She couldn't think straight anymore, never mind work on college applications. Hit by the tidal wave of sensation that is a severe migraine, Muneera Khambaty was down for the count, sidelined by throbbing head pain and nausea.

“When I have a migraine, nothing makes sense,” she said. “I can't think about what I have to do or what I have to work on next.”

Which made applying for colleges — already a stressful process — even worse. How has it been waiting for acceptance letters? 

Khambaty heaved a sigh. 

“My migraines are triggered by stress,” she said. “So safe to say, this hasn't been the best time for me.”

Waiting to hear back from colleges can be a nerve-wracking experience, say local high school seniors such as Khambaty. After all the work that goes into applying for college — taking the ACT, writing the perfect college admissions essay, filling out applications — it's hard to sit back and wait for results.

Khambaty, a senior at Mankato West, applied to six colleges altogether. So far, she's only been accepted at the University of Minnesota.

The rest? Stay tuned, she said. 

Colleges still accepting students

While some colleges send out acceptance letters immediately, others wait until April or March.

The national deadline for college-bound students (and their parents) to put down money on the college of their choice isn't until May 1, said Tom Crady, vice president of enrollment management at Gustavus Adolphus College. Many colleges accept applications and continue admitting students until well after that.

“We refer to it as rolling admissions,” Crady said. “Throughout the application cycle, your application is immediately read. You immediately get an answer.”

That doesn't mean students immediately decide they're going to Gustavus, he hastened to add.

Though the college has admitted 2,300 new students so far, only a portion of those have responded by putting down a deposit. Last year the college admitted 3,100 and enrolled only 650, about 25 of them transfer students.

Any student admitted is guaranteed a spot in the next year's class. There's some guesswork involved, Crady admitted. There's no telling how many students will actually pick Gustavus.

Several years ago the college accidentally ended up with a class of 767, much larger than is typical.

“It's getting much harder to predict where students want to go,” Crady said. “...The decision-making process for students has really gotten more difficult because of all the information sent to them and all the information available online.”

“Last year we got 50 deposits during the summer, which was unprecedented. So we know it's taking longer for students to make decisions.”

One new online tool used by students is Naviance, a college and career readiness platform that helps connect students with potential colleges. It was recently adopted by Mankato Area Public Schools.

Crady said Gustavus uses it to target advertising — if a student's profile suggests they'd do well at the college, the admissions office sends them an application.

Other students take virtual tours online or complete online checklists.

Making a decision

Morgan Muldoon, a senior at Mankato East High School, was recently admitted at Gustavus, her top pick.

But she hasn't decided where to go yet. She's also considering Hamline University and the College of St. Scholastica, neither of which she's visited. Minnesota State University is her backup.

“I want to make sure it has good programs, a nice campus, which is why I want to visit Hamline and St. Scholastica before I decide,” she said.

She's stressed out over the decision. “What if I go to a college and I don't like it? What if I spend all this money and end up hating it?”

Perhaps that's why the acceptance letters are still sitting in a pile in her room, waiting for closer review.

The enormity of the decision is overwhelming. With financial aid applications due soon, she's still under a lot of pressure, she said.

“I want to have a good scholarship from that school and money's kind of tight around here, so that's a big thing,” she said. “It also needs a good pre-dental program and small classes, like 20 to 1.”

Some of the things that are most important to Muldoon are also important to colleges like Gustavus.

Crady said the admissions office encourages anyone “on the fence” to visit St. Peter — it even pays to fly in anyone that lives more than 200 or 300 miles away.

Gustavus also gives financial-aid estimates and awards scholarships immediately, to help families make their final decisions.

“In this day and age parents want to know money-wise what it's going to cost them,” he said. “We understand that and give them that information.”

Brian Jones, director of admissions at Minnesota State University, said the best advice he can give students is to start the application process early and give themselves options.

The admissions process at MSU is slightly different than Gustavus, he said. The university has automatic admission requirements, which means students typically hear back from Jones' staff within a week of applying. 

Students may take several months to confirm their enrollment, simply because they're waiting to hear back from other colleges.

Between 6,000 and 7,000 first-year students are admitted, while classes range from 2,200 and 2,400.

“Students by and large are applying to many, many more schools,” Jones said. While he recommends applying to three to five colleges, some high school seniors are now applying to as many as 10 or 12, perhaps because online applications make it easier. 

As a side effect, it can be more difficult to make a final decision.

“An ideal process would involve students visiting a variety of campuses, narrowing down their lists in the fall, getting accepted into three or four colleges and making their decision early in the spring,” Jones said.

An uncertain future

Khambaty, still waiting to hear back from five colleges, said things are only getting more stressful. With finals and financial-aid applications due, the future still seems uncertain.

That's partly because of her own indecision, she admitted. Though Khambaty knows she wants to major in economics, she's unsure what kind of career she might be interested in or how she wants to focus her studies.

She sees a college education as a huge asset, but doesn't know what kind of future she wants to invest in.

“I don't know what I want to do yet,” she said. “That's one of the reasons I applied to so many different colleges.”

Those colleges include the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern University, the University of Minnesota and Cornell University, all of which can be hard to get into.

Not only that, but Khambaty has begun to find faults in herself. She wishes she had been in choir and band during high school to show how passionate she is about “the arts.” And she only participated in sports her freshman year — an apparent lack of commitment.

Today, she's a member of the National Honors Society, a Knowledge Bowl participant, a member of the school's academic decathlon team and more. She recently earned a 34 on her ACTs, which puts her in the 99th percentile nationally for all students who took the test.

“My extracurriculars are good, my scores are good, but I'm not as well rounded as I would have like to be,” she said. “That's going to hurt me.”

Her mother, Durriya Khambaty, said she handles the stress well. She and her husband will be proud of Muneera no matter where she goes.

But they also know how difficult it can be to decide. With three older daughters, who attend East Tennessee State University and Ohio State University, they're no stranger to admissions-induced angst. 

“I compare it to labor pains,” Durriya Khambaty said laughing.

Upcoming deadlines, tips

"Decision day," when high school seniors must choose which college to attend and send in deposits to secure their place, is May 1, though some local colleges continue enrolling students after that.

Free applications for federal student aid or FAFSA applications are due by June 30. That is the federal deadline, and some colleges may require students to submit them earlier. 

Jones, at MSU, said families should file their taxes early and get the applications sent in early. 

“The sooner that they can do that, the more potential financial-aid resources will be available to them," he said. If they pick a college early too, they'll have more luck securing student housing, on-campus jobs and more. 

That being said, Jones thinks all students should make their final decisions carefully. 

He and his staff do everything they can to make sure seniors make the right choice — even if it means going somewhere else. It doesn't do the new students — or the university — any good if they aren't happy at MSU.

“Of course I'm responsible for creating a new class," Jones said. "Of course I love MSU and want students to come here ... but I also want to help students find the best place." 

Correction: This article has been modified to say Khambatys have three older daughters, not two. 

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Jessica here, doing some coffee-fueled reporting for the Mankato Free Press. My beat? Education, colleges, LEARNING. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments and story ideas.

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