At First They Flirt, Then Colleges Crush

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Yale University sent out thousands of rejection letters this spring that included this line:

"It is painful to us that we must turn away so many superbly talented students."

Brown University wrote: "We want to acknowledge your accomplishments and to reiterate how much care we have taken in the admission process . . . and how difficult and painful it therefore is to deny so many."

Painful? Just ask Tanvi Gupta, a 17-year-old from Derwood who got five rejection letters this month, from the five colleges she wanted to go to.

For many overachieving high school seniors, getting that letter is the first real kick-in-the-gut feeling of failure. And for admissions officers who have spent months recruiting the most talented students, April can be like a bad breakup -- played out thousands of times. It ends today, the deadline for most students to commit to colleges.

This year, the most selective universities sent out more rejection letters than ever: Georgetown sent about 10,000; Stanford sent about 20,000. Johns Hopkins sent about a thousand more than last year, when they sent at least 2,000 more than the year before.

All the more reason for school officials to choose their words carefully when they turn away all those applicants. Many said: There's really just no good way to say no.

It's not unlike the end of a high school romance, said Bill Conley, dean of enrollment and academic services at Hopkins. "That's the dance we're doing in admissions. We don't think we've made promises -- we haven't. But . . . they're hopeful. We've nurtured this relationship, only to abruptly end it."

He laughed, remembering his own thinking in high school: "Do I just do the fade? Never communicate again? Or do I just be very direct: 'I don't like you anymore.' "

The middle ground, Conley said, is, " 'It's not you; it's me.' "

That's the approach many schools take now, starting the letters or e-mails with statistics about the huge, record-setting crush of applications they get. It used to be that schools were essentially turning away students who they thought couldn't hack it there, said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

But in recent years, the number of applications has surged for several reasons: There are more high school seniors out there. More of them are applying to college, seeing it as increasingly essential to their careers. And they're applying to more schools.

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