Gracie Bonds Staples; Kristina Torres; Gertha Coffee; Mary Lou Pickel and D. Aileen Dodd contributed to this report.