(Duxbury Schools Coordinator of Guidance Lisa Dembowski stands outside of her office where a staff is ready to help students and their families.)

Part one of a two part series.

It’s that time of year when high school seniors run to their mailboxes and click-click-click their e-mail in anticipation of that all important college acceptance letter.

For many teens and their families, it’s also the time of year when the stress of applying to college begins to take hold in unprecedented ways. The pressure of applying to college has never been greater. In an age when students begin writing the college essay over their summer break and often have to complete applications by October because many colleges now accept the majority of their freshman classes early action, kids are overwhelmed. All of which is compounded by challenging classwork, hours of homework, multiple extracurricular activities and working a part-time job.

“It’s very stressful the first couple of months when you’re just getting back to school,” said senior Anna McGeady. “They were the most stressful months of my school life. I also row, so Sundays were for Regattas. There was no let up.”

McGeady said the Common Application, an online form most colleges use to vet applicants, made the process easier, but that many of her choices required an additional essay with their application.

“A lot of the other schools have supplemental essays that can be as long as the Common Application, which is 500 words,” said McGeady. “So I had to write six additional essays.”

Fortunately for McGeady, she had the support of her parents who assisted her along the way. She credits them with helping her when she sought their support, but understanding this was something she needed to do on her own. All of her hard work paid off when she was accepted to nearly all of the schools she applied to in the fall. That helped alleviate her stress, but she was disappointed to learn she was deferred by her first choice, Babson.

“It was kind of bittersweet because I had fallen in love with the school and I had done interviews,” said McGeady. “It was that sinking feeling in my stomach though.”

Some seniors begin the college search years before moving into their dorm rooms. Jack Guifoile started making a list of suitable schools sophomore year and with the input of his parents and guidance counselor narrowed it down by junior year. That’s when he began touring campuses. He said it helped him to break down the process.

“Six (applications) is probably on the small side, but it worked for me,” said Guilfoile, noting he was accepted to such schools as Boston College and Villanova. “I didn’t think it was really overwhelming. I started (applying) right away in August. We did our essays in our English classes, that way the teacher could look at it and that was really helpful for me.”

Guilfoile said the biggest challenge was managing his time. As president of his class and a member of the basketball and baseball teams, he said it would have been more stressful if not for his mother.

“My mom helped me manage my time,” said Guilfoile, explaining how she pushed him to revise his college essay again and again. He gives credit to his guidance counselor Maureen Kelleher, too. “She would help me figure out deadlines and she kept me on task, so that was helpful.”

Lisa Dembowski, the head of guidance for Duxbury Schools, said each year the pressure on kids worsens. As a counselor for all of the grades, she hears kids talk about college in the middle school, which is a good thing, but also discuss which specific schools they want to attend and what they need to do to get in. That has her concerned.

“I think it’s gotten a lot more stressful,” said Dembowksi. “I know it has. Even since I got here in 2004, it’s gotten worse.”

For her and her staff, too. Application deadlines that were once in January, have slid backward to October and schools are now pushing their early decision deadlines closer to August. As a result, the guidance department may need to work summers to give that much needed support to seniors.

Dembowski said she counsels not only the students, but their families. The very first bit of advice she gives is to consider the cost of school on the whole family.

“It has to make sense financially,” said Dembowski. “There’s this misconception that they get from their peers that money isn’t an issue.”

With the economic downturn and the cost of a private school education sometimes topping out at over $200,000, Dembowksi said she learns it’s the issue for a lot of families once she talks with the student’s parents.

“I hear so-and-so is out of work, we took a hit on our investments, our house has depreciated so we don’t have the equity to refinance,” said Dembowski. “A lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck.”

Once the finances have been decided, Dembowski suggests students and their parents understand that on average, students change their major several times over the course of their college life.

“Unless they know they’re going to major in, say, nursing, they want a school with a lot of options,” said Dembowski. “There has to be flexibility to move within majors because, for the most part, they have no idea what they want to do at this age.”

For someone like Mikkel Linksey, whose father applied to only one college and whose mother was raised in Denmark and didn’t attend a U.S. college, the learning curve has been enormous.

“The guidance department was helpful in certain ways, but they weren’t able to help us with everything because they have 50 to a hundred kids,” said Linskey, who was forced to be resourceful. “I’m the older child, so I’m kind of the test case which is unfortunate. Let’s just say it wasn’t easy or relaxing.”

Part two of our series will continue next week