This past year a senior at a competitive public high school in Massachusetts entered what could be described as the ninth circle of college-application hell: she applied to seven schools and got into none. By conventional measures she seemed like a strong candidate. An aspiring aeronautical engineer, she had a 4.1 weighted grade-point average late in her senior year, took mostly honors or Advanced Placement courses, played the upright bass, played softball and field hockey and ran cross-country, and had reached the regional level in a science competition. Her combined SAT score was 1380. She is also related to a longtime faculty member at the school to which she applied early. But none of these things gave any of the highly selective schools to which she applied—Bowdoin, Colby, Cornell, Dartmouth, MIT, Vassar, and Wesleyan—sufficient reason to accept her. Her parents wanted her to go to school in the fall. So she applied again.
For a high school senior, wanting a college and not having one to attend is like being dateless for the prom. It's not that no one wanted to be your date—you just didn't ask the person who did. American colleges and universities collectively have more than enough room for everyone who wants to attend. But the two sides of the process don't always match up perfectly: qualified students find themselves without colleges; excellent schools find themselves with empty seats in the freshman class. The college-application season is usually thought to end in April, when colleges send out their decisions—or at the beginning of May, when students send in commitment deposits. But for some, this time is just the beginning of an underpublicized late-admission process.