Life in 'wait list' limbo - what student hopefuls can do

Acceptance letters have been sent, deposits have been paid, but that doesn't mean that Daniel Kenny's college-hunting season is over. The high school senior from Oradell, N.J., was accepted at Georgetown and wait-listed at two Ivy League schools - Princeton and Harvard.

"I sent in my enrollment at Georgetown, and I've convinced myself that I'll be there for now," Daniel says. While he stresses how much he likes Georgetown, "Princeton is definitely the first choice. I'm still hoping against hope for them."

Most college-bound students stop worrying about which school to attend by April 1, the traditional date for receipt of acceptance or rejection letters. But for those whose letters read "wait list," closure can be difficult.

"Wait-listing allows a school to hedge its bets," says Barmak Nassirian, deputy director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers. Most colleges have wait lists, but their size, order, and philosophy vary too broadly from school to school to yield any clear trends, he says.

At Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., the wait list is small: Only 263 students were placed on it last year. In the end, 18 people from that list got a spot in the Class of 2009.

Macalester uses its wait list to create a community, says Lorne Robinson, the dean of admissions. "If it turns out we need boys from Arkansas who are interested in Latin and play the bagpipes, that's who we take," he says.

The University of Vermont, on the other hand, ranks the nearly 2,500 applicants in its waiting pool. That pool is then divided into two lists: one for Vermonters and one for out-of-state residents. This year, all 25 offers of admission were given to in-state students, says Dean of Admissions Don Honeman.

Though the odds seem bleak, experts say wait-listed students don't have to simply wait; there are ways to improve one's chances.

Experts suggest contacting admissions officers by phone or e-mail, and following up by sending transcripts, résumés, and additional letters of recommendation.

"We always invite applicants to keep us posted if there's new information that we should be aware of," says Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of undergraduate admissions at Harvard College.

But it is possible to go overboard. "We see people who decide that the way to get our attention is to send something every day on the idea that we'll always be watching," Ms. Lewis says. Her office regularly receives pastries, cookies, and brownies, and keeps a special area of the office reserved for oversize materials.

At the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., wait-listed students are given the name and e-mail address of a regional admissions officer and encouraged to get in touch. "Being appropriately active is good," says Rick Bischoff, director of admissions. "But if it's merely showing us how desperate they are, that's not particularly helpful."

Often, efforts go unrewarded. In past years, Harvard has accepted as many as 100 applicants off the wait list, and as few as none, Lewis says. One school's decisions often affect other schools, creating a domino effect. "It starts from the Ivies and works its way through the various tiers of colleges," Macalester's Robinson says.

Despite the competition, wait lists - even ranked ones - are flexible. "You can't predict what decisions 17- or 18-year-old high school students are going to make with precision," says Mr. Bischoff. "A certain number of students are trophy hunters - they have no intention of coming, but they want to tell their friends and family they got in."

"It's one thing to say 'yes, I want to stay on your waiting list' in April - but by the first week of May, later in May, and in June, interest will fall off as students start to make bonds with another institution," he says.

That's why most schools require students to accept or decline when they are offered a place on the wait list.

Lindsay Liu, a senior at Westford Academy in Westford, Mass., accepted only one (University of Chicago) of the four wait-list offers she got. For now, she plans to go to Carnegie Mellon University. "At some point, you have to start reevaluating what you want to do, in terms of what and how you're going to pack, and orientation in the middle of the summer," she says. "[Carnegie Mellon] is a great fit for me, and as far as I know, everyone loves it. I definitely think that's the way you have to think about it."

Many guidance counselors agree. "Wait lists generally don't come through," says Joan Strasnick, college and career coordinator at Wheaton High School in Silver Spring, Md. "My experience is that students who were wait-listed aren't relying on that wait list; they're making choices to go elsewhere."

"I advise students to pick a school and put down a deposit," says Lorraine Davis, a guidance counselor at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in Cambridge, Mass. In 16 years, she's seen only one student taken off the wait list for a competitive school. "If parents are willing to pay the $500 deposit and lose it, that's fine," she says, "but very few students can afford to do that."

For those who do decide the cost is worth it, there is only the aggravation left to worry about. Adam Ackerman, a first-year medical student at Tufts University School of Medicine, was informed in August - three weeks before the start of school - that he'd been accepted off of the wait list. "I had to tell everyone, which was a big deal, get out of my job, get all my shots - weird and silly things like that," he says. "It's like I'd stepped on a bus doing about 60 miles an hour, and it was 'hang on!' all the way."

A year into his program however, he's happy he jumped at the opportunity. "No regrets," he says. "This was definitely the right place for me to be."

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