At her desk at Hollywood High School, counselor Judy Campbell has a motto for all the procrastinators, miscalculators, confused and unlucky in the college application process.
Her message, proclaimed on posters in her office, is: Try Plan B.
Even as most high school seniors and their parents are nervously awaiting admission decisions over the next few weeks, a lesser-known movement is at work in many offices like Campbell's. Long past the traditional November-to-February application deadlines, students who were shut out of their other choices or simply late in the game can apply in March, April or May and get admitted to some respectable four-year colleges.
"A lot of people scramble at the last minute," said Campbell, who posts lists of colleges with remaining slots. "I tell them: 'It's not the end of the world, and don't go out and slit your wrists. There are still a lot of other colleges.' "
Of course, highly competitive campuses such as Princeton, UCLA and Caltech are not part of this late exercise, nor are the most crowded such as San Diego State. And no one advises students to miss the usual deadlines because financial aid and popular majors might not be available if they do.
But schools including UC Riverside, UC Merced, Cal State Northridge, Cal State L.A., Loyola Marymount University, Whittier College and Mount St. Mary's say they still are willing to look at qualified candidates if space allows. And some colleges that don't publicly discuss it will quietly call high schools in May seeking a few extra students if admission deposits are lagging and their waiting lists are depleted.
Every May, the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling releases a list of schools that report openings in their fall freshman class. Last year, 253 schools across the country were on the list. But officials suspect the number is larger.
"There are plenty of institutions that will still accept applications even into the late summer," said David Hawkins, the group's director of public policy. "Just know that you are never operating without a net in the admissions process."
The names on last year's list were mostly small colleges unfamiliar to many Californians, schools such as Anna Maria College in Massachusetts and Greensboro College in North Carolina. But the list also included better known campuses such as Arizona State, the University of Maine, Fordham and Ohio Wesleyan. Hawkins said none are "fly-by-night institutions. There is nothing untoward or unworthy about the colleges on the list."
Counselors and colleges cite all sorts of reasons for the current scramble, with teenage procrastination and disorganization at the top. "I just harp and harp and harp about deadlines. And kids, being kids, will still let it slip," Campbell said.
In many cases, students previously headed to community college decide they want a four-year campus. Some West Coast teens get cold feet about the East Coast, or family problems intervene. And some miscalculate by applying only to colleges beyond their reach and being rejected.
The Internet has had an effect as well. Online applications are harder for counselors to monitor. And with computerization, students on average apply to more colleges than ever -- 10 is not uncommon, and that makes it harder for campuses to hit enrollment targets.
Among students who found themselves in a bind was Ashley Chatman, 17, a senior at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, a public school near Fairfax Avenue. She had applied on an early decision basis to New York University's competitive theater program but nowhere else.
"I was so caught up in trying to make sure my NYU application was perfect, I got sidetracked," she recalled. She has very good grades but SAT scores below NYU's average. By the time NYU rejected her, she had missed many other deadlines and felt "between a rock and a hard place."
Her counselor, MaryJane London, then helped her focus on six schools that would still consider her. So far, Ashley has been accepted to UC Riverside, Wagner College in New York and Webster University in Missouri. Meanwhile, her twin brother, Anthony, will be attending Cal State Northridge, his first choice.
Ashley's mother, Patricia Chatman, a retired elementary school principal, said the scramble was the family's own fault. "I did not know the process," she said. But now, after some emotional roller-coastering, they believe "if something doesn't work out, there always is going to be another avenue."
Still, Ashley warns other applicants: "Do not think you have all the time in the world. It can go by in the blink of an eye."
At Arcadia High School, counselors stress college deadlines because "you need to give yourself the most opportunities and you don't leave all the doors open when you are late," said senior class counselor Kathy Rapkin.
Nevertheless, Rapkin is helping Steven Moreno, 17, a senior who was reluctant at first to apply to a private school.