DURHAM, N.C. — Ashley Koski, ranked third in the senior class at Thomas Dale High School in Chester, Va., has wanted to attend Duke University since she was 12.
Late last month, she learned that Duke had neither accepted nor rejected her. It had offered her a spot on the waiting list — along with 3,382 other applicants. That is almost twice the size of the incoming freshman class.
“I kind of just went quiet the rest of the day,” Ms. Koski said. “I’d rather have a yes or no. I can’t make plans and be excited like the rest of my friends.”
Duke, which had a record 27,000 freshman applicants, has placed 856 more on its waiting list than a year ago. The reasons include the uncertain economy, which makes it hard for Duke to estimate how many of the 4,000 it has accepted will say yes.
If Duke’s best guess holds, no more than 60 will be admitted through the narrow gate of what is essentially a giant holding pen.
Other schools are also hedging their bets this spring. Most Ivy League colleges had sharp jumps in applications, as did similarly selective colleges like the University of Chicago, Northwestern, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Many students hedged bets of their own, and submitted more applications — in some instances 15 or more.
The admission process is a complicated dance of supply and demand for colleges. And this spring, many institutions have accepted fewer applicants, and placed more on waiting lists, until it becomes clear over the next few weeks how many spots remain.
M.I.T., which had a 6 percent increase in applicants, increased its waiting list by more than half, to 722. Last year, it accepted fewer than 80 from that list. Yale, which had a slight dip in applications this year yet still admitted fewer than 8 percent of applicants, placed nearly 1,000 others on its waiting list, an increase of more than 150. Dartmouth increased its list by about 80, to 1,740.
No selective college, though — at least none that makes its figures public — has placed as many applicants in a holding pattern this spring as Duke, which has seen applications surge by 30 percent over the last two years. And those applications were filed long before its men’s basketball team won this year’s national collegiate championship, a victory that could prompt more students to say yes to Duke’s offer of admission, and thus leave fewer slots for those in waiting.
In an interview on a recent morning on Duke’s Gothic-style campus, which was mostly built in the 1930’s but looks centuries older, Christoph Guttentag, the dean of undergraduate admissions, likened his task to that of a sculptor finishing a work of art — and the waiting list to his last palette of materials.
“I have no idea what I’m going to need to finish sculpting the class,” he said, his voice echoing off walls of native knotty pine. “From an institutional perspective, it’s important that I have some flexibility.”
Like its competitors, Duke does not rank students on its waiting list. Instead, decisions about who will rise to the top are often a function of what the admissions office perceives as deficiencies in the next freshman class. There might be, for example, a surplus of aspiring engineers and not enough potential English majors, or too few students from Florida. Or there might be an unexpected shortage of oboe players.
While Mr. Guttentag encourages students on the waiting list to send him a one-page letter — or a video of 60 seconds or less — letting him know how strongly they wish to attend, and why, they can do little to improve their chances.
“The student can’t know, ‘Gee, did all the violinists decide to turn us down?’ ” he said. “They can’t affect this very much at this point.”
Since waiting list offers went out in late March, Mr. Guttentag and his colleagues have been deliberating whether to end the suspense for at least several hundred who are on it — those who probably have little hope of coming off.
Another reason the list is so long this year, he said, is that he and his colleagues were so overwhelmed by the volume of applicants that they ran out of time.
“What we could have done, had we had another week,” he said, “was to look at everybody on the waiting list and say, ‘Do they all need to be on?’ ”
“Of all the priorities,” he added, “that was not in the top two or three.”
If there is a risk for Duke, it is that the university may decide later that it wishes to admit an applicant who in the interim has set sail for other shores.
Ms. Koski, the only daughter of a single mother, said she was still eager to attend Duke if selected; if not, she said, she would probably say yes to an offer of acceptance from the University of Virginia.
Daniel Wong, a senior at San Francisco University High School, said he had been offered a spot on the waiting list this spring at Duke, as well as at Pomona, Cornell, Northwestern and Washington University in St. Louis. He has decided, instead, to eliminate any further suspense and go to the University of California, Los Angeles, which has offered him a $1,500 scholarship to supplement the $10,000 he will receive from the state, under the so-called Cal Grant program.
“It was frustrating to know I was still on the fence, and couldn’t really get on either side” he said.
If the past is any indication, Mr. Wong will be one of perhaps 1,000 students who take themselves off the Duke waiting list before May 1. Final decisions on who will be accepted from waiting lists are not typically not made until at least mid-May.
Some who wait for Duke will lose registration deposits at other colleges.
While playing hard-to-get with those students, Mr. Guttentag has been simultaneously wooing others. This month, he hosted several “Blue Devil Days,” in which admitted applicants and their families were invited to walk among the blooming magnolia and redbud trees on the sprawling 9000-acre campus.
Among those who attended was Rafi Pelles, a senior at the United Nations International School in Manhattan. Though he was accepted into Duke’s engineering program, he said he was weighing a competing acceptance from Cornell, and still hoping for good news from the University of Pennsylvania, which placed him on its waiting list.
“If he gets in to Penn, I think he’ll go,” said his mother, Kathy Pelles, a superintendent in the New York City public schools.
Her son was more diplomatic.
“It’s not so black and white to me,” he said. “First I have to wait for another yes or no.”