May 1—the day high school seniors are supposed to finally commit to a college—traditionally ends the intense wooing and anxiety of the admissions season.
But not this year for thousands of hopefuls like Alix Elsen, a senior at Oregon Episcopal School in Portland. The B+ soccer player got back one rejection letter and four wait-list offers from her five college applications. So she's had to scramble. Her goal: find a backup school while convincing her dream colleges that they should admit her but without going overboard and annoying admissions officers. She's optimistic but knows the uncertainty could last another month or two, since most colleges take that long to figure out how many extra students they'll need. "It feels awful," she says.
Admissions officials aren't feeling much better. Worried about the impact of the credit crunch, the trend of students applying to more colleges, and changes to elite colleges' admissions and financial aid policies, a growing number of colleges have protected themselves by putting unusually large numbers of students on wait lists this year.
Admissions officers say that while each school handles its wait list differently, a few tips can help.
Make a backup plan: On average, only about 30 percent of students who hope to escape a wait list get accepted. Many elite schools haven't taken any wait-listed students in recent years. So students should make sure they have a seat at some other college in September.
Show them the love: Admissions officers don't want to call 15 wait listees to find one who will commit. Students who persuade officers that they'll fit into a school and will immediately accept an offer will rise to the top. "We want it to be as efficient as possible," says Martha Merrill, dean of admissions and financial aid for Connecticut College.
Be a little creative: Jean Jordan, dean of admissions at Emory, remembers admitting a student who rewrote the words of the school song to argue her cause. But Jordan's pretty tired of getting deliveries of cookies or of shoes from students "wanting to get their foot in the door." Daniel Creasy, an admissions officer for Johns Hopkins, says he certainly remembers students who pull stunts, such as the one who made a sandwich board collage about herself and marched around the admissions office, but those actions don't help them get in.
Follow instructions: Many schools tell wait listees they want only a letter asking to remain on the wait list and a well-written update of achievements. Many don't have the time to handle multiple phone calls, visits, or E-mails. "There is a fine line between advocacy and stalking," says Andrew Flagel, an admissions officer for George Mason University.
Ask about your chances: Some schools rank wait-listed students. But many schools instead look to the wait list to replace the kind of student they had been counting on—such as someone to fill a spot in an orchestra, a team, or a major. Some schools will accept only waiting students who can pay the full price and don't ask for financial aid.
Call off the parents: "We want to hear from the student," since that's whom they'd be admitting, not the parent, says Merrill.