What to Do if You Don't Get In

You can find ways to alter course in midstream if your initial choice doesn't work out.

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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 at all in the first go-round. "We've said no this year to some very, very good students to whom we would have said yes in previous years," 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 (details below).

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 record numbers of students graduating from high school, but also more seniors are applying to college (60 percent last year). At the same time, thanks in part to the ease of common and online applications, those students are generating more applications than ever—18 percent now submit to at least seven schools. Johns Hopkins University had 15,950 applicants for 1,200 slots for this fall—a breathtaking jump of 79 percent over the 8,929 who applied just six 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 tuitions 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.

At the North Hollywood High School Highly Gifted Magnet program, for instance, college counselor Elenna Turner sees more students choosing University of California schools such as Berkeley or UCLA over selective but more expensive private schools like Wesleyan or Lewis and Clark. "They're going in-state and saving their money for graduate school," Turner says.

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 5,200, down 1,100 from 6,300 last year. "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.