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Well, college applications are finally behind them, so many high school seniors can now focus on graduation. They can look forward to their freshman year in college. But an unusually large number of seniors this year are still waiting to find out where they're going because colleges have put more of them on wait lists.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: Jevante Davis decided two years ago the University of California Santa Barbara was the perfect school for him. A star of the wrestling and mock trial teams with the best SAT score in the history of his Los Angeles high school, Davis spent months perfecting his application and then waiting and waiting for an answer - only to find out it wasn't a yes or a no.

Mr. JEVANTE DAVIS (Student): It just says, We regret to inform you, you haven't been offered admission, but we could offer you a spot on the waiting list. And now I'm waiting again.

SMITH: More than 10,000 students are in limbo with the University of California, which is using wait lists this year for the first time ever. Administrators say the economic uncertainty has left them unsure how many students they can take - and also how many accepted students will actually enroll. So they're using wait lists to hedge their bets. It's peace of mind for schools but high anxiety for kids like Davis.

Mr. DAVIS: I'm sitting here all the time, like, come on, let me know, let me know, let me know, so I can know whether or not, you know, I should accept one of these others school before I miss the opportunity.

SMITH: Many private colleges are also mailing out more maybes this year.

Mr. DAVIS: The problem is the maybes came in the no-sized envelope.

Ms. JOELLE REBEIZ (Student): My maybes came in a yes-sized envelope. That was difficult.

SMITH: Senior Joelle Rebeiz, who got wait-listed at five schools, commiserates with classmates in the college counseling office at the Buckingham, Brown and Nichols School near Boston. The room is stocked with rubber stress balls, chocolates and tissues for anxious kids like Rebeiz who have no clue what their wait list chances are or if they'll hear back in one month or three.

Ms. REBEIZ: Every time I get an email now, I'm like, okay, like, take a deep breath, who's this from, like, what's going to happen?

SMITH: Months after she finished her applications, Rebeiz now finds herself at it again - sending schools more grades, essays and recommendations. Some schools make it clear: Don't call us, we'll call you. Others are more open.

Jevante Davis has requested a meeting at UC-Santa Barbara, but if not, he says, he'll just show up.

Mr. DAVIS: Get dressed real nice and go shake hands with the big dogs. I mean, whatever I have to. Whatever I have to.

SMITH: His mentor, enrichment director John Calvin Byrd, is encouraging the trip, but he also worries about setting kids up for disappointment.

Mr. JOHN CALVIN BYRD (Enrichment Director): And these students come in my classroom every single day, asking. I don't know exactly what to tell them. You know, it's like torture.

Mr. BARMAK NASSIRIAN (American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers): I think it is very unfair to keep people in suspense and offer them what may be, at least statistically, a false hope.

SMITH: That's Barmak Nassirian with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. He says some schools have gone so far overboard with long wait lists this year, it's inhumane.

Mr. NASSIRIAN: You know, it strikes me as excessive sometimes when I see 10 times as many students on your wait list than you have ever taken off of your wait list. It just looks like some people are on it who really should be basically put out of their misery and be told no.

SMITH: But colleges say it's not so easy. MIT, for example, says it tried being nice last year, keeping its wait list much smaller than usual, but then almost got burned when the school needed extra students. Admissions Dean Stu Schmill says colleges need the big cushion.

Mr. STU SCHMILL (Admissions Dean, MIT): If we don't plan for the worst case and it happens, then we're stuck looking for students that we don't have.

SMITH: Schmill says schools also want to be able to find certain kinds of kids on the wait list. For example, they may need to fill out their architecture program or volleyball team. Waiting may be hard, Schmill says, but it's something kids have to learn to deal with.

Mr. SCHMILL: This is part of life, and they need to learn that having a positive attitude and learning how to go forward, regardless of the outcome, is really the most important aspect of this.

SMITH: Schmill says kids who simply can't take waiting anymore are always free to opt off the list. It happens more than you'd think. As one student put it, no one wants to be someone's backup date for the prom.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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