The lines have blurred between traditional categories like "safety schools" and "stretches," says Jim Jump, director of guidance at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. "No college wants to be thought of as a safety school," he says. Just like a potential prom date, "they want to know that they're wanted."
That means "demonstrated interest" is a much bigger factor these days. Students can show their sincerity with everything from college visits to a letter laying out specific reasons the school would be a top choice. In 2007, 21 percent of colleges said this was of considerable importance, up from 7 percent in 2003, NACAC reports.
When it comes to colleges prioritizing who's on their waiting lists, demonstrated interest "is a huge piece of what we look at," says Mike Steidel, director of admission at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Carnegie Mellon gives students an option to be on a priority waiting list or the regular one. If priority people get an offer in early May, they have just 24 hours to make their deposit or they're out. The school does show them a financial-aid package in advance so they can make a quick decision.
Aiming for about 1,400 students in its class, Carnegie Mellon enrolls 1,500, expecting that some who send in deposits will nonetheless jump to another school. Out of about 22,000 who applied this year, 3,000 were offered spots on a waiting list. By May 1, usually only 10 percent want to stay on the list, which would have meant 300. But Mr. Steidel says he was "a little overwhelmed" to find that by mid-April, it was 450 and counting.