Thursday, April 30, 2009

We're Sorry to Inform You...

But You Have Been Rejected:

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, students critique, attack and praise missives from various schools, elevating rejection-letter reviews to a sideline sport.
I don't blame them. The stupidity in the rejection letters is astonishing.

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.

For those high school students who might be stumbling across this blog, let me translate the above comments by the Dean by quoting the Peter Principle: bureaucrats are promoted to their level of incompetence. Here's another example.

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."

The oppressed sigh of the flustered bureaucrat. The most ignominious, however, has to come from Penn State, who actually trick the rejected into thinking the vaunted "fat envelope" is an acceptance package.

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.

LOL. "You are invited as a qualified applicant to apply somewhere else, wherever that might be."

Meanwhile, despite all the bureaucratic double-speak that there "aren't other ways" to send rejections, the article illustrates plenty of colleges who reject applicants in ways that don't border on lame.

I've got Max Weber on my brain, for some reason, but he really was right. The higher up you go in a bureaucracy (especially one as entrenched as a university), the more incompetent people become.

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