If you see Pleasanton teenagers who look like they haven't slept in three days, they're likely seniors who are going through the gauntlet of college applications.
College application season is upon us, with Early Admissions/Early Action applications already submitted last month, and the first round of regular applications complete as of Nov. 1.
Students have taken and retaken standardized tests, built up their resumes and fine tuned their essays for just this moment -- or they're frantically doing so in the final weeks.
While college applications are nothing new, the competition appears to increase every year, and this year is no exception.
The UC system's average GPA, SAT and ACT scores have been particularly noteworthy, and schools that once had requirements a B-level student could meet now average GPAs greater than a 4.0. UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis, for example, recently climbed over the 4.0 GPA mark for average freshman admissions, said Foothill High college counselor Adrianna Raefield.
"I'm truthfully shocked every year on the increases of standardized test averages the students strive for," she said.
Since more and more colleges are upping their requirements, Pleasanton's students and school college counselors are taking more varied approaches. Many are expanding their net as wide as they can manage, rather than focusing on one or two dream schools.
And some students are learning to cope with the pressure of this perennial coming-of-age event by getting creative or taking the stress in stride.
"They're becoming more flexible as it's gotten more competitive," Amador Valley High college counselor Winter Jones said.
Inside the schools
Every year, Raefield and her colleague Kerry Stroud attend several conferences to glean what cutting-edge tips their students need to know to get into the UCs, the Cal States and even the Ivys.
At UC conferences, they pour over personal essays that worked -- and ones that didn't -- and bring that advice back to their students.
Back on their home turf, Foothill and Amador Valley counselors create a game plan together, syncing certain requirements and technologies to provide students across the city with as many resources as possible.
Counselors at both schools recently rolled out Naviance, a college-planning website that helps students keep track of college requirements and deadlines. The website also helps students research potential colleges by matching their scores with the average scores of students who were accepted at various schools in previous years.
Both schools also did away with class rankings in the past few years, saying it was not the right approach for these schools.
And both schools began meeting with seniors one-on-one from the start of their senior year, rather than beginning introductions in classrooms or assemblies.
"We're meeting them where they are -- and that could be at the very beginning where they're Googling schools to right at the very end," Jones said.
While Village High students won't apply for colleges until the spring -- all the seniors considering college this year at Village will be pursuing acceptance at community college and vocational school -- alternative education counselor Terese Ghilarducci uses the same approaches when helping her students through the process.
"I know what's going to work based on some of my kids and how much help they need," she said.
She knows which students have dreams of becoming chefs or art teachers, and she directs them toward specific programs.
Counselors at Foothill and Amador Valley also sit down with each student to assess their dreams, their strengths and their resumes.
Raefield said if a student has a particular subject in mind, whether it be engineering or music or art, they'll review the schools the student is applying to and make sure the student meets not only the school's general requirements but also meets that engineering college's requirements or is submitting all the correct materials to the art college.
"We try to make sure they're making an informed decision," she said.
That perfect application
Students themselves have spent the last years bolstering their grades and fluffing up their resumes for this season, and many have focused their current extracurriculars on their future job aspirations.
"We counsel kids toward finding things that they're passionate about," Jones said. "If your thing is volleyball, try to become the captain of the volleyball team or the president of a club. If you're in the band, try to become first chair."
Some students are in the process of retaking SAT or ACT tests to climb a few more points toward their goal, and some students are honing in on their grades to push their GPA slightly higher for when the next deadline rolls around.
But one aspect of the application seems to be the hardest for most students: Those dreaded essays.
Ardin Lo, a Foothill senior, said it can be tough to summarize 17 years in two or three pages.
"You try to make it as perfect as you can, and edit it over and over again," he said. "Personally, I've never had to talk about myself and lessons I've learned."
Some students said they focus on being genuine, while still trying to strike a professional tone.
"For essays, I think the mindset I've been having is to show my true voice and try to be authentic with my essays, rather than faking it or being overly focused on my achievements," said Foothill senior Arthur Hwang.
Amador Valley High senior Rebecca Pollitz said she tried to hone in on her longterm goals -- wanting to teach English abroad -- to show admissions officers how that passion will direct her education.
"I tried to go really deep into that," she said. "Anything I can do to make that happen."
Semester of stress
While counselors are confident that each of their students will land in a great spot, they do worry about one aspect of application season: the stress it puts on their students.
"I think it puts a lot of stress (on students) because they have this additional thing to do. Their courses are rigorous, they do sports, some of them do jobs, and you're adding on this additional thing to do after school and on the weekends," Jones said. "I think mostly it's coming from themselves and maybe their peers."
Counselors at both schools said most of the stress isn't coming from parents or teachers.
"Students will share with me that they're putting this pressure on themselves," Stroud said.
Part of it is due to the increased competition, and part is because of the rise in number of colleges each student is applying to -- between 15 and 20 on average at Foothill and Amador Valley -- and some is simply due to procrastination, but students readily admit they'll be wound tight for the next few weeks.
"I feel like the biggest thing is after you finish all your homework, you still have these deadlines coming up," Lo said. "For me and most of my friends, there's still a little bit of pressure and stress, but the overall sentiment is you try your best and see what happens."
One of those big deadlines recently passed. Nov. 1 is a big day for regular college admissions across the country, but the UC system's deadline is Nov. 30, so the marathon isn't over yet.
In fact, it may not be over until summer.
"Once we return for spring, the stress will probably rise when scholarships come," Pollitz said, noting federal, college-based and private financial aid deadlines come with their own applications and essays.
But that doesn't mean seniors aren't excited to be done.
Lo said he's particularly looking forward to second semester of senior year to enjoy "just having it all done and being able to spend good quality time with your friends."
Stroud said seniors have many resources for managing their emotional and mental health during this time, and she encourages any student who is struggling to reach out.
"The biggest thing is they're doing something to take care of themselves," she said.
* At Foothill High, 98% of students from the class of 2015 graduated
* 62% attended a 4-year college
* There are 448 seniors, five full-time college counselors and two part-time counselors
* At Amador Valley High, 97.2% of students from the class of 2015 graduated
* 64% attended a 4-year college
* There are 638 seniors, four full-time counselors and three part-time counselors