Letting Everyone Down Softly

The Wall Street Journal just published an article about how some colleges are being more sensitive in rejection letters.

There are always the seemingly brain-dead students who apply to all reach schools and skip out on safety universities:

Even with impressive test scores and grades, abundant extracurricular activities, good recommendations and an admission essay into which “I poured myself heart and soul,” Daniel Beresford, 18, of Fair Oaks, Calif., netted 14 rejection letters from 17 applications, he says. Among the denials: Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago. (He’s bound for one of his top choices, Pepperdine University.) When he “realized it was going to be so much harder this year,” he started calling in reinforcements, asking teachers and friends to open the rejections for him.

If he only got into three of the seventeen colleges he applied to, he made a stupid decision from the beginning to overestimate his test scores, grades, and academic background as a whole, and he paid a lot of money for the psychological damage of rejection letters. The same thing happened to a girl I knew in high school. She had an ACT score of 20 and a 3.3 GPA, and she applied to outrageously prestigious institutions such as UCLA, UCSB, and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. When she received only three acceptance letters, all from CSU’s, she almost decided to go to community college. Parents should intervene before they pay hundreds of dollars to watch their child apply to impossible schools.

Along the way, students have made use of creative outlets to cope with their college rejection letters:

Hundreds of students at high schools from Newton, Mass., to Palo Alto, Calif., have created cathartic “Wall of Shame” or “Rejection Wall” displays of college denial letters. On message boards at CollegeConfidential.com, students critique, attack and praise missives from various schools, elevating rejection-letter reviews to a sideline sport.

One friend applied to California Institute of Technology as a “reach school,” and because he knew he didn’t have the necessary qualifications, he never opened the small envelope from CalTech when college acceptances/denial letters slipped into mailboxes all over the United States. He framed the envelope and didn’t bother reading what was most likely rejected admission. It seems kind of twisted that students would obsess over rejection so much that they’d create a shrine, but disappointment has strange effects on youth.

Sue Shellenbarger listed the different ways colleges let applicants down. Some schools are nicer than others, while many take the straight-forward “you don’t make the cut” approach:

Toughest: Bates College, Lewiston, Maine. Most rejection letters, in an effort to soften the blow, follow a pattern: We’re sorry, we had a huge applicant pool, all our applicants were terrific, we wish we could admit everyone. Bates, a competitive, 1,700-student college, expresses its regrets to rejected applicants and praises its applicant pool. But it delivers a more direct, and perhaps more honest, message: “The deans were obliged to select from among candidates who clearly could do sound work at Bates,” the letter says.

There’s nothing wrong with frankness. When thousands of students apply for hundreds of spots, there’s no perfect way to nicely explain to everyone that they were unfit to make it at the particular private liberal arts college.

One recipient, a 17-year-old high-school student from California, says it “implied that you had been rejected because you s-.”

That’s kind of an emotional interpretation to a vast rejection. If this student can’t handle a direct letter of rejection, he’s not ready for the harsh realities of college, anyway.

I’ll agree that college rejection letters can be hurtful, however. I felt particularly cheated by Emerson College, a tiny liberal arts college in Boston. My test scores were average, but I had a good GPA and dozens of published writing examples prior to the application process. The track team coach contacted me about admission and frequently sent me letters, cards, and emails about running for Emerson College the following year. I applied early and sent in five writing pieces, three letters of recommendation (one of which was from my high school guidance counselor, who I’d been close with since I was 11), and everything else required in the application packet.

Then, my application was deferred, so I knew I wasn’t Emerson’s idea of a cream-of-the-crop student. But I kept receiving letters and calls from the track team, and I sent in even more writing samples because I was applying for the writing program, but I still received my rejection letter in late March, two months after I’d been accepted and/or denied by the five other schools I’d applied to. Talk about teasing a high school student.

Kindest: Harvard College. Despite an estimated admission rate of about 7% this year, this hotly sought-after school sends a humble rejection letter.

“Past experience suggests that the particular college a student attends is far less important than what the student does to develop his or her strengths and talents over the next four years.”

Duke University, Durham N.C., also drew raves for a gracious missive emphasizing that it’s not passing judgment on individuals, but trying to put together a well-rounded class. Undergraduate admissions dean Christoph Guttentag won particular praise from students and parents for the line, “I know you will find an institution at which you will be happy; I know, too, that the school you choose will benefit from your presence.”

Then there are the admission duds who lie to applicants about admission:

Most Confusing: University of California, San Diego. Officials there rejected 29,000 candidates not once, but twice. After sending a first round of rejections, they accidentally sent all 47,000 applicants, including those who had been denied, an email invitation to an open house for admitted students: “We’re thrilled that you’ve been admitted … join us this Saturday … and get a glimpse of the powerful combination that can be you plus UC San Diego.” The errant message raised some false hopes. “It would be cool if this means they changed their decision,” one rejected applicant says he thought.

Less than two hours later came 29,000 re-rejections. “We deeply regret this mistake, because we understand the level of distress it has caused” for many, university officials wrote. “We continue to wish you success.” The admissions staff worked all night and through the next two days, making and taking calls, to straighten things out, a spokeswoman says. “We would never intentionally confuse students.”

How do you accidentally admit 29,000 people? I can’t imagine the disappointment of the students affected. There’s no excuse for this kind of mistake, it’s truly sadistic.

Even more deceptive may be Penn State, however:

Another surprise package came from Penn State, which sent the hoped-for “fat envelope” with a rejection letter inside. Applicants who receive a fat envelope assume they’ve been admitted. But Penn State sends a fat envelope to students who have been denied admission to its biggest campus, at University Park, Pa. One mother says her daughter was “so excited then … No!” She adds, “I had to pick her up off the floor.”

The envelope contains information on others among Penn State’s 20 campuses where the student is invited to enroll, with the right to transfer later to University Park, says admissions executive Anne Rohrbach. “We’ve had some people not laugh about that,” she concedes. “We don’t see them as denials,” she says, but as invitations to qualified students the university would like to enroll elsewhere.

It would be pretty hard to confuse University of Arizona applicants, who receive an envelope that says YOU’RE IN! on the envelope, so there’s no anticipation or sense of wonder before pulling out the actual letter. If only every university did this.

There are also the admissions heads who have unrepentant legacy preference:

Most Discouraging: Boston University. To students who have family ties to the university, its letter begins: “We give special attention to applicants whose families have a tradition of study at Boston University. We have extended this consideration in the evaluation of your application, but I regret to inform you that we are unable to offer you admission.” Consideration of family legacies is common practice at many universities.

Rejection is all the same at the end of the day, and no sugarcoated letter changes that.

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2 thoughts on “Letting Everyone Down Softly

  1. Regarding UC San Diego’s unfortunate e-mail mistake, you have not accurately portrayed what happened.

    The e-mail that was sent out to all applicants was not an “admissions” e-mail, rather an invitation to Admit Day, an event held annually to welcome admitted students to the campus and encourage them to choose UC San Diego.

    It seems like any intelligent high school student who received a mass e-mail inviting them to an event like this would not automatically think they’d be admitted after all.

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