Lindsay McCartney was a high school cheerleader, class officer and homecoming queen, but schoolwork failed to interest her and she didn't even make the waiting list when she applied to Virginia Tech. Her mother, Karen Torgersen, was the university's director of undergraduate admissions and knew she did not match up in that tough competition.
But three years later, McCartney is a Virginia Tech junior -- one of many high schoolers frustrated by the waiting list and rejection letters that have hit so many households this month, yet successful in finding a way into their college of choice anyway.
Although the chances of getting off a college waiting list or getting past a rejection are slim, and the number of wait-list and rejection letters is climbing, admissions officials throughout the country say there are still several ways to get into one's first-choice school. These include studying university policies, carefully drafting letters and being patient and persistent.
Some college wait lists, the officials acknowledge, are pretty hopeless. In recent years, the wait lists at Amherst, Middlebury and Columbia have been jammed with almost as many names as are on their admitted student lists -- or even more. But several sought-after colleges have kept their wait lists short, both to discourage false hopes and to allow more precision in rounding out their freshman classes.
Georgetown, for instance, is one of the most selective schools in the country but has admitted about 100 applicants off its wait list each of the past five years. Georgetown's dean of admissions, Charles A. Deacon, said D.C. zoning authorities have put strict limits on the university's enrollment to forestall neighborhood complaints about traffic and other annoyances. So Deacon intentionally admits fewer students than he thinks he needs in order to avoid a surprise surplus.
In a typical year, he said, he may offer wait-list status to 1,600 students, and about 1,000 will accept. But by May 1, the nearly universal deadline for accepting offers of admission, half of those have gone elsewhere, and of those remaining, only 250 to 300 still have Georgetown at the top of their list.
"Further, we must have coverage for all of our undergraduate schools, so, depending on where there's space, the odds could be very high of acceptance for those who hang in there," Deacon said.
The University of Virginia, which admitted 65 wait-listed students in 2000, has both an in-state and an out-of-state waiting list for each of its four schools -- the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering, the School of Nursing and the School of Architecture. "Usually, we have some spaces and are able to make some offers in May and/or June," said John A. Blackburn, dean of admission.
According to a January report by the Alexandria-based National Association for College Admission Counseling, "the number of students being placed on wait lists appears to be growing at a faster pace than in recent years." Being admitted off the wait list is tough, the group said, but not impossible. A survey of high school counselors found that 34 percent said none of their wait-listed students was admitted, 41 percent said 10 percent gained admission, and the rest did somewhat better.
Seventy percent of college admissions offices surveyed said they admitted fewer than 20 percent of those on their wait lists.
The large wait lists are a security blanket for admissions officers who can no longer predict precisely how many of their accepted students will come because so many students apply to 10 or more colleges. "Virtually every admissions officer has had at least one year in their career when the ball bounced the other way on a lot of decisions and they really needed their wait list," said Christopher Hooker-Haring, dean of admission and financial aid at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. Admissions officers at very selective schools say they often wait-list students for whom they have no room but whose high school records are so good they don't deserve a rejection.
Which wait-listed students are admitted is not a matter of chance, college admissions officers and students say. Jay Johnston, a student at Georgetown Day School in the District, called the dean of admissions and the head of the drama department at Vassar, then followed up with a letter, and was admitted. Vivek Chopra, who attended Wootton High School in Rockville, got off the wait list after writing to the Cornell admissions office and asking some teachers and friends to write.
"It is important to show genuine interest in the first-choice school, but without overdoing it," said Martin A. Wilder, vice president of enrollment at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg. "Send any additional information that would be helpful to the admissions committee in reevaluating the application file, especially additional grade reports from the school, standardized test scores, or honors and recognitions."
Admissions officials advise wait-listed students to write or e-mail -- not telephone -- the college and describe not only their latest awards but why they think the college fits their needs. A letter from a senior-year teacher is good. Colleges are obliged by the rules of their national admissions association to reveal how many students are on their wait lists. Some officials say they are happy to tell wait-listees if they are looking for particular talents in the students they plan to admit from their list.
Some are even willing to discuss sophomore or junior year admissions. "Each year, Virginia Tech brings in 700 transfers," Torgersen said.
That is how her daughter got in, applying as a transfer after a successful freshman year at Virginia's Radford University. Now a junior, McCartney is active in her sorority, coaching a high school dance team and mentoring at a middle school. Torgersen said she would have been happy to have Lindsay stay at Radford, "but she has wanted to be a Hokie since she knew what one was."