7 Strategies for Coping With the Unexpected

What should you do if you're wait-listed? What if your top choice will admit you only in January?

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In the time it takes to size up an ominously skinny envelope or skim an all-too-brief E-mail, a collegebound senior's mood can plunge from great expectations to a looking-glass world of multiple wait lists, deferments, and rejections. With colleges overwhelmed by applications, some high school seniors receive few or even no acceptances in the first go-round. "In the past few years, we've said no to some very, very good students to whom we would have said yes previously," says Janice Finney, director of admissions at Florida State University.

Yet many routes to college remain, including wait lists, midyear admissions, and reapplying from community college. And last-minute resources abound: The National Association for College Admission Counseling posts a space availability survey every May, as does the New England Board of Higher Education.

College counselors advise building a Plan B from the get-go. "It's a lot of competition, and the last couple of years I've had more and more students wait-listed than in the past," says Stephanie Hart, an independent college consultant in Kansas City, Mo., who has worked as both a high school college counselor and a college admissions officer. Being aware of multiple options from the start can minimize what Hart calls the "What now?" dilemma at the back end—you'll be prepared, no matter what.

Reality check. Wherever you are in the application process, step back and get a clearer perspective. "The good news is that the acceptance rate for all four-year colleges has remained in the 68-to-70 percent range since the mid-1980s, and more than 80 percent of these colleges say yes to more than half their applicants," says David Hawkins, NACAC's director of public policy and research.

Here's the catch: Not only are students graduating from high school at close to record levels, but more seniors are applying to college (according to the feds, about 67 percent of high school students enroll in some type of postsecondary institution). At the same time, thanks in part to the ease of common and online applications, those students are generating more applications than ever—22 percent now submit to at least seven schools. Johns Hopkins University received a record 16,122 applications for this fall—a breathtaking jump of 80.5 percent over the 8,929 who applied seven years ago.

Very few schools approach that level of competition. Nonetheless, the spike in applications allows many to be pickier than in the past. One New York City student was shocked to receive a nearly immediate rejection from a Midwestern state university where his guidance counselor had assured him students with similar profiles had been shoo-ins in years past. Nervous about the potential for other surprises, he buckled down and worked extra hard on his other applications—and on improving his GPA. The strategy worked: He got into his first-choice school.

Redefine safety. What's a safety school, anyway, these days? In the past, many state schools were overlooked despite their excellence, says Judy Hingle, career connections specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. But the economic downturn is making in-state tuition very attractive, so that is changing. Particularly in states with strong university systems—they include New York, California, Texas, and Florida—cost is driving students toward public universities, and that is raising their prestige and selectivity, Hawkins points out.

Other reasons drive high school seniors to go in-state too: saving money for graduate school, for instance, or minimizing travel and residence fees.

To add even more uncertainty for students seeking an acceptance they can count on, some state-funded schools themselves have been hit by the economy. At FSU, for instance, this fall's incoming freshman class will number 6,000, down from 6,300 two years ago. "We've maxed out on the number of students we're able to enroll," says John Barnhill, FSU's assistant vice president for enrollment management.

Given all this, Hart favors ditching the term "safety schools" altogether in favor of "foundation schools"—ones where students can reasonably expect acceptance and some scholarship aid. The foundation schools she recommends tend to be state colleges and universities relatively close to home. Of course, if you don't find them as glamorous as your first-choice schools, "you have to make sure you would be willing to go there if the other schools, for whatever reason, don't work out," she advises.