In trying to figure out what to do, the mother wondered: “Are colleges waitlisting more this year than other years? And do colleges just consider waitlists a nicer way to say no?”

This was a difficult year to get into many of the country’s top universities — perhaps the most difficult year ever. Admissions office after admissions office reported record numbers of applications, and acceptance rates continue to decline at many universities. (For example, Swarthmore College accepted almost 50 percent of applicants in the late 1970s. This year: 15 percent.)

The spike isn’t because there are more high school graduates applying to college — it’s because students are applying to more schools than ever before. And it’s sometimes difficult for admissions officers to predict exactly how many admitted students will enroll.

Hence, the growing popularity of the waitlist at many schools. In 2009, 39 percent of all colleges used waitlists, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), and this year, several schools grew those lists.

“Unfortunately, it is a nebulous, uncomfortable zone for students,” said Debbie Stieffel, vice president for enrollment management at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, which has a longer than usual wait list this year. “But for some, the wait may be worth it because they can enroll at their top-choice college.”

Last year, 34 percent of waitlisted students were accepted, a significant increase from previous years, according the NACAC. But at many schools, only a few waitlisted students make it in.

Georgetown University has 1,200 students on a waitlist this year — in 2009, only 181 students made it off the list. In previous years, it was even lower: 124 in 2008, 47 in 2007, 18 in 2006 and 65 in 2005, according to the Georgetown Voice blog, Vox Populi.

This year, a few schools waitlisted about as many students as it expects to enroll, said Katherine Cohen, chief executive and founder of IvyWise, a private college admissions counseling company based in Manhattan. (Cohen will be online Thursday at 1 p.m. to answer your questions about admissions.)

The University of Pennsylvania has 2,400 students on its waitlist this year, even though its target size for the Class of 2015 is 2,420 students. Skidmore College in New York didn’t even touch its waitlist last year, Cohen said, although officials plan to do so this year.

Admissions experts have lots of advice for students attempting to get off a waitlist (see below), but several of the admissions officials I talked with urge students to only do so if they really, really want to attend that college.

“While those colleges would like students who are waitlisted to think the request for admittance is ‘not yet,’ the truth is that they were not ‘top choice,’ ” said Daniel J. Green, the associate vice president for enrollment at Meredith College in North Carolina. “I say that unless there is some compelling program, opportunity or reason for hanging on for that positive admission decision, the best bet is to take yourself off of the waitlist and move on.”

Okay, on to tips for switching that “not yet” into a “yes.” Cohen wrote up a bunch of advice for the mother who had e-mailed me about her daughter’s six waitlists — and I figured I would share all of it with you.

IvyWise Waitlist Advice

If your reader’s daughter was waitlisted by her top-choice school, she should write a letter today to the college reaffirming her interest in attending — this letter is considered a binding agreement and only should be written to her first-choice school.  Within that letter, she should:

- State that the school is her first choice and that, if she is accepted, she will definitely attend the school.

- Update the school on her academics, test scores, honors/awards and activities post-application.

- Include a paragraph about why the school is the right fit for her and how she will make an impact on their campus. (For example, it helps to read the school’s newspaper online to learn about current issues/events on campus, and it also helps to go through the college’s course catalog and Web site).

She should also send an extra letter of recommendation from a current senior year teacher that introduces new information or shows how she’s grown as a scholar.  And, it’s important to keep up senior year grades, as her waitlist school considers those.

If any of the colleges where she was waitlisted are no longer one of her top choices, she should also write letters to those schools asking to withdraw her name from the waitlist, opening up a spot for another student who wishes to remain on the list.

In the meantime, since she was admitted to other schools, she should send a deposit (non-refundable) to her next-choice school by the May 1 deadline to ensure she has a college to attend this fall.  While some schools will admit students from the waitlist as early as May, others will wait until late July.

If she doesn’t get off the waitlist, she can apply as a transfer student if she is unhappy at the college she chooses to attend freshman year. However, in this scenario, she should start her freshman year off with an open mind and make the most of her time on campus.  There are many colleges at which students can be successful and happy.

Do you have more questions about waitlists? Trying to decide which college to attend? Planning a college-shopping roadtrip for spring break?

Jenna and Katherine Cohen of IvyWise will be online Thursday at 1 p.m. Eastern Time to answer questions during Campus Overload Live. Send us questions now!