In college admissions it is the year of unprecedented uncertainty.
Akua Abrah, a talented senior at Annapolis High School, tried to guess how many top schools she would need to apply to in order to get in somewhere she really wanted to go. She chose 10.
Admissions deans such as John Latting at the Johns Hopkins University walked a tightrope as they tried to estimate how many students to accept to fill their freshman classes. What was the probability that students such as Abrah, who might be accepted by competitors, would choose Hopkins?
A bump in the population - a so-called baby boomlet - means that a record number of high school seniors are applying to college this year.
Making matters worse, a handful of selective colleges dropped "early decision," so thousands of students who would have been committed to attend a college by December instead joined the larger group applying for spring acceptance.
And some counselors suspect that colleges began rejecting highly qualified students who the admissions officers believe are applying only because they need a backup "safety" school. National rankings judge colleges in part by the yield rate - the percentage of accepted applicants who ultimately enroll. So colleges worry about accepting too many students who decline to attend.
Deans of students have taken to writing personal notes on the formal acceptance letters, a touch they hoped would entice students to enroll. Just in case an unexpected number say no, the waiting lists are longer, too.
The intense competition for places isn't just for those applying to the Ivy Leagues. Statistics from colleges show it is harder to get into small liberal arts colleges and big state schools.
Maryland schools noted an increase in applications from state students trying to save tuition costs in a weak economy. Even community colleges are seeing more students registering earlier.
And so now some high school seniors are left with fewer choices than they expected - while others must pick from a confusing number of acceptances.
At Washington College in Chestertown, the number of applicants for 400 slots in the freshman class went up from 2,146 last year to 3,391 this year. At Hopkins there were 16,006 applications for 1,235 spots, an 80 percent increase in applications since 2002.
And at the University of Maryland College Park, the number of applications went up from 25,000 last year to 28,000 this year for a freshman class of 4,500.
"It is hard to know how much is true interest," said Barbara Gill, director of college admissions at the state's flagship campus. "It was unusual to talk to a student who didn't apply to more than five schools."
That unease led some colleges to make decisions this year that guidance counselors find puzzling.
At Hereford High School, guidance counselor Tim Hayden was surprised when a student "with pretty much a perfect grade point average" was accepted by Yale and rejected by a second-tier school.
He believes that reflects the backup school trying to protect its yield rate in national rankings.
"It is like dating. You don't want to tell them that they are not your first choice," said Stephen Roy Goodman, an educational consultant from Towson who advises families on college admissions. One student he advised got into Vassar and New York University and was rejected by Ithaca College, a less competitive school.
"Why would that happen? Because Ithaca didn't believe that student was ever going to Ithaca," Goodman said.
Abrah got into nine of the 10 colleges she applied to, far more than she dreamed. She had planned to apply to eight schools, but her teachers and counselor advised her to pick a broader range, so she added two more.
She thought that perhaps her decision would be made for her because one college would offer more scholarship money.
But at least four have offered to pay her tuition for all four years. After visiting Denison University on Monday, she has narrowed her decision to four schools: Rice, Johns Hopkins, Tufts and Emory. "I wasn't expecting this at all, really," she said, adding that she is a minority, something colleges are looking for. "I am foreign-born, an African-American woman. I think that is one aspect." But she also took rigorous courses, maintained good grades and had many activities.
Betsy Coe, a Centennial High School counselor, said decisions seemed a bit more unpredictable this year. Coe said it seemed almost as though "one day admissions officers were looking for an equestrian with purple hair" and the next day they wanted an accomplished musician.
"Senior year is supposed to be more relaxed because it is your last year," said Hereford High School senior Meg Becker, but for her class the stress of the competition has been "a downer."
She was able to reduce the angst by applying early decision to Gettysburg, a college that she had fallen in love with when she visited. A midfielder lacrosse player who said she was recruited by the University of Pennsylvania, Washington and Lee and Bucknell after the summer of her junior year, she said she worried that if she chose one of those schools she might spend too much of her college life playing sports. "I kind of wanted a school where the academics was more important than the athletics," she said.
In addition to the peak in high school seniors, the increase in applications was also due to several other factors, including the ease of applying online and the decision by a number of large universities - including Harvard, Princeton, University of Virginia and the University of Delaware - to do away with early decision.
Students who apply early decision make a binding commitment to enroll at the college if accepted. Colleges liked the certainty of filling at least part of the freshman class early, but it was considered a disadvantage to less affluent students who needed to wait until spring to compare financial aid offers.
Latting, the Johns Hopkins admissions dean, said that meant more top students were going to apply to multiple schools. Hopkins got a record number of applicants and "our applicant pool was stronger than ever before," Latting said. The average SAT of those accepted went up by about 10 points, which was significant, he said, because it was spread over 4,000 students.
That might sound like great news for Hopkins, but Latting said his staff spent a lot of time trying to estimate how many students to admit to get a certain yield. Being cautious, they decided to admit 130 more students this year, he said, and they increased their waiting list to 1,500.
Another factor in the equation, Latting said, is the worsening economy. Fewer people might be able to borrow against home equity or they might have seen a decline in savings.
Guidance counselors agreed, saying that financial aid and scholarships had become very important to families as the cost of college kept rising.
Centennial High School senior Nickolaus Trevino was still waiting to hear about whether he would get a music scholarship to the University of Richmond. If he didn't, he said, he would probably be going to either the University of Delaware or College Park.
Guidance counselors have clearly seen an increase in the number of applicants to in-state schools and community colleges. "We definitely see them use the state schools for financial safety," said Tim Hayden, chairman of guidance at Hereford High School.
And Catonsville High School guidance counselor Kristina Boxley said she believes a higher percentage of her graduates will go to community college this year.
"There are more kids with B averages and decent scores who aren't even applying to four-year colleges. They say I am going to the community college and transfer."
"We tell kids all the time, your degree says College Park or your degree says Duke, it doesn't say CCBC," Boxley said.
While Community College of Baltimore County officials say it is too early to tell if their registrations will be up this year, Howard Community College has seen a large increase.