When you think of a teenage rite of spring fraught with doubts, the quest for a prom date might come to mind. But for many seniors this year, it's even trickier to pair up with a top-choice college.
The uncertainty, both for students and schools, is on the rise as each group turns to complicated selection strategies that make the SAT look like a walk in the park. So it could be a long wait – well into the summer for some – before it's clear where the largest graduating high school class in three decades will be studying in the fall.
"It's almost like a courtship ritual," says David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) in Alexandria, Va. Colleges and students "are doing quite an elaborate dance around each other to figure out not only what their preferences are, but what the likelihood of matching up is."
The class of 2008 has been dubbed the "echo boom." At 3.3 million, it's the largest class since 3.15 million baby boomers graduated in 1977, the National Center for Education Statistics reports.
A host of factors are fueling the growing selectivity and longer waiting lists at top-tier colleges. Students send in more applications to maximize their chances. Colleges, wary of having too many offers turned down, are hesitant to admit students who may just think of them as a "safety."
Shifting admissions and financial-aid policies have also added to the unpredictability. A number of top schools have dropped early-application options, contributing to the springtime swell. Others have dipped into endowments to ensure that lower- and middle-income students can attend debt-free, prompting less well-endowed schools to wonder how well they can compete. And recent anxiety about the student-loan market makes it difficult for pricey colleges to predict how many students will commit.
The lines have blurred between traditional categories like "safety schools" and "stretches," says Jim Jump, director of guidance at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. "No college wants to be thought of as a safety school," he says. Just like a potential prom date, "they want to know that they're wanted."
That means "demonstrated interest" is a much bigger factor these days. Students can show their sincerity with everything from college visits to a letter laying out specific reasons the school would be a top choice. In 2007, 21 percent of colleges said this was of considerable importance, up from 7 percent in 2003, NACAC reports.
When it comes to colleges prioritizing who's on their waiting lists, demonstrated interest "is a huge piece of what we look at," says Mike Steidel, director of admission at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Carnegie Mellon gives students an option to be on a priority waiting list or the regular one. If priority people get an offer in early May, they have just 24 hours to make their deposit or they're out. The school does show them a financial-aid package in advance so they can make a quick decision.
Aiming for about 1,400 students in its class, Carnegie Mellon enrolls 1,500, expecting that some who send in deposits will nonetheless jump to another school. Out of about 22,000 who applied this year, 3,000 were offered spots on a waiting list. By May 1, usually only 10 percent want to stay on the list, which would have meant 300. But Mr. Steidel says he was "a little overwhelmed" to find that by mid-April, it was 450 and counting.
The unpredictability of college admissions is a bit frustrating for everyone involved.
"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."