Burroughs, a Middlebury College graduate, said search letters are part of Harvard’s “extensive and multifaceted outreach efforts” designed “to help attract exceptionally strong and diverse annual applicant pools.”
I think the letters are overkill. About 100,000 students make Harvard’s search list every year. Other colleges and universities are similarly inclusive. If students check boxes on their PSAT, SAT or ACT forms permitting use of their home addresses, and their scores are good, they get letters, and often glowing brochures.
Yet Harvard admits only about 2,000 students to fill a freshman class of about 1,600. At most, just 2 percent of the excited recipients of those letters could get in.
I began writing about this years ago when inflated expressions of adoration for my 17-year-old daughter poured into our mailbox. This is fine for the majority of colleges and universities. They accept most of their applicants. However, why do places as picky as the Ivies subject so many children, and their often inexperienced parents, to this deceptive outreach?
Some students, counselors and parents complain about this. Roaa Shaheen, a senior at Marshall Fundamental School in Pasadena, Calif., has received letters from Wellesley, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Rice, Vanderbilt and many other schools. None warned she might not be accepted. “They give hope to thousands of students and encourage them to apply, only to be rejected in decisions season,” she said.
Many teenagers are savvy about the pumped-up verbiage. A 2016 letter from Swarthmore tried to win them with self-parody, calling itself “one of the finest colleges in the known universe.” But what about students whose families have no college experience? They are more likely to believe they’re in when they’re not.
“Given your impressive record, I write to invite you to consider Princeton University,” said acting dean of admission Jill Dolan in a 2019 letter to a Virginia student. “Have you considered Harvard?” that school’s March letter began. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point told one D.C. student that it “is looking for exceptional leaders like you — with outstanding performance records in high school.”
Such valentines leave the impression that it is the students, not the colleges, who make the decision.
In 2002, Yale University sent with each search letter a decal of Handsome Dan, the Yale bulldog mascot, with the words “Congratulations from Yale” printed on it. Recipients could slap the decal on the family minivan as if the application process, at least for them, was a mere formality. Yale sent no decals this year, but the brochure it mailed was 96 pages long.
I examined more than 100 search letters in 2002. Only one, from Harvard, gave any warning that the student might not be admitted. Three admissions deans told me that they would consider adding some disclaimer, but none of the 45 letters I have seen for the past three years have done that. The closest Harvard comes is: “As admission to Harvard and similar colleges is competitive, we ask only that you take a moment to consider Harvard and learn more.”
I asked the top 10 national universities on the U.S. News & World Report list to show me their letters and explain why they included no warning. Eight did not reply. Two — Duke and Harvard — declined to comment.
In the past, colleges’ and universities’ standard response has been that they fear many good students will not apply without encouragement. Warning students they might not get in would be counterproductive, administrators say. They deny that they are inflating their application numbers to lower their acceptance rate and to thus look more selective and get higher rankings.
Yet it seems wrong to send letters oozing with respect for the intelligence and character of these adolescents and to not be honest about their chances. All that mail, plus high school visits and other promotions, cost money. Why not spend some of it building more dorms and accepting more applicants to their fine schools?