For months, Trinity High School senior Sydney Dydiw toyed with an important decision.
The 18-year-old applied to at least a dozen colleges and universities, and quickly heard back she had been accepted. But with the commitment deadline quickly approaching, she was desperately holding out for one, Johns Hopkins University.
"Johns Hopkins is the total package for me,'' the 18-year-old said before getting word on her application. "I fell in love with the campus ... I'm just trying to put it out of my mind.''
Unfortunately, Dydiw didn't get in.
"I was anxious and excited,'' she said. "I thought I could really get in.''
While she was let down, Dydiw was prepared with a back-up plan; she will attend Case Western Reserve University in the fall.
She's making the decision just in time.
May 1 is Decision Day for high school seniors around the country _ the final day to notify the school of their choice that they will be part of the fall freshman class. Increasingly, cost is playing more of a role in that decision.
A recent survey of the country's college freshmen found the percentage of students attending their first-choice school reached an all-time low, as cost and the availability of financial aid now plays an influential role in decision-making. The survey, which was conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, found just 57 percent of students end up going to their top school.
Dydiw is aware of the huge financial obligation that comes along with attending Case Western. The current tuition rate is more than $41,000 a year.
"I applied all over,'' she said. "So I am looking for the best financial package because they are all on the same playing field. Our guidance counselor tells us not to worry about the price tag. But I'd rather not be $100,000 in debt.''
Dydiw also received acceptance letters from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke University and Vanderbilt University. It's an impressive lineup, and Dydiw knows it.
Her avalanche of acceptance letters didn't come by chance. Dydiw is one of six seniors at her high school in the running for valedictorian. Her grade-point average is 4.75, which she accomplished by carrying a rigorous academic schedule. Dydiw also was involved in sports, school clubs and volunteered her time with various organizations.
"I tried to be as well-rounded as possible,'' she said.
She also put roughly 20 hours into college applications, mainly personal essays.
April 1 is generally the latest colleges and universities will inform students of their acceptance. Dydiw said the last few weeks have been painful. "It's terrible,'' she said.
Al Newell, vice president of enrollment for Washington & Jefferson College, said W&J adheres to the May 1 deadline for incoming students to commit. While he's aware some students are still holding out, he encourages them to wait for the right reasons.
"I hope students are focused on the fit between them and the institution,'' Newell said.
Newell said he encourages students to pick an environment that ``empowers them to become whatever they want to become.'' In doing so, Newell said he'll encourage students to go elsewhere, if needed.
"We want the student to want to be here,'' he said.
Each year, Newell said he likes to see an incoming class of roughly 425 students. To reach that goal, Newell said the university needs to send out 2,000 acceptance letters. Newell said the college is looking for ``well-rounded'' students.
"We expect to see a rigorous college prep curriculum,'' he said. "We like to see students challenging themselves.''
Newell said the college takes grades, courses, extracurricular activities and standard test scores into consideration when deciding whether to accept a student.
Newell said he's heard a variety of reasoning from students as they try to make up their minds. While there's no particular order in which he places them, the quality and cost of the program seems to play a large role in the final decision. W&J's current tuition rate is roughly $40,000.
"We tell them to go with their gut.''
William Edmonds, dean of admissions at California University of Pennsylvania, agrees. Edmonds said Cal U. operates on a rolling admissions schedule, and will accept students up until the start of classes in the fall. Edmonds said class size isn't as important as "accepting the right student.''
"We want students who will persist and who will graduate,'' Edmonds said.
While Cal U. doesn't set targets for incoming students, Edmonds said it normally sees more than 1,000 incoming freshmen each year, with transferring students comprising a large portion of the population.
Just like at W&J, Edmonds said Cal U. likes to see students well-prepared for college. With the help of a personal essay, which all incoming students are required to submit, Edmonds said the university gets a quick taste of each student's passions and interests.
"We want to make sure the students make positive contributions,'' he said.
As a state school, Cal U.'s tuition rate is considerably lower, at $14,000.
A representative from Waynesburg University did not return calls for comment.
While some students' decisions will push the May 1 deadline, others are enjoying the last few weeks of high school without the added stress.
Marlee DeBolt knew right away that Penn State University's main campus was the school for her. The Trinity High School senior visited the campus last spring, spent the weekend and fell in love.
"I heard back from them at the end of October and knew it was where I wanted to go,'' she said. "It was awesome to have that weight lifted off my shoulders.''
DeBolt, the youngest of three siblings, had some idea of what schools were looking for, based on her older siblings' experiences.
"I knew I had to separate myself,'' she said. "My resumé is huge. I took hard courses and was involved in clubs, musicals, mock trial and student council.''
While cost played a role in her decision, it was for an unlikely reason. DeBolt's father was a member of the military and was able to pass his GI Bill benefits along to her.
"He signed it over to me,'' she said. "For 36 months, they will pay for my tuition.''
While different for each state, DeBolt said Pennsylvania's GI Bill is tied to the highest in-state tuition at a state-affiliated school, which is the University of Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, DeBolt said she's still been busy applying for scholarships so she can study abroad. "I've been given a great opportunity,'' she said. "I don't want to let anyone down.''