PHILADELPHIA — The high school senior was wait-listed at Villanova University, her No. 1 pick. So she sent the admissions office a white sneaker with the letter V painted in blue and a note: "I've already got one foot in the door. Help me get the other foot in as well."
Such gimmicks, though creative, rarely make a difference in the decision-making, officials say.
But the tactic underscores the often-intense emotion around the next stage of the admission process: the waiting game.
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
While students across the nation are weighing offers from schools along with financial aid, some students have the complication of not having been accepted at their top school — but also not having been rejected.
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 (recently) 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 email 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 email 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 past 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 recounted.
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 offers 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.
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."