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Some Colleges May Play Hard to Get with Applicants

The college applications have been sent, and by now, many local high school seniors have heard back from the colleges of their choice and have made a decision about where to attend in the fall.

Others, however, are waiting all over again.

Two years ago, Pleasantville's Andy Brown was neither accepted nor rejected from his first choice of college, Virginia's James Madison University. Instead, he was waitlisted.

"It was really tough," says Brown, who spent several weeks actively promoting himself to the school before eventually being accepted.

Hard-to-get is hard enough when it involves human relationships, but when colleges place seniors on waitlists, a winning approach like Brown's can go a long way toward acceptance.

Colleges use waitlists as a way to ensure minimum enrollment numbers for either entire undergraduate classes or individual programs.

Because college popularity fluctuates with trends and time, the number of students who opt to enroll year-to-year can be just as unstable. In years when enrollment rates slip, waitlists allow colleges to fill in the gaps.

In general, colleges create three applicant groups. Those in the accepted or rejected categories are notified by early April, or sooner for many public universities. Those in the middle are invited to wait for spaces that might open in May, after accepted students send in deposits.

For those considering the University of California, the specter is even more daunting: California's public universities have started using waitlists for the first time.

"It is such a tumultuous year for our kids already, with announcements that UC and Cal State will be accepting fewer students. So to add the waiting lists right now feels so unstable, so unfair to the kids," says Natalie Hamilton, a counselor at Northwood High School in Irvine, Calif.

As cruel as a "maybe" may be, waitlists give seniors another shot to make the cut. It's a chance that Anne Abbatecola - the director of Bronxville High School's guidance department - encourages interested students to take.

She advises waitlisted students with continuing interest to "present themselves on campus, maybe connect with a professor whose class they can visit and continue to get information, and perhaps just share that with the admissions office - that they have continued to learn actively about the school."

Kevin Cavanaugh, the director of admissions at Iona College in New Rochelle, agrees: "If I've got one spot, and I have two students of equal caliber, academically, and all other traits seem to be relatively equal, and one student made it clear via e-mail or notes in the mail or the occasional phone call with profound interest in the institution ... chances are I'm going to give that spot to the student with the interest in the school."

At Iona, the typical undergraduate class ranges between 850 and 900 students. Cavanaugh expects between 200 to 300 students on this year's waitlist; after that, he'll be the one waiting to see how many students accept the offer.

"That's what varies wildly," he says. "Some years we might get 10 or 20 taken (from) the waitlist; other years, it might be 50 or 60."

Some colleges depend less on a waitlist. Purchase College has limited the scope of its waitlist by reserving it for specific programs rather than overall enrollment.

"We really make an effort to try to give students a definitive decision," says Stephanie McCaine, the admissions director at Purchase. "Waitlists create more anxiety and complicate the process, so we try to limit our use of waitlists."

Art, acting and film programs at Purchase have particularly large applicant pools. Because many students approved for slots in these popular fields enroll at Purchase, very few high school seniors are subjected to waitlists.

"We usually do really well," McCaine says, "so when we go to the waitlists, it's usually single digits."

It may be difficult for students on multiple waitlists to fully commit to only one prospective college, but for those who have their heart set on one school, it's important to make that known in no uncertain terms.

"Make it clear to the college, if you can, that, if accepted, you will attend," Abbatecola says.

McCaine agrees.

"It's always helpful for the institution to know they are taking this opportunity seriously," she adds.

Beyond those initiatives, only a student's new, significant achievements since the original application deadline should be brought to the attention of the admissions office, Abbatecola says.

"Unless you have some really new, startling award to share, there's really not too much (more) that you can do during that period," she says.

Coming on too strongly is a no-no. As it is in the dating world, showing too much interest - even with the right intentions - is a turn-off.

"You can politely indicate your interest, but please don't nag," McCaine says with a laugh. "Nagging is not helpful."

Cavanaugh concurs.

"When Mom's calling, then Dad's calling, then the student's calling, then the guidance counselor's calling, it gets to be a bit much, so it's a very fine line," he adds.

Even for students who do everything right on their end, it still may not be enough to make the cut.

A survey last year by the National Association for College Admission Counseling confirmed that students should not pin too much hope on waiting lists.

It found that about a third of all colleges use the lists and that 78 percent of selective colleges - schools that accept fewer than half of applicants - employ them. Of students who decided to stay on such lists, only about 30 percent on average nationally were offered enrollment, the survey showed. At selective schools, that figure was 13 percent.

But sometimes there's truth behind a college's glorified Dear John letter that's a fancy way of saying "It's not you; it's me."

"More often than not, I think families think there's a literal list, where Johnny can be either (Nos.) 1 or 300 on that list, and it's a question of how far down on the list the student is," Cavanaugh says.

College enrollment offices will look to see where they're deficient in an incoming class. If a college is short 10 nursing students in the nursing major, they're not necessarily going to take the top 10 students off the waitlist; they're going to find the top 10 nurses on the waitlist, Cavanaugh says.

"Or, if an institution is oversubscribed in the residence halls and no longer can take any more residential students," he adds, "they'll take the top 10 commuting students."

By June, admissions officers and seniors have a better idea how the following fall will resolve. But before then, it's an unpredictable process, Cavanaugh admits.

"Admissions directors base their livelihood off the decision-making capacity of 17-year-olds," he says, "which can be rather tenuous."

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