While in high school on Kauai, the fourth-largest Hawaiian island, Nicole Gaetjens worried that she would not be able to handle the academic workload at a top university. Given her school’s low graduation rate, coupled with the island’s financial hardships, she doubted her ability to compete with students whose backgrounds had better prepared them for college.

But Gaetjens is now a future member of Yale’s class of 2012, thanks in part to guidance from QuestBridge, a non-profit institution that matches high-achieving, low-income students with prestigious universities and financial grants.

“I got really lucky,” Gaetjens said of finding QuestBridge, which last summer sent her to a college-preparatory program at Stanford University free of charge to experience the undergraduate lifestyle and to learn more about the college-admissions process. The organization then submitted her application to Yale and several other schools of her choosing with its seal of approval by early November.

In this admissions cycle — Yale’s first using QuestBridge — the University accepted 19 high-school students through the College Match program, in which high-school seniors from low-income backgrounds are chosen as finalists by QuestBridge, which sends their names and applications to college “partners” in November.

Two weeks after Yale’s historic announcement of a new financial-aid initiative that will reduce the expected contributions from low- and middle-income families, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel said he is happy with the University’s trial run with Questbridge, part of what he says is a broader initiative to make education more accessible and attract greater numbers of talented, low-income students to Yale.

Questbridge finalists students rank their top-choice colleges, and the colleges then decide which students, if any, they wish to accept. Students are notified about the highest-ranked school on their list that accepts them and can then apply for a scholarship package from the QuestBridge college partner that covers the full cost of tuition, books and room and board.

Most QuestBridge finalists come from families earning under $62,000 annually, and many are the first in their families to attend college. Finalists often face extenuating circumstances — working to help parents pay the bills, spending time caring for siblings in the absence of working parents or experiencing difficult living conditions — and are expected to demonstrate leadership in extracurricular and community activities.

This year, 20 colleges around the country are participating in the College Match program, including Princeton and Stanford universities.

Of the 1,792 total QuestBridge finalists this year, 1,123 — or 63 percent — ranked Yale as one of their top eight choices, Jeremiah Quinlan, admissions director of outreach at Yale, said. Only 885 students out of the original pool of 1,123 were considered for admission through QuestBridge, Quinlan said, because the others failed to submit the required Common Application or Yale supplement by the November deadline.

Brenzel said he is satisfied with the preliminary results from the first round with QuestBridge, although he said the office will be able to better gauge the effect of the program after the completion of the regular decision round.

“I’ve been pleased both by the way QuestBridge approaches the process, by attracting kids who wouldn’t otherwise be in our pool, and by the way QuestBridge takes the students through the college process,” Brenzel said. “It seems to be a good learning experience for us and them.”

Students who do not find a match in the special QuestBridge application process can choose to be considered by the schools again in the regular-decision round. Brenzel said he expects to accept a “significant” additional number of QuestBridge applicants in April.

Among Yale’s 19 matches — third-most among the 20 QuestBridge partners, as the University of Chicago had 29 matches and Princeton had 22 — was Gaetjens, who said her application at Stanford is still active but that she is leaning toward attending Yale.

“My mom said you have to have a backup just in case,” she said.

Spreading the word

The five QuestBridge applicants interviewed for this story all said they had found the program independently of their guidance counselors — either on their own or through an external source — but that they have spread the word about QuestBridge so that students at their schools in future years will not have to stumble across it by chance.

High-school senior Raymond Grissom, for example, was the first person to tell Judy Romanchuk, director of the International Baccalaureate Program at Campbell High School in Smryna, Ga., about QuestBridge. Grissom said he came across the program randomly and decided to apply on an impulse.

But after Grissom’s success with the program — he matched with Yale in the fall and is planning to attend — Romanchuk said she would encourage her students to investigate it in the future.

“I think [QuestBridge] is able to identify the really high-achieving students who will benefit from an education like Yale is able to provide, as well as contribute to the school, without the finances getting in the way,” Romanchuk said. “I will absolutely bring it up with other students.”

This networking effect is exactly what QuestBridge strives for, QuestBridge President and co-founder Michael McCullough said. He said he does not fault high-school guidance counselors — who often have a large number of students from a wide range of backgrounds to advise — for failing to inform students about their financial-aid options.

Instead, QuestBridge hopes to serve as a middleman between bright low-income students and the colleges that seek them — in other words, as McCullough put it, as a “low-income head hunter.”

‘You’ve got to walk on water’

Becoming a QuestBridge finalist — not to mention matching with a school — is by no means assured.

About 3,800 students applied to be finalists this year, from which the 1,792 finalists were named, McCullough said. Of these, 204 “matched” with colleges in the November QuestBridge admissions round, and McCullough said he expects several hundred additional students to be accepted by partner schools in the regular-admissions cycle.

The selectivity of the program has frustrated Bruce Bailey, college-counseling director at Lakeside School in Seattle, who said several of his students have applied to the program over the past few years but that none has been named a finalist.

“My perception is that it’s highly competitive,” Bailey said. “It’s like you’ve got to walk on water to get accepted.”

Bailey said he thinks his students might be at a disadvantage because Lakeside does not offer any Advanced Placement courses or hand out awards, depriving them of “bells and whistles” on their applications. Although Lakeside is private, Bailey said the school gives financial aid to about a third of its students, in part to help create a more economically and racially diverse student body.

But once students are selected, Questbridge gives them plenty of personal attention, several finalists told the News.

QuestBridge called Jacqueline Parilla, a senior at Eastern Regional High School in New Jersey, to tell her she had been named a finalist, Parilla said. Later, when she had questions about the process, program officials speedily and enthusiastically responded, she said.

Yale dealt with the complicated application process better than most schools, finalists said. While Yale admissions officers responded quickly to confused applicants, Grissom said, many of the other schools were unresponsive or did not give sufficiently specific answers about deadlines or financial-aid forms.

The Yale admissions office found it challenging to create what is essentially a third, QuestBridge-only admissions round, in addition to the standard early-action and regular-decision rounds, Quinlan said. The office had less than a month to read and evaluate the QuestBridge applications and then vote on the strongest candidates in a separate QuestBridge committee of admissions officers.

Still, Quinlan said, the process went relatively smoothly in the end, although the office is contemplating some small adjustments for next year, such as dropping the requirement that Questbridge applicants submit the Common Application or asking only the strongest Questbridge applicants to submit financial-aid documentation.

Helping out Yale

Brenzel commended QuestBridge for offering students an opportunity to share more about their financial and family backgrounds than is required on the typical college application by including sections that ask for information different from what fills the typical admissions file. These additional sections on the applications helped the admissions officers get a better feel for the QuestBridge applicants, Brenzel said.

QuestBridge applicants said they also appreciated the opportunity to explain their individual situations to schools above and beyond the rows of numbers required on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Now that the admissions office has accepted the first round of QuestBridge applicants, Yale’s next job is to encourage them to come to the University.

The office sent the 19 matched students weekly newsletters for several weeks before giving them access to the admitted-students Web site, an unusual step because students who match through QuestBridge are technically admitted in the regular admissions cycle, although they were notified of the match in late November. Undergraduate recruitment coordinators are also contacting them regularly, Quinlan said.

Yale’s new financial-aid initiative, announced last week, may help recruit these students. Although all of the QuestBridge finalists are eligible to take advantage of Yale’s offer that families making under $60,000 annually will pay no parental contribution, extra fees, such as the student contribution, can add up.

Matan Orgel, a senior at North Miami Beach Senior High, who was matched with Yale, said he was excited to hear that Yale had lowered the expected student contribution to $2,500, from $4,400, and had reduced the summer contribution for freshman to $1,200, from $1,850.

“Financial aid is one of the main things that’s leading me to Yale right now,” Orgel said. “I would definitely not choose a state school just because it didn’t cost me anything, but if it comes down to a big difference [in financial aid] between schools, it would definitely be a factor.”

In addition to running the College Match program, QuestBridge sponsors “College Prep Scholarships” for high-school juniors, which include full scholarships to college summer-school programs, college-admissions counseling and college-preparatory conferences.

McCullough said QuestBridge is also trying to expand programs to help low-income students while they are at college, by partnering with corporations to offer internships specifically for these students and by offering career counseling.