A week later, Andrew arrived home from school, flipped open the mailbox and found an envelope from Case Western. At the kitchen counter, he opened it expecting nothing more than a written confirmation of his admission. But the letter began: "Congratulations on your acceptance award of $22,000 a year." He made a mental calculation. His first choice might cost his parents $88,000 more over four years. How could he not reconsider?
On a night with hours of homework and tennis ahead, his real thought was, "Why can't it be winter break already?"
Andrew considered his life. "Sometimes I think to myself. We are missing out on so much of our childhood. Is that really how I want to live my life?" If he didn't have so many activities and so much homework, life might be different. "Maybe I could go out and play that neighborhood football game. When was the last time I played a video game? ... Free time is such an abstract word now."
Andrew's brother, Evan, just one year behind him, decided to take it easier. He makes time to shoot hoops and have fun. "I get by with A's and B's. I am in the top 10th percentile of my class," he said. "I don't think getting into college should be your life."
For those in the high-pressure admissions game, the burden goes beyond classwork. Even well-organized Rebecca Suldan was daunted by the demands of applying to 11 colleges and writing essays intended to reveal a student's cleverness or depth. "There is pressure to create this persona," she said. "You know that you are so much more than your application, and they see this little snapshot."
Will Dix, a former admissions officer at Amherst, is critical of a process that can tempt teenagers to adopt identities too soon. "I felt I kept seeing more and more kids who were consciously constructing selves ... before they knew or had a sense of who they were," he said. "Almost every college admission person will say: 'Just be yourself.' What they really mean is 'Just be someone I would want you to be.' "
Shortly before winter break, Tufts notified the Lutz family that it would offer no financial aid. Helene Lutz was frustrated by what colleges expect. "The value of an education is a very subjective thing, and to be told that you ought to spend everything you have put away on a bachelor's degree is quite a statement."
But she talked about how she felt that Andrew deserved to go where in his heart he wanted to be, even if it meant sacrifices big and small. She and her husband would have to continue working for more years than they expected. She had given up her Starbucks and was avoiding the mall.
By Jan. 15, the deposit was mailed to Tufts, leaving Andrew trying to land a scholarship to ease his feelings of guilt.
The pressure on his friends wouldn't ease until teachers logged in first-semester grades. On Feb. 8, as Rebecca and Andrew opened their report cards, Rebecca gave her friend a high-five. It was the last time perfect grades mattered. "She was ecstatic," Andrew said.
Andrew sometimes second-guessed his decision to narrow the choice to Tufts. "Part of me would like to know whether I could have gotten into a Harvard or a Princeton."
At 5 p.m. March 31, several Ivy League schools simultaneously posted acceptances online. At their home computers, Nataniel and Rebecca messaged Andrew on Facebook, a social networking Web site. As they read the decisions, messages flew back and forth.
Andrew first learned that Yale and Harvard had rejected Nataniel, but Penn and Princeton had said yes. His friend's head was in the clouds, Andrew said.
Rebecca was accepted by Yale and Princeton and wait-listed by Harvard. But there were other rejections and wait-lists, and one Andrew relished. Rebecca had been wait-listed at Tufts. "I feel much better about myself."
The group of eight had gained acceptance to half a dozen elite schools and just as many selective colleges such as Washington University, Carnegie Mellon, Duke and Emory. But financial aid might well determine their September destinations.
Andrew had the fleeting thought of suggesting that they cut school and celebrate their acceptances. But no, the last AP chemistry lab was the next day. They would be synthesizing aspirin. They couldn't miss that.
One of the smallest high schools in Baltimore County, Pikesville has an enrollment of 921, just under 50 percent minority. About 70 percent of seniors enter a four-year college. SAT scores are above the state average, and 36.9 percent of seniors last year had passed one or more AP tests.