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.
Students in waiting. Wait-list kids are ones universities would love to take if they could, says Barnhill, but can't because of space or funding constraints. But how can you evaluate the odds of getting in off the wait list? Colleges compile them as an insurance policy to fill last-minute spaces, so they themselves don't know in advance whether they'll use them.
NACAC statistics show that the percentage of students accepted off the wait list varies from year to year. Of those who stayed on the list, 35 percent were offered spots in 2005, 29 percent in 2006, and 30 percent in 2007. With this year's numbers not yet complete, many schools, including Harvard, have reported taking more wait-list admits. FSU, for instance, offered admission to 418, of whom 269 accepted. Last year, FSU did not take any wait-list admissions.
The only way to evaluate your own chances is for you, or your guidance counselor, to call the school directly to find out the wait-list size, your rank on it (if known), and how many students got in that way in previous years. Then, says Hingle, think about these questions: Do you really want to wait, perhaps until the end of the summer, to decide where you'll go? And how badly do you want to go there?
Many students treat wait-list letters as soft rejections and quickly decide on another school. But if you do opt to wait it out, you can bolster your chances of getting in. Ann Cheng, a high school senior from Cincinnati profiled in this story, kept Harvard up to date with new honors she won after she applied, and it worked. But don't go overboard. Multiple inquiries from different family members are definitely counterproductive, says Barnhill.
Most important of all, remember that an acceptance in hand is worth any number of wait-list spots. So send in your deposit, and focus on the school that's willing to take you rather than obsess over a wait-list outcome. It's more common than not, says Hart, for students wait-listed or rejected at their first-choice schools to fall in love with their second choice and figure out that it all happened for the best.
Think January. When Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., deferred on Ashley Sauerhof's early-decision application, she had applied to 12 other schools and gotten into at least 10 of them. But Brandeis, her first choice, remained elusive: It offered her a place in the class of 2009 but starting midyear, for the spring semester. "It felt like a consolation prize, like second class," she says. "I called the admissions office to ask to put me on the wait list instead." Then Brandeis Admissions Dean Gil Villanueva explained that while wait-list spots offered no guarantees, a midyear acceptance was just that—an acceptance. Now entering her senior year at Brandeis and planning to apply to law school, Sauerhof says she would do it the same way again. "It helped me grow," she says. "It allowed me to see that everybody gets into college in a different way."
Brandeis belongs to a growing roster of schools that offer midyear admits, including Colorado College, Colby College in Maine, Middlebury College in Vermont, and Wheaton College in Massachusetts. In fact, spending her semester living at home and taking courses as a nonmatriculating student at Nassau Community College in Garden City, N.Y., Sauerhof met other midyear admits like herself earning transferable credits; they were on their way to SUNY-Binghamton and SUNY-Geneseo.