A thin envelope does not always mean rejection; early applicants may be deferred to regular decision, and regular applicants may be wait-listed. Students might see either status as purgatory, unsure whether to hope or grieve. Choose hope. By taking action, admissions deans say, you can increase your chances of getting in. That rule also applies to students who don't get in anywhere. The bottom line: never give up.

Students who are deferred from Early Action or Early Decision should make sure colleges receive their fall grades and should write a letter to the admissions dean, reaffirming their interest and updating their achievements. The University of Chicago's Ted O'Neill encourages applicants to schedule an interview if they haven't had one. But most deans agree that additional materials (tapes, essays, recommendations) can help only if they offer something new.

Wait-listed students should send in their spring grades and write the same kind of letter as deferred students. But this time, showing strong interest is crucial. Since deans are working within a tight time frame, they will accept students who are most likely to enroll. "If the college is truly your first choice, you should write, 'If I am accepted off the wait list, I will attend'," says Amherst's Thomas Parker.

Students who are wait-listed still have a shot. But what about those who don't get in anywhere? Aspiring actor Colin Gold, 18, was rejected at five schools despite courses at the prestigious Shakespeare & Company theater in Lenox, Mass., and 1330 on the SAT. The problem: low grades in his first two years of high school, when he says he was suffering from depression. Undaunted, he looked for colleges with rolling admissions. A friend suggested the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, which offered acting. The deadline had passed, but Gold persuaded Hartt to let him audition. A week later he was accepted. Gold reacted like a kid who'd triumphed at the buzzer. He wasn't acting.