Very Late Decision

In the middle of june 2003, as Jessica Martin was about to graduate from Davis High School in California's Sacramento Valley, she still didn't know where she'd be attending college. The application season had been a disaster. There had been promises of admission broken by college swimming coaches and rejections by schools beyond her reach. Her parents hid some of the thin envelopes so she wouldn't have to open more than one a day. "I felt cheated," she says. Then she found out she could start over and apply to a new list of schools just a month after everyone else had sent in a deposit.

Some of her friends thought this was funny. One wrote in her yearbook: "Chemistry was a blast. Have a good summer. Good luck at ___." She was less amused, but with a flurry of e-mails and calls she found two good schools that liked her strong junior-year grades and her 2:12 time in the 200-yard butterfly. By June 21 she'd been accepted by the University of Puget Sound. The need to find a school that late was "terrifying, excruciating and painful," she says. But it's not that unusual. Some, like Martin, misjudge the market. Others have been derailed by personal or financial crises. But many late admittees find that with persistence, they can find a college. Greg Forbes Siegman, a Chicago filmmaker and philanthropist, did it twice. In 1990, with rejections on all his Ivy applications, he persuaded Tulane to take him past the deadline. A few years later he talked his way into a transfer slot at Northwestern.

Most selective colleges say they don't succumb to gate-crashers. Yet significant numbers of applicants must be switching schools at the last minute, because they're not showing up where they promised to attend. Admissions officers call this the "melt," the portion of the freshman class that evaporates before orientation.

Some colleges even advertise for latecomers. Seven days after the May 1 deposit deadline in 2003, the National Association for College Admission Counseling reported that more than 300 colleges still had space for the fall. The organization's Web site,, posts a space-availability survey every spring. In the hypercrazed era of early this and early that, "very late" decision can work out very nicely.