Andrew's friend Jon Monfred said that he "kind of shut down." He said he had difficulty concentrating and stopped doing his work. Jon, a school newspaper editor, lacrosse player and middle school tutor, wanted to go to Penn. His weekday schedule left little time for anything but activities and homework.
By midweek, two students in the class had been deferred by Brown and Dartmouth. On Friday, Jon went to the school library at 3 p.m., and entered a password into a computer. "I was just trying to breathe," he said.
Success. He was on his way to Penn.
Pikesville's principal and some parents say they don't perceive excessive stress. Rather, they say, the children sign up for multiple AP classes and activities because they are part of a highly motivated group. "I think there was a certain ethic among the group that said more is better," said Joel Suldan, Rebecca's father. "This isn't an unhealthy pressure."
But some believe that the drive to do everything well is detrimental when it becomes perfectionism. Students are less likely to push their boundaries and test themselves, said Ginsburg, the pediatrician. Failure is an important part of the learning process because it builds resilience.
A wider issue may be the performance of undergraduates, according to Denise Pope, a Stanford University professor who has written a book on college admissions. She sees students who are asked to think outside the box, but can't. A decade ago, students came to her and told her what they would write a paper on. Today, they ask, "What can I write a paper on to get an A?" she said. "It is not a leadership mind-set. It is a middle manager mind-set."
Late on Dec. 12, Tufts sent out its early decisions online. Andrew's mother and grandmother leaned over his shoulder, staring at the computer in an upstairs home office. They hung on one word that popped up in his e-mail: "Congratulations."
Andrew had been accepted to Tufts, the college he saw as right for him. It also had what his parents viewed as the ridiculous price tag of $51,400 a year.
"Let the macaroni-and-cheese dinners begin," his mother said. Even as she joked, Helene Lutz was proud. Her husband, on speakerphone, told him: "I could never have done that, Andrew."
Andrew had dug into his studies with perseverance they found remarkable. Now they were ready to make financial sacrifices to send him to an elite college with hopes he would go on to medical school.
For his part, Andrew kept filling out scholarship applications, to reduce the cost for his mother, a research nurse, and his father, an environmental lawyer, who at 63 was nearing retirement age.
A few days later, Stanford admitted a classmate, Kevin Chow, and Andrew got the acceptance from Case Western he had expected. But his mind was on Nataniel Mandelberg, the friend who had gotten a perfect 2400 on his three SATs, a rare feat. The curly-headed boy with the perfect A average wanted to go to Yale. He worked in a Johns Hopkins lab after school, fenced and was a member of two school clubs.
Moments later, Nataniel texted. The result was a blow: He had been deferred. Andrew was incredulous. "Maybe they had some rock star who was really smart. Maybe they had some kid who invented Crocs ... helped cure something in Africa," he said.
In an e-mail later, Nataniel wrote: "Not the end of the world. ... I'll get another shot at it March 31st, and besides, no one has a good shot at a school like Yale."
He would apply to 13 others, including Princeton, Harvard and Stanford, and some more likely to offer him scholarships. He would have to write six to eight long essays and more than a dozen short ones.
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."