The paradox of the college denial letter

At the heart of college denial letters lies a paradox.

The admissions deans who sign them almost always express sorrow or regret over their decision to turn down an applicant. And yet colleges seeking to attain or maintain prestige reap an undeniable benefit from the act of denial on a massive scale.

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Here are several examples of university acceptance and denial letters.
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Here are several examples of university acceptance and denial letters.

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These letters are what substantiate the selectivity of a college. Fewer denials means less selectivity. Less selectivity, in general, means less prestige. More consequences flow from there.

In Monday’s Washington Post, we report on how students are coping with a new kind of stress in an era when ever-more denial letters are being transmitted electronically through e-mail or Web portals. We also have compiled a selection of denial and acceptance letters to show how the communication works.

Many students are impressively sophisticated consumers. Consider Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County, where we interviewed a half-dozen college-bound seniors.

Jan Marmor, a veteran Whitman counselor, said that of about 450 graduating seniors, nearly all will go to college. These seniors filed 3,185 college applications, according to a spreadsheet Marmor provided. That’s about seven per graduate.

The school that drew the largest number of Whitman applications was the University of Maryland (205 applications). The University of Michigan drew the second-most (103). There were, as ever, many bids for highly selective private schools in the Ivy League and elsewhere.

So what goes through the minds of admissions officers as they draft the letters that turn down students?

Harvard University’s dean of admissions, William R. Fitzsimmons, who offered slots to about 6 percent of 35,000 applicants this year, said he takes great care with the wording.

“We have really worked hard on that over the years,” he said. “As you can imagine, we get a lot of feedback, which we take very seriously. We’ve tried to be as gentle as one can possibly be.”

Harvard declined to provide a copy of its letters.

“One of the most overlooked arts of college admission is delivering bad news well,” said Henry R. Broaddus, dean of admission for the College of William and Mary. “At any selective place, you are delivering a lot of bad news. What you want to do is be sensitive to the fact that not being admitted to William and Mary is no referendum on a student’s prospects for being successful and being happy.” The college had 14,035 applications this year. It offered admission to 4,565, or about 33 percent.

Broaddus said he strives for clarity and brevity.

“There’s an impulse to try to explain away disappointment,” he said. “But really what students want is, they want you to be direct.”

For many colleges, the denial also provides an invitation to a further conversation. George Mason University’s dean of admissions, Amy Takayama-Perez, who notifies via paper rather than e-mail, said she expects the university to accept about 60 percent of a record 19,000-plus applicants. For those who don’t get offers, she said, “we talk about transfers. We encourage you to start elsewhere.”

George Mason declined Sunday to make public its denial letter because it said students had not yet received it.

Like George Mason, U-Md. and the University of Maryland Baltimore County talk about transfer options in their denials. But Shannon R. Gundy, U-Md.’s director of admissions, said: “We want want to make sure it’s clear. We don’t want it to be nebulous. We want it to be as soft a blow as we can.”

Mildred R. Johnson, director of admissions for Virginia Tech, said denials often lead to painful follow-up phone calls from parents who don’t understand why their children were turned away.

Sometimes, she said, “It is harder on the parents than it is on the students. It’s almost like I have to be a therapist for the parents, to help them through the process. It’s not a reflection on them.”

Georgetown University, which delivers paper letters via the U.S. Postal Service, declined to make its letters public until all students get them. We will update this story with a link when they do.

Charles Deacon, Georgetown’s dean of admissions, said the school got about 19,900 applications and made 3,293 offers. Georgetown sticks to paper communication: “We like to keep it at a certain level of dignity, you might say,” Deacon said. (Catholic University and several others also told us they use paper.)

As for the content of the denial, Deacon said he keeps it short and to the point. “You deliver the message, you thank people and you leave,” he said.

One prominent college took a major step this year to reduce the amount of denials it makes — and therefore reduce, at least in numerical terms, its selectivity.

Boston College added a supplemental 400-word essay to its application. The number of applicants fell sharply. The previous year, more than 34,000 applied. This year, 25,000 did. College officials were happy.

“We wanted to identify students who were more serious, more thoughtful, and more deliberate about applying to BC,” John L. Mahoney, director of admissions for Boston College, told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

 
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