If a college has spots left after admitted students decide whether to enroll, it will go to the wait list. Colleges typically move to the lists in early May, after the May 1 deadline for admitted students to respond. The process can continue through June as colleges craft their classes.
"I really do see the wait list as the final touches to a class," said Eric Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school which last year offered 87 students admission off its active wait list of 1,200.
Some wait-listed students bake cookies, record YouTube videos, fly across the country to hound admissions offices, circulate petitions, make collages with school memorabilia, and create board games in an effort to tip the scale.
"We heard last week from a younger sibling who said please take my brother off the wait list. It was very cute," said Janet Lavin Rapelye, dean of admission at Princeton University, one of the nation's most selective schools. But she added: "Please, to the viewers out there: Do not get a younger sibling to write a letter right now."
And as for the cookies?
"We appreciate the cookies, and we eat them, but I don't think it makes any difference in the process," said Rapelye, whose school took no students off its wait list last year.
To boost their chances, students should send a well-crafted letter expressing why they want to stay on the wait list, admissions officials said.
"This should be a letter they write, not a letter the parent writes or anybody else," Rapelye said.
It wouldn't hurt to say they intend to come if admitted and note schools that have admitted them, some deans said. Students also should send new information about awards or appointments and keep grades up. And they should e-mail the admissions officer for their area.
"Not daily, not hourly. That's just overkill," said Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admissions at Swarthmore College. "And don't stalk us on Facebook."
An e-mail once a week is better, said Bock, whose college admitted eight wait-list students last year.
The size of the wait list varies at schools across the region, as does the history of their use.
The University of Delaware accepts more than 50 percent off its list.
Others take far fewer.
"If we have spots, it's not very many," said Jess Lord, dean of admission and financial aid at Haverford College. Over the last five years, the school has taken between zero and 13 students off the wait list.
That means students should not wait, but send their deposit to another school that has accepted them, Lord said. That way, they have secured a spot even if that wait-list call never comes.
Once colleges go to their lists, there's no telling how a student will fare. Some colleges tend not to rank those on the list but draw from it to fill their own needs.
"We look to see do we have enough engineers. . . . Did the orchestra enroll the students they want. Do we need to look for a particular talent in an area," Rapelye said.
Princeton, one of the nation's eight Ivy League universities, has just charted its most selective season ever. It accepted 7.29 percent or about 1,930 of its applicants, with the hope of drawing a class of 1,290.
By design, Princeton admitted fewer students because so many accepted the offer of admission last year that the university became over-enrolled. As a result, the wait list sat untouched, Rapelye said.
As of April 15, Rapelye said she did not know if the result would be similar this year. Princeton offered wait-list spots to 1,395 students, about half of whom usually agree to stay on.
That may seem like a lot, she said, but by the end of the process, only a handful may fill the niches needed to round out the class.
Bock, Swarthmore's dean, said a third of the 800 or 900 students offered spots on the wait list each year agree to be on it.
"It can take me a month to fill 12 spots," Bock said.
Rapelye said she would have an idea of wait-list needs the first week of May.
"The challenge is we don't know yet who is going to accept us, so we're waiting as well," she said.
For students, the waiting can be tough.
After months of essay-writing, campus-visiting, and application preparation, high school senior Nick Solomon, 18, of Germantown, was rejected by three schools, wait-listed at two of his top choices - New York University and the University of Chicago - and admitted to three, all very reputable.
"I definitely feel like a lot of work was wasted in a way," said Solomon, a student at Masterman, one of the city's top magnet schools. "I just wish I had been able to see into the future and only apply to the schools I got into."
He will remain on the wait list at NYU and Chicago but in the meantime is exploring two schools that accepted him - the University of Pittsburgh and Reed College in Oregon, which would have been one of his top choices except for the distance.
Eleanor Carpenter, 17, of Roxborough, is a bit bitter.
"You work your butt off on all these applications," said Carpenter, also a Masterman student. "You write a ton of essays. You pour your soul into whatever. . . . And in the end when you get six rejections/wait lists in a row, it's a really depressing experience."
Swarthmore's decision to wait-list her was particularly difficult because her brother goes there.
To add to her angst, Swarthmore requires applicants to mail a response card to remain on the list. She put hers out for the mail, but it blew away, and she found it in the family garden a week later.
"So I got really mad again," she said.
But having been accepted to Penn and other top schools, she, too, is moving on. She sent her deposit to the University of Chicago, which would have been her first choice if it were not so far away. She would consider Swarthmore if the call came.
Fabliha Khurshan, 18, also a Masterman student, sent her deposit to Penn after she was wait-listed at her top choice, Haverford.
"I really want to go to a small school," said Khurshan, who grew up near Penn in University City and loves that school, too.
While she still hopes for Haverford, she isn't baking cookies for the staff: "I don't want to beg, hands and knees."
At Villanova, admissions officials advise wait-list students to be patient. Sending the sneaker was "entertaining," but probably not the kind of thing that's going to tip the scale, said Stephen R. Merritt, dean of enrollment management.
Yet, the sneaker remains in the admission office years later, long after the student - who was admitted by the way and graduated in 2007 - has walked on.
"We're all human," he said. "These things can't help but make you feel good about the student."
Getting A Leg Up
Tips for boosting your wait list chances:
1. Write a letter to the admissions office, emphasizing new achievements and strong desire to attend the college.
2. Study hard. Third- and fourth-quarter grades could have an impact.
3. Stay involved in clubs and activities.
4. Request an interview.
5. Get a sense of your chances. Find out if your college ranks its admission list and if so, where you fall.
SOURCE: College Board
Those Who Made the Cut
The number of students local universities have admitted off their wait lists over the last five years. Not all the admitted students chose to enroll.
University of Pennsylvania
2012 . . . 87
2011 . . . 56
2010 . . . 55
2009 . . . 98
2008 . . . 174
2012 . . . zero
2011 . . . 19
2010 . . . 164
2009 . . . 60
2008 . . . 148
2012 . . . 8
2011 . . . 10
2010 . . . 7
2009 . . . 12
2008 . . . 34
2012 . . . 3
2011 . . . 0
2010 . . . 1
2009 . . . 13
2008 . . . 3
University of Delaware
2012 . . . 640
2011 . . . 285
2010 . . . 591
2009 . . . 196
2008 . . . 288
2012 . . . 3
2011 . . . 19
2010 . . . 79
2009 . . . 23
2008 . . . 9
2012 . . . 598
2011 . . . 206
2010 . . . 675
2009 . . . 71
2008 . . . 202
From Princeton University, advice on what to do if you are on a wait list for college. See a video at: www.inquirer.com/wait
Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq. Read her blog at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/campus_inq.