It used to be that a fat envelope in the mail meant you'd gotten into the college of your choice. Thin meant you were out. That was how high school students learned the result of their big college search.
The news still comes this time of year, and it sometimes arrives by letter. But seniors might just as easily learn through an e-mail they open at midnight or from a Web site that a fellow student tells them to check - right now. What hasn't changed is that anxious teens are waiting for an answer from colleges that they believe will change their lives.
The Internet has afforded some students nearly instant access to a college's decision. When the University of Maryland, College Park accepts or rejects a student, for instance, it sends out a letter. But the applicant can also access the decision through a secure Web site.
"I did check on the site constantly," said Pikesville High School senior Sarah Coonin, who knew College Park would make the decision on her application - and thousands of others - in a three-week window during February and March.
There's a drum beat that moves through the corps of frantic seniors when the first student at a high school signs on and learns the news from a particular college is online. The word goes out on cell phones, in instant messages and on Facebook.
Coonin got the call from a friend: College Park had posted.
"I ran to my computer as fast as I have ever run in my life," she said. After learning she had been accepted, she began getting in touch with other friends.
Hearing over the Internet is fast, but it has its foibles, seniors said. They must first sign on to the college's Web site, then use an identification number and a password to get in. But it's easy to lose those precious numbers and passwords.
And even if you have them, you can check one minute, find nothing, and feel compelled to check again. It's enough to drive a student crazy.
Caitlin Aballo, a senior at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, has gotten her answers in many different forms this spring, but she believes this rite of passage is best done the old-fashioned way.
She won't soon forget the day she and her mother hurried home from school to see if the letter from Penn State had arrived. Caitlin sprinted to the mailbox, sorting through the bills. The word "Congratulations" appeared across a thick envelope.
"I like the letter so much better," Aballo said. "You run to the mailbox ... Seeing the big word 'Congratulations.' It was cool." She liked opening the letter, sorting through pages of information and thinking about what it would be like to be on that campus.
When you learn online, there is just a word or two on a screen.
Coonin liked how she got the news from New York University. She received a letter inviting all admitted seniors to come to campus for an open house. "I thought it was one of the kind of things they send everyone," she said.
But she made a call to the admissions office - and learned the invitations had gone only to students who would be getting acceptance letters soon. "I started screaming on the phone. I was jumping up and down and running around my house," Coonin said.
More colleges are moving to Internet notifications, but there are still many schools that prefer to use the mail. "My gut feeling is that there is more news being received by snail mail," said Paul Lubinski, chairman of Pikesville High School's guidance department. The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers says it doesn't know which method is used most.
For many institutions, online notification can be tricky because of security issues. In 2002, it was reported that a Princeton University admissions officer hacked into the Yale University Web site, apparently to find out which Princeton applicants had been accepted at Yale. The case involved the use of prospective students' Social Security numbers and birth dates to find out if they had been admitted to another school. Some Princeton employees resigned.
George Mason University's associate director of admissions, Nataki Corneille, said her institution delivers the news only by conventional mail. She said e-mail notifications can be caught in spam filters.
The university does allow students to check the status of their application online, but only to learn if all of the pieces of their application have been received.
Each student has a password, but she said the office often gets phone calls from students who have forgotten their password or want to know how to log on. Those calls would just increase if they notified prospective students online, Corneille said.
"I think there is something about receiving an actual letter," she said.
There are lots of students who might disagree. The University of Maryland, College Park offers the news online for those who want to check. "It seems to be working fine," said Laura Cosgrove, associate director of undergraduate admissions at College Park.
The university has "lots of checks and balances" to make sure the right decisions are posted online. "They seem to appreciate the ability to get in a little earlier. They call and say, 'When can I check?'" said Cosgrove.
Morgan Barker's acceptance letters from College Park, New York University, Wake Forest University and other schools have rolled in over the last few weeks. Getting a letter through the mail, said the Owings Mills High School senior, is so much more satisfying.
"We [teenagers] don't get a lot of mail. Maybe some birthday cards or holiday cards. So it is kind of exciting," she said.
But in the end, how you hear isn't the issue, said Lubinski. "I don't think it matters ... as long as they get accepted."