The Art of the College Decision Letter

College acceptances generate ineffable joy, while rejections melancholy.  A good way to come to grips with the inevitable vicissitudes of the admissions process is to take note of this year’s admissions messages: what they say, and most importantly, how they say it. This should remove some of the apprehension and hurt, while keeping in perspective some of the joy of the admissions cycle. Though, in all honesty, rejection is always difficult, no matter what.

Sue Shellenbarger, in the 28 April 2009 Wall Street Journal, “Rejection: Some Colleges Do It Better than Others,” discusses tough and kind letters. Under tough, she cites Bates, a small liberal arts college in Maine, who, this year, sent rejected students the following message, “The deans were obliged to select from among candidates who clearly could do sound work at Bates…” (Wall Street Journal, 28 April 2009, p. B1) The implication is that, if rejected, you probably couldn’t compete at Bates. The Dean of Admissions, Wylie Mitchell, acknowledged that several applicants found this rejection curt, though he firmly believes the direct approach serves all parties best.

Stanford’s rejections, this year, though phrased in a somewhat self-effacing manner, were very succinct in not entertaining any appeals. It starts, “…we are humbled by your talents and achievements…you’re a fine student,” however, “…we are not able to consider appeals to this decision.”  Stanford felt compelled to be more direct, as it is located within California, where a number of schools do entertain appeals.

Harvard was very empathetic in its rejection letter: “Past experience suggest 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.“ (Ibid.) Duke, also, handled rejections in a very gracious tone: “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.” (Ibid.)

While some of the most selective campuses are almost conciliatory in their rejection letters, many campuses, including Stanford and Yale, are attempting to eliminate mailing admissions decisions altogether. Stanford wants to save trees, while Yale wants to eliminate mailing costs. Furthermore, as more decisions arrive electronically, many, including Hamilton, a liberal arts college in upstate New York, will only post its decisions after 8PM EST, so that they won’t distract students during class time.  (US News and World Report, 25 February 2009, College Letters Are Glitzier, but Rejections Are Harsher, by Kim Clark,  By the way, if you want to share your reaction to your admission decision messages, College Confidential hosts college decision forums. The 2005 forum is particularly interesting:

With the web quickly becoming the main mouthpiece for many admissions offices, admission offers are carrying more impact; after all, increasing yield of admitted candidates is crucial. Baylor University in Texas is now sending out congratulatory text messages. Elon University in North Carolina, which has one of the most beautiful campuses in America, sends out a video of cheering crowds with the message of congratulations, followed by inspirational music, and scenic shots of its campus. University of Georgia, which sends out a video of fireworks, has an even more dynamic pyrotechnical display this year.  Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which caters to an applicant pool, according to chief undergraduate admissions officer Jim Maraviglia, sophisticated in electronic communications, believes Poly’s electronic correspondence far outshines those of other competitive institutions. Admissions offices will continue to battle over creating ever more impactful electronic admissions messages,

Don’t be put off or enamored by a school’s decision conveyance. It’s essential to see through the glitz, or shrug off the coldness of a rejection. Harvard has it right: it’s not where you go; it’s what you do once you get there. Performance and capability will, in the end, be the chief criteria of ultimate success, with the addition of a bit of luck. So put aside any fear of the rejection letter and be guided, rather, by your own internal passion.