It’s 1 a.m. and senior Jenny Kerbs is furiously typing at her computer. She has been up for 19 hours, but her day is still not over. After she finishes her essay for AP English Literature and Composition, one of her four AP courses, she flips through the Official SAT Study Guide book for an hour before slumping down on her bed at 2:30 a.m.
But this is no last-minute push before a big test. This is a casual Wednesday night.
“Every night is like a marathon,” Kerbs said. “After volleyball, I do homework, study for tests, fill out my apps, work on my supplements and practice for the SAT.
“I don’t know how we do it all.”
According to senior Colby Conner, senior year is even more difficult than junior year. “The old stereotype of senior year being a walk in the park is just that – a stereotype,” Conner said.
But it wasn’t always like this, according to history teacher Daniel Neukom.
“Even at Country Day in the ’80s and ’90s, you might take one or two AP (Advanced Placement) classes, and only if you were really good at the subject,” Neukom said.
According to Neukom, the uptick in senior-year stress began about a 15 years ago as AP courses became more commonplace.
“AP (courses) have grown and become much more popular,” Neukom said.
“Only AP English was offered when I graduated from high school (in 1967 from San Mateo High).”
Headmaster Stephen Repsher agrees with Neukom. Repsher also graduated in 1967 but from Arlington High School, a rural public school in upstate New York. Repsher took only one AP course, AP Calculus.
“It was extremely uncommon to take an AP course back then at my high school,” Repsher said.
“I remember you had to prove yourself to the school to be able to take the class.”
According to Repsher, AP courses were not seen as a prerequisite, but as a way to distinguish extremely high-level students.
Kerbs agrees with Neukom that AP classes add most of the stress. According to Kerbs, some of her courses have been significantly harder than she had anticipated when she selected them last spring.
Kerbs is applying to 12 colleges, all of which require supplemental essays (short essays tailored to each individual school).
On the other hand, Neukom applied to only four: Dartmouth College, Brown University, UC Berkeley and Menlo College. And Repsher applied to just one: Union College in Schenectady, New York.
In addition to applications, many seniors, including Kerbs and Aidan Galati, find themselves at the helms of various extracurricular activities just as the stress of applications crescendoes.
“I’m co-editor-in-chief of the yearbook, and this year we have a much larger staff, so we need to teach them,” Galati said.
In addition to her position on the yearbook, Galati also holds a position as a council member and secretary for the Ronald McDonald Charity House, volunteers at UC Davis Medical Center, plays outside hitter on the varsity volleyball team, works part time for a local catering company, teaches underprivileged children in India through Cognitive Exchange, volunteers with Loaves and Fishes, tutors neighborhood kids and runs her own online bath bomb company. Galati said she doesn’t think she is the busiest in the class.
In his senior year Neukom participated in two activities: the golf team and YMCA club. Repsher, meanwhile, participated in track and field, skiing, cross country, wrestling, a French club and a chess club.
In addition to her current extracurricular load, Kerbs spent her summer teaching at Breakthrough Collaborative, an activity she said took up much of her summer time.
“It was so rewarding and I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world, but it has put me at a significant disadvantage when it came to writing my essays over the summer,” she said.
Unlike Kerbs, fellow senior Sydney Michel filled out applications during the summer. However, Michel is stressed nonetheless over supplemental essays.
“It’s ridiculous,” Michel said. “So many schools require three or more essays. Even though they (the essays) are sometimes short, it still adds up when you are applying to 17 schools!”
Neukom spent the summer before senior year taking a required U.S. Government and Problems class so he could take just four regular classes during the school year. He applied to all four of his colleges during Thanksgiving vacation.
Neukom attributes the stress to the Common Application system. According to Neukom, back in the ’60s, a student from a traditional college-bound family would apply to a maximum of four or five schools.
“The Common Application has changed everything,” Neukom said.
“It is so much easier to apply to more schools, but now you have to fill out so many supplements.”
Like Kerbs and Michel, Conner is applying to a slew of schools. He has researched the 18 schools he is applying to and has been accepted by University of Indianapolis.
“You have to do a lot of research on every school because the acceptance rate for each of them is so low,” Conner said.
“Even for safety schools, you have to convince them that you genuinely know and care about that school. They might deny you if they think you aren’t going to go there.”
Comparable schools to the ones Conner is applying to have acceptance rates hovering around 9 percent. In contrast when Neukom applied to Stanford, the acceptance rate was nearly 20 percent, almost four times as high as the 2014 acceptance rate of 5.1 percent.
According to senior America Lopez, many seniors are also cramming for last-minute standardized testing.
“If you don’t have fantastic scores, this is the do-or-die time for testing,” Lopez said.
Like Lopez, Kerbs is also studying for standardized testing in the fall. Kerbs has a personal SAT tutor who helps her with logic-based mathematical techniques and word-root memorization.
“Jerry (her tutor) has been a huge help in SAT studying,” Kerbs said.
When Neukom took the SAT, he didn’t study for the exam at all.
“Back then there were no preparation classes,” Neukom said.
“I decided on my own to wait until the last minute to take the test, and I took it in December.”
Neukom scored within the 90th percentile.
Likewise, Repsher remembers a less SAT-heavy college admissions process.
“The school would tell you that there was a test on the weekend,” he said. “It was then your prerogative whether or not you took it, and a lot of students, particularly those who didn’t come from families with traditional college backgrounds, didn’t take the test.”
Another area of massive change is the college-counseling process. According to Neukom, college counseling was minimal during his time in high school.
“I met with my school’s college counselor for 30 minutes during junior year,” he said. And, he said, no one had a private college counselor at his high school.
Repsher echoed Neukom’s statement.
“There was minimal college counseling at my school,” Repsher said.
“Our college counselor functioned as the advisor to every other student at the school and was in charge of student psychology, mental health and college admissions.”
In contrast, some seniors have a private college counselor in addition to the one provided by the school.
Meanwhile, it’s 6:20 a.m. and Krebs’s alarm clock begins to beep. She slaps the machine, and the sound breaks the quietness of her bedroom.