The Wall Street Journal
APRIL 29, 2009
By SUE SHELLENBARGER
Members of this year's record-size high-school graduating class applied to more colleges than ever -- and now, that's resulting in a heavier than usual flurry of 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.
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.
Here, based on my own highly unscientific survey of actual letters, student interviews and message boards, are my picks for this year's most noteworthy college rejection letters -- and the liveliest response by a student.
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.
The letter touched off a chorus of moans online. One recipient, a 17-year-old high-school student from California, says it "implied that you had been rejected because you s-." Bates Dean of Admissions Wylie Mitchell acknowledges that he had one applicant "take me to task for such an abrupt letter." But he says he carefully considered how to convey respect for applicants and decided that brevity is the best route. The letter aims to clarify that Bates is "denying the student's application, and not rejecting the student," Mr. Mitchell says. He doesn't see counseling recipients as the role of college deans.
Stanford University sends a steely "don't call us" message embedded in its otherwise gentle rejection letter. In addition to asserting that "we are humbled by your talents and achievements" and assuring the applicant that he or she is "a fine student," the letter says, "we are not able to consider appeals." It links to a Q&A that reiterates: "Admission decisions are final and there is absolutely no appeal process." It also discourages attempts to transfer later, an even more competitive process. One recipient, whose heart had long been set on Stanford, cried for hours, her mother says, after interpreting the letter as, "we never want to hear from you again so don't bother."
Stanford admissions dean Richard Shaw says the ban on appeals is necessary because other California universities allow appeals and families assume Stanford does too. Even after sending that firm message, Stanford, which has an admission rate of 7.6%, still gets about 200 attempted appeals. "We care deeply about the repercussions" of the letter, Mr. Shaw says, but "there's no easy way to tell someone they didn't make it."
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."
"I didn't feel a teensy bit bitter about" it, says recipient Evelyn Anne Crunden, 18. Instead, the letter's "warm and apologetic tone ... made me feel proud for having even applied."
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." Says Mr. Beresford, who was one of the 18,000 recipients: "It made me feel like I was a good applicant, not just another rejection."
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Mr. Guttentag says he's had particular empathy for rejected applicants since his own daughter was rejected by several kindergartens four years ago. "We know we're imparting bad news, and we just want to make it as human as we can," he says.
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."
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.
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. But Rob Flaherty, 17, a North Reading, Mass., recipient, said he felt the wording in BU's letter translated to "we made it even easier for you and you STILL couldn't get in." Admissions head Kelly Walter says BU tries to deliver such bad news "with as much sensitivity as possible." Most applicants appreciate an acknowledgement of their family ties, she says, and she regrets that "our efforts fall short with some."
Biggest Spin: Numerous colleges spin the data in their rejection letters as a well-intentioned way of comforting denied students. University of California, Davis, says it had "42,000 applicants from which UC Davis could enroll a freshman class of 4,600." This implies an 11% acceptance rate. Its actual admission rate is closer to 50%, because many accepted candidates ultimately enroll elsewhere.
UC Davis undergraduate admissions director Pamela Burnett says most applicants understand that actual enrollment rates vary and she hasn't received any complaints that the language is misleading.
Best Coaching: Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick. This 2,200-student institution added handwritten notes to almost all the 600 denial letters it sent this year, explaining areas of weakness, such as math grades or English skills. The personal detail, says Ron Byrne, a vice president who oversees admissions, helps students understand "it's not a rejection of them, and they know very concretely some of the things they can do" to improve their chances if they apply again.
Best Student Response: Living well. As the rejections sunk in, many students rebounded to console each other. After getting rejections from Harvard and Yale, Isaac Chambers, 17, Champaign, Ill., a top student, track athlete, student-government leader and an editor of his school's online newspaper, posted these words of advice for other rejected candidates on CollegeConfidential.com: "When you're in the dough," he wrote, "fax the colleges that denied you a copy of your rejection letter every day -- letting them know just how badly they screwed up."