GWU e-mail welcomes rejected early-decision applicants

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010

About 200 students who had sought early-decision admission to George Washington University received an e-mail last week that proclaimed "Congratulations" and welcomed them to the Class of 2014 -- for several hours.

Then came every college applicant's nightmare.

"This afternoon, you received an e-mail from me titled 'Important GW Information,' " wrote Kathryn Napper, executive dean of undergraduate admissions. "Unfortunately, this e-mail was sent to you in error. We are truly sorry for this confusion regarding your application to GW."

"It's devastating to kids who feel they have gotten into their No. 1 school or their dream school, and then this crushing disappointment," said Shirley Bloomquist, a longtime college counselor in Fairfax County and now a private consultant. "Your emotions soar, and then something like this happens. It really clips one's heartstrings."

GWU isn't the first school to erroneously "admit" a group of students it had rejected. As universities move their application processes online, rely more on e-mail to communicate and use the Web to update students on applications, mistakes are easily made. GWU blamed its goof on a clerical error.

Cornell University sent a message in 2003 saying "Greetings from Cornell, your future alma mater!" to nearly 550 early-decision rejectees. Last year, the school's financial aid office accidentally e-mailed 25 students who had not been accepted. On April Fools Day last year, New York University mistakenly congratulated 489 students who had been rejected. Northwestern did the same thing to 50 graduate school applicants in 2008 and refunded their application fee as an apology.

One of the biggest gaffes was at the University of California, San Diego last spring, when the admissions office sent acceptance e-mails to all of the 46,000 students who had applied, including the 28,000 who had not gotten in.

The mix-up at George Washington, first reported by the GW Hatchet, the school's student newspaper, involved as many as 200 students who had applied to the university's second round of early decision, Napper said in a statement. If accepted, these students promise to withdraw all other applications and attend GWU. So usually, the college is their top choice.

On Feb. 4, six days before the Feb. 10 glitch, GWU e-mailed all the applicants, telling them to check online to find out whether they had been accepted. That information was accurate. But when mail delivery was delayed by last week's snowstorms, admissions officials decided to send out another e-mail: the one that contained wrong information in about 200 cases, Napper said.

The e-mail catastrophes of recent years have pushed admissions officials to "double-, triple- and quadruple-check" their lists before hitting "send," said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Some schools have shied away from digital communication altogether, he said, although mistakes can also occur with paper acceptance letters. And some schools that have accidentally admitted a few students have honored those acceptances, as long as the students met admissions requirements, he said.

But when dozens or hundreds of students are involved, Hawkins said, "you have to say it's a mistake, you have to own up to it, and there's really no easy way out."

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