College hopefuls living in limbo

As wait lists grow at some popular schools, more applicants are holding out for a chance to fill rare open slots.

May 10, 2007|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

For most students, the drawn-out drama of college admissions decisions was finished last week. Choices were made, deposits mailed in, successes savored and wounds licked. Time to think about roommates and classes.

But not for everyone.

According to admissions experts, some popular colleges have compiled longer wait lists than in previous years, dangling the possibility, however small, that slots may open up if enough previously accepted applicants don't enroll.

As a result, more students will remain in limbo, possibly through June. It's rather like the pains and joys of teen romance: They're happy to have found a match -- in this case a college -- but hope a dreamier one comes along at the last minute.

"My impression is it seems to be something of a trend, an interesting phenomenon," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Compiling a wait list can be a softer way to reject otherwise well-qualified students during the current demographic bulge of high school seniors. But mainly the lists function, Nassirian said, as insurance for schools to hit their enrollment goals. It's becoming harder for colleges to predict how many possible freshmen will accept offers because the Internet makes it easy for ambitious students to apply to six or 10 or more colleges, quantities that were much rarer a generation ago.

Whether more students will be accepted this year from wait lists remains to be seen, especially at competitive, elite schools. Meanwhile, waiting is tough.

Bennett Duval, a senior at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, was accepted at five of the 10 colleges he applied to and chose UC Santa Barbara, his father's alma mater. UC Santa Barbara "seems to be the best fit for me," said Duval, who is an excellent student and captain of Loyola's volleyball team. "It's the right distance from home, not too far, not too close."

But Duval, who wants to study economics, was placed last month on the wait list at Boston College. He likes its East Coast location, Jesuit tradition and more intimate scale. So he has kept his name on the list -- with about 1,500 others -- despite the uncertainty and the $100 deposit he already sent to UC Santa Barbara.

"It's especially hard since you look around and your friends are sure where they are going to college," he said. "You've waited and you still have to wait some more."

Joanna Lee, a senior at Marlborough School in Los Angeles, was accepted at seven colleges, rejected at two and wait-listed at five. She has sent a commitment letter to Brown University and has decided to stay on the wait list of another Ivy League school, Columbia University. If Columbia accepts her, her choice may depend on financial aid, said Lee, who has very good grades and plays softball and the flute.

Her advice to high school juniors? Be flexible.

"I would say not to have your heart set on one school," said Joanna, who may major in pre-med or art. "If you do, it's likely you can be disappointed because the competition is so rigorous these days."

Definitive statistics on wait lists are hard to come by, although a survey by the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling found that about two-thirds of highly selective colleges maintain wait lists, and about a third of all colleges and universities do.

About half of those schools in recent years reported increasing the size of their lists.

But successfully gaining admission off a wait list is difficult. Schools considered selective (those that take fewer than half of all applicants) admitted 12.5% of wait-listed students in fall 2006, the latest admission association figures.

At the most highly sought-after schools, things can be grim. Princeton University, which reports 792 wait-list offers this year, admitted no one from its list in the last two years.

With those odds, many high school counselors decry the nerve-racking effect on young people who should be enjoying their last weeks with classmates.

"It's terrible. It seems this process never ends," said Hector Martinez, director of college guidance at the Webb Schools in Claremont. He said he has seen more qualified students put on wait lists over the last few years. That seems to involve more girls as colleges seek to rebalance enrollments that tipped to female majorities.

Partly driving the competition for slots at top-tier colleges and universities is the rising number of high school graduates -- and the growing obsession with the rankings of schools by guidebooks and magazines.

After the population of high school graduates dropped a bit in the mid-'90s, their numbers have grown about 24% over the last decade to about 3.23-million graduates this year. The National Center for Education Statistics said the trend will continue until 2009 before dipping again for a few years.

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