You're Admitted... Not

March 20, 2014

Another admissions cycle; another batch of acceptance letters sent to rejected students. The shift away from physical admission decisions to electronic notifications has led to speedier notification of decisions to applicants, but it has also opened the door to more mistakes.

“You could probably call this volume one, page one of things that keep admissions directors up at night,” said Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon and a former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

NACAC doesn’t have a “ ‘how not to mess this up’ brochure,” Rawlins said, and neither has the topic been discussed at any of the organization’s recent conferences. “The bottom line is -- anything related to accuracy, what we advise each other to do is to check, double-check and triple-check,” he said. “The way we prevent it is very individual.”

So are the reasons why students have been sent erroneous or ill-timed acceptance letters. Officials at Pennsylvania State University in 2010 blamed a computer error for notifying 700 students that they had been accepted two weeks before the decision was supposed to go live. Human error was the culprit at the University of California at Los Angeles, which in 2012 sent 894 waitlisted students financial aid information suggesting they had been admitted. Last week, Goucher College used the same excuse after it emailed parents of 60 rejected students to congratulate their sons and daughters on being accepted.

Admissions directors at these and several other institutions declined to comment, “given that this is an extremely busy time, as they prepare to notify students of admissions decisions,” as a spokesman for the University of California at Los Angeles said in an email.

Vassar College, which will post its admission decisions in the next few weeks, is now more than two years removed from a similar incident. In January 2012, 122 applicants gained access to a test server where -- congratulations! -- they were greeted with acceptance notices. Once the college realized its mistake, David Borus, dean of admissions and financial aid, and the rest of the admissions office rushed to deliver bad news to 76 of them.

“It was a major mistake,” said Borus, who called the letters the only incorrect decisions that have been sent out during his nearly 40 years in admissions. “There were obviously some upset people -- and understandably so -- but we did what we could to own up to it and own the mistake.”

For Vassar, damage control included public apologies from the college and its president, emails and phone calls to affected students (some of whom were international applicants) and their families, and an offer to call any other institutions to clarify the situation in case the students had withdrawn from them.

“Obviously it was time-consuming, and it was embarrassing for the college,” Borus said. “It’s not an experience I ever want to have again.”

To prevent another mix-up, Vassar installed new safeguards and invited the admissions department to work more closely in testing its system. That effort was directed by Elizabeth Hayes, Vassar’s director of administrative information services.

“We have revamped our server architecture, and totally separated the test and the live environment,” Hayes said. “We write all our code on one server, and then it gets moved to the production server where it’s actually live and the outside world can access it.” Before the code is moved, however, it must be reviewed and cleared by a different team member than the person who wrote it, she said.

While there are still no safeguards to prevent university officials from clicking the wrong button, technology itself is often the cause for these admission decision snafus.

“We’re all communicating with students and their families in so many ways these days electronically,” Borus said. “Financial aid, alumni offices, parents groups, as well as the admissions office -- the chances of something occurring are fairly significant. It’s why you have to be really, really careful in what you do. But it seems that no matter how careful we try to be, mistakes occur. The reason for that is that behind the technology are people, and people do make mistakes.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s admissions department, for example, uses a web-based application to design its email layouts. Last month, both admitted and prospective students received an email with the footer, “You are on this list because you are admitted to MIT!” The institution apologized for the error.

Chris Peterson, admissions counselor for web communications at MIT, in a blog shared a similar experience from when he applied to college. Out of a lineup of 10 institutions, Peterson had picked out one dream school, which one day sent him a “thin envelope ... addressed to Christine Peterson Fitzpatrick.” The envelope contained a denial letter and was in fact intended for him, he later confirmed.

“I have never forgotten that,” Peterson wrote. “I was rejected from seven of those 10 schools, but that letter hurt the most, not only because it was my first choice, but because the mistaken identity added insult to injury. It made me feel like they didn't even care.”

Despite annual reports of institutions sending out acceptance letters to rejected students, Rawlins said, universities will continue to use technology in order to respond to applicants faster. That’s one of the downsides of “when people get overly anxious for that instant notification type of world that we live in,” he said.

“All the benefits, supposedly, of technology hastening how we do this admissions work [aside], this is by far the biggest problem it has created,” Rawlins said. “It opens the door for us to make mistakes faster than we can realize we’ve made them.”

Personally, he said, he still believes in the “power of the printed letter” in the world of college admissions.

“I think the offer of admission is a really wonderful moment that we should take care with, because it’s what the students have worked for,” Rawlins said. “Part of me wishes we could go back to just the letter sometimes, or even just let it lead.”

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