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.
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.
This trend goes hand in hand with the increasing popularity of semester-abroad programs. Midyear admits handily fill the dormitory and classroom space that would otherwise be empty, and many schools allow midyear admits to use the gap semester to study abroad through one of the university's programs.
Time well spent. Many students benefit from taking some time off. Faith Brigham, for instance, about to enter her junior year at Brandeis, was also disappointed at first by her midyear admission, especially when her friends started leaving for college. "When you are in that moment, you do feel left behind," she admits. But the North Carolina native decided to make the best of her gap semester, accepting a city government internship in Chicago, where she could live with her aunt and uncle. Brigham's experience—at one point, she was helping analyze workers' compensation claims—motivated her to hit the ground running once she did arrive on campus.
Taking a gap year or gap semester is also a way for students who were not accepted anywhere they wished to go to figure out what comes next. "We see a lot of different scenarios," says Gail Reardon, founder and director of Taking Off, a gap year consulting service, "but in the 16 years I've been doing this, every student who has come and said, 'No way am I ever going on to a particular school or any school again'—they always go on to further education." Just know that before you reapply to a college that rejected you, admissions officers will be looking for concrete signs of a more focused attitude or greater maturity, as evidenced by how you spent that time off. A year devoted to online video games won't cut it.
Never too late. "Seniors! These colleges are still accepting applications!" It was mid-March, and the sign, posted on Turner's door at her North Hollywood High School office in California, was attached to a three-page list of schools with rolling admissions and still-open deadlines. Among them were choices such as the University of Redlands, Clemson, and Loyola Marymount.
For some schools, late spring or early summer is not too late. In early May, NACAC's space availability survey lists schools reporting spots remaining for qualified applicants. It stays online until mid-August. This year, 295 had space available for first-year or transfer students; they included Guilford College in North Carolina, Arizona State University, and several state colleges in New York. "When you look at this, you realize there is always someplace else to go," says Hingle. The New England Board of Higher Education compiles a similar regional list. To follow up, call the school directly.
Two-year colleges. Two-year or community colleges typically offer open enrollment; as long as you meet their standard criteria, you can enroll. After one or more semesters, you can apply as a transfer student to a four-year college to complete your bachelor's degree.
"This is one of the most prominent trends we've seen," says Hawkins. It is driven in part by cost-conscious students: Tuition averages $2,361, compared with $6,185 for four-year public colleges and universities. In addition, many community colleges have transfer agreements with four-year colleges, arrangements that emerged to make sure that transfer credits would be recognized, says Mary Spilde, president of Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore., and a board member of the American Association of Community Colleges.
Agreements differ from state to state—Lane, for example, has dual-enrollment programs with both the University of Oregon and Oregon State. "The earlier a student can identify the public university they want to transfer to, the better we can coordinate and advise them about what they need to do to make the transition as smooth as possible," Spilde says. That way, in terms of years, two plus two really does make four.
Transfers: Once More, With Gusto
What if you arrive at the college you thought you wanted, and once you're there it turns out not to be the fit you'd hoped for?
Ann Stouffer was excited about going to Boston University: big East Coast city, excellent business and management program. But the six-hour drive back to suburban Philadelphia seemed awfully long, and she missed being on a team—she'd played three sports throughout high school. She went home for winter break and thought it over.
"Having made close friends and figured out that I could go out for the lacrosse team the next semester, honestly, I could picture myself staying and being happy," she said. Instead, though, she applied and was accepted at Temple University in Philadelphia (another big city, another strong business program)—and made the lacrosse team. "I'm very glad I transferred," she says.
Transferring is often more straightforward than it sounds: In general, colleges look for the same qualities in transfers as in incoming freshmen, and application guidelines are similar. NACAC's yearly space availability survey contains information about spaces for transfer students, too.
If you do opt to stay on a wait list, write or call with any new info you think will help—a stellar final transcript, a special award or achievement. And let your college know you're not just toying with it.