CHICAGO – After months in limbo, Morgan Lundblad recently opened her long-awaited email from Harvard University to find only more uncertainty.

She had been wait-listed.

The senior at Homewood-Flossmoor High School in Chicago had applied to a dozen of the nation’s most elite colleges. When the smoke cleared, Lunblad still did not have a definitive path forward. Of the schools where she was accepted, she narrowed her choices to the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania. Still, she can’t quite let go of Harvard, which had a record low 5.9 percent acceptance rate for this fall. She may not know her fate until mid-summer.

“It’s not really a rejection, but it kind of is,” she said. “It just doesn’t help you too much. I need to make a decision.”

While no one tracks the number of college applicants nationwide who are wait-listed, admissions experts and high school guidance counselors agree the ranks have swelled in the last five years. That leaves more students consigned to the half-way house of admissions, where they are unable to fully celebrate an admission or properly mourn a denial.

The number of schools using wait lists is on the rise, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. In 2010, 48 percent of colleges reported using a wait list, up from 39 percent in 2009 and 35 percent in 2008. At the same time, the number of students plucked from standby decreased, from 34 percent to 28 percent.

The trend is driven by the lingering economic downturn, along with the unpredictability of the admissions process, experts said. Many schools are seeing more and more applicants as seniors cast a wider net, applying to more institutions to hedge their bets.

Also, the recession has interjected its own volatility to the match game. Over the summer, a parent can get laid off or reassess skyrocketing tuition costs in tough times, triggering a last-minute shift from private school to State U.

As a result, it has become increasingly difficult for admissions officers to predict who actually will show up in the fall, so schools have countered with an insurance policy: a larger reserve pool to manage their enrollment, officials say.

“It’s become a ping-pong game that both sides play with each other,” said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “And it’s totally gotten out of hand.”

The end result is that many are left dangling.

“It’s insane. … This year has been the absolute worst, with more kids on the wait list than ever,” said Laura Docherty, college counselor at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Ill. “It’s just painful … and it really drags out the process.”

Because many institutions closely guard their wait-list numbers, cracking the code of how many eventually get a coveted fat envelope is a subject of intense speculation on online message boards. Some schools declined to provide data to the Tribune, but statistics could be gleaned from college websites and other sources.

Northwestern University’s wait list shrunk from about 3,500 last year to 2,857 for 2012. Still, this year’s wait list is about 1,300 names longer than six years ago, school officials said.

MIT’s wait list fluctuated between roughly 450 and 740 from 2007-10, then it shot up to 1,000 in 2011. Wait lists at some smaller schools grew as well. Grinnell College in Iowa said its roster rose from 541 last year to 1,189 in 2012. Bates College has not yet released its most recent data, but the wait list increased from 871 in 2010 to 1,305 in 2011.

How many back-ups will be admitted varies from year to year, school officials said. Although it’s tempting to cling to a fantasy, most experts suggest applicants should regard their limbo status with a hefty dose of realism.

At Vanderbilt University, for example, 9.4 percent from the wait list were accepted – a number that has held steady for the last four years. Last year, MIT plucked only 26 students for acceptance from its reserve pool of 1,000.

Northwestern said it admitted no one from its wait list in 2011. The year before, it accepted just 21 out of 3,204.

Said Nassirian: “I tell them to think of a wait list as a ‘no.'”

One of Docherty’s Fenwick students in the grip of prolonged uncertainty is Kendall Livingston. The senior applied to seven institutions and was rejected by five and wait-listed at Baylor and Wisconsin, leaving her scrambling.

“The entire ride has been one of shock and disappointment,” said Livingston, who has an “A” average and strong test scores.

She’s applying to a few more schools and mulling the possibility of taking a year off.

A decade ago, Livingston would have been a solid “yes” rather than strung along, said Docherty, who is also president of the Illinois Association for College Admission Counseling. “I tell parents this is just like gambling.”

For Susan Lee, the application process has been equally perplexing. The Glenbard North senior ranked 6th out of 680 in her class, scored a 35 on her ACT and participated in a hefty log of activities, including four years in student council.

Even so, of the 10 schools where she applied, she was turned down by four, wait-listed by four (University of Chicago, Duke, Penn and Northwestern) and accepted by two (Boston College and New York University).

“After so much hard work, I felt like the floor was just ripped out from under my feet. All I could think was, ‘What did I do wrong?'”

Their experiences help illuminate one of the factors driving this complex dance.

According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, the number of college applicants who applied to seven or more schools has risen steadily during the last 20 years, reaching 25 percent in 2010, the most recent year available. In 2000, the number was 13 percent. In 1991 it was 8 percent.

Independent college consultant Katherine Cohen advises students to apply to 10 to 15 schools, although some clients have applied to more than 20, she said.

Northwestern has seen its number of applicants rise steadily from about 18,000 in 2006 to 32,000 for 2012. During the same time, University of Chicago applications have risen from about 9,500 to more than 25,000.

The spike in applications helps explain the need for a hefty reserve, said Grinnell admissions director Doug Badger. “It’s just hard to know … these kids have a lot of other options and by the time we reach out to them, they’ll have decided to go elsewhere.”

The increasing reliance on the wait list is sparking more conversation in admission circles, said Michael Mills, associate provost for enrollment at Northwestern.

“There’s self-policing in admissions, and schools that hang on to kids the longest pay a reputational price among their peers,” Mills explained.

College administrators say they are aren’t giving false hope but just trying to be responsible stewards and hit their target enrollment projections.

And finally, the wait list softens the blow – especially valuable when the applicant is the offspring of alumni or generous donors.

“Politically, it’s just a lot easier than an outright denial,” said Jerry Pope, the college advisor at Niles North and Niles West high schools, who previously worked in admissions for St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and Illinois Wesleyan.

In Lunblad’s case, she is already moving toward Plan B, with visits to both Berkeley and Penn. Yet, she concedes, it would be hard to say no if Harvard beckoned.

Rico Scott, a 2011 Homewood-Flossmoor graduate, understands. A year ago, he had his future mapped out, starting with the U.S. Naval Academy. Instead, he ended up on the wait list and went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he is thriving.

“I feel very lucky to be in the position I’m in,” he said. “I discovered that there are always multiple routes to get to your destination.”