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College admissions dance gets longer, more complicated

It could be well into the summer before some graduating high school seniors know where they'll be studying in the fall.

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The unpredictability of college admissions is a bit frustrating for everyone involved.

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"It seems really random," says David, a senior in the Midwest who asked not to use his real name. Like 93 percent of his fellow applicants, he got a no from Harvard. Same from Princeton and Yale. He made it into competitive Northwestern and plans to send his deposit there. But this lifelong Blue Devils basketball fan is making a full-court press for Duke.

In the hopes of increasing his chances, he's hired a consultant from College Confidential, based in Princeton, N.J. "I'm writing a personal letter to my regional admissions officer, reasserting that ... I'll go there if I'm eventually offered a spot," David says. He's also sending in his third-quarter grades (he's still got a 4.0) and a letter from his basketball coach.

A discussion thread on the College Confidential website is full of students comparing notes about where they were accepted, rejected, and wait-listed. A number who say they were accepted at Duke but wait-listed at Northwestern would gladly swap places with David – if only the colleges would let them.

Steven Goodman, an independent consultant in Washington, had a client admitted to New York University and Vassar but rejected by Ithaca College. To him, it's obvious that Ithaca admissions officers guessed the school was low on his client's list. Colleges are basing many decisions "within the structure of things that help their yield rates and their rankings," he says. (The yield is the portion of admitted students who accept the college's offer.)

In "reading the tea leaves" to sense which schools students prefer, some admissions officers have even been known to look at where they fall on the list of three colleges that students can designate to receive information from their federal financial-aid form, says Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers in Washington.

Counselors urge families to keep in mind that there are plenty of great colleges to which students can predictably match themselves. Nationally, about 7 out of 10 applications to four-year schools are accepted.

Some students who are offered a spot on a waiting list prefer closure. College Confidential counselor Sally Rubenstone knows of a young woman who was wait-listed at top-choice Northeastern and took a second look at an offer from Drexel. She decided in early April that Drexel was the best fit.

"In some cases, there's an ounce or two of sour grapes," Ms. Rubenstone says. "In getting themselves psyched to go to the college that did say yes, they've thought about all the things they didn't like about the one that ... didn't seem to want them enough."

Still, plenty of people are nursing hopes that with so much jockeying this year, they may end up getting accepted where they want. "There are so many students on so many wait lists," Mr. Goodman says, that "if you're patient, you actually might get a spot."

Waiting-list statistics

About one-third of colleges have waiting lists.

An average of 11 percent of applicants were placed on waiting lists in 2006.

29 percent of wait-listed students in 2006 were ultimately admitted.

Source: 2007 State of College Admission Report, National Association for College Admission Counseling