Finally, the letters had come in; I breathed a sigh of relief. The process of applying to college was one of the most stressful experiences of my life, and receiving my notifications of admissions felt like finding an oasis in the desert.

Lining up my first four acceptance letters side by side, I stared at the prominent logos etched into paper — the University of Southern California, the University of California Los Angeles, New York University and California Lutheran University. I’d had my heart set on UCLA for years, and was entranced by the blue and gold envelope. Of course, I’d choose UCLA … wouldn’t I?

I shifted my eyes to the letter from Cal Lutheran, inviting me to spend two nights and three days on campus, experiencing the school firsthand while competing for an additional merit-based scholarship. I realized that USC and NYU provided similar scholarship offers, and suddenly my decision seemed slightly more difficult.

Despite my long-term love affair with UCLA, I decided to take Cal Lutheran up on its offer. The practice of staying overnight on college campuses has become increasingly popular with seniors like me, as it gives us the opportunity to experience a trial run at a potential university. When faced with the difficult decision of where to spend the next four years, it’s no wonder graduating seniors take advantage of programs and scholarship opportunities that offer overnight stays.

My experience at California Lutheran University was both good and bad. I loved getting to know the other students, and had fun living with people in my age group. All the instructors I met were incredibly helpful, everyone on campus was friendly, and the school itself was absolutely beautiful, complete with a picturesque park in the center of the grounds. On one memorable night, all the presidential scholars were taken on a trip to Universal City Walk, where we went bowling, chatted and made new friends.

Although I had a wonderful time participating in the program, the trip helped me realize that Cal Lutheran was not the right school for me. It was too small for my personal preference, and I felt I was better suited for a large environment. My stay led me to the conclusion that just because a school has incredible programs and instructors, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right fit for every scholar.

David Tidwell of Spring Valley High in Las Vegas also participated in the program, and found it helped him immensely in the decision-making process.

“It’s great because you get to see the campus the way you will if you actually attend there the next year,” he said of his experience.

In addition to offering programs to students who have already been admitted, many universities provide month-long summer programs for high school students between their junior and senior years. While attending may help students get a feel for the environment on campus, it doesn’t guarantee admission. During their stay on campus, students take classes and receive academic credit for their effort, but do not necessarily have an advantage when applying for admission at the same university.

San Marcos High senior Megan Lorenzen attended one such program at Boston College last summer.

“I think that it is a good experience because it gets you prepared and excited for college,” Lorenzen said. “However, it is a bad thing because, in my case, it got my hopes up for going to Boston College when in the end they told me that even though I had already taken classes there, I couldn’t come back to their school as a freshman.”

San Marcos senior Jenna Dickman participated in a similar program at Stanford University — with the same result.

“At least we got to experience our dream schools,” she said. “That can’t be taken away from us — even though we didn’t get in.”

Ultimately, even the most disappointing college trial runs work out for the best. Dickman has been offered admission at several prestigious schools, and plans to attend UC Berkeley in the fall. Although Lorenzen was initially disappointed by Boston College’s response, she has now happily accepted her spot in American University’s class of 2012, where she will join other high-achieving students in exploring the opportunities of Washington, D.C. Tidwell’s stay at Cal Lutheran was a positive experience that motivated him to confirm his enrollment as an undergraduate.

And as for me, I’ve realized that our first instincts are often the best, and this fall will attend UCLA as a proud alumni scholarship recipient and club member. Go Bruins!

San Marcos High senior Valerie Mehlschau is a Noozhawk intern.