Sam Stephenson was steeling himself for another round of college applications after his first choice, Johns Hopkins University, turned him down. Then the 17-year-old from Culpeper County in Virginia received an e-mail from Hopkins on Sunday afternoon that suggested he might still have reason to hope.
“Embrace the YES!” it said in the subject line.
Sam was confused, said his mother, Cathy Stephenson. Could it be that the blunt electronic denial statement he had read two days earlier was wrong? The e-mail from the Hopkins admissions office at 3:01 p.m. Sunday continued:
“Dear Samuel, Welcome to the Class of 2019! We can’t wait for you to get to campus. Until then, as one of the newest members of the family, we hope you’ll show your Blue Jay pride.”
It urged him to start using #JHU2019 on Twitter, to stop by an online store to buy Hopkins gear and to meet others in the newly admitted class through a limited-access Facebook group.
It was all wrong.
Like 293 others who had been turned down or deferred in their bid for early admission to the prestigious private university in Baltimore, Sam had received a welcome-to-Hopkins e-mail by mistake. The university, tipped off to the error by another rejected student, sent an apology Sunday evening to those affected by the head-spinning goof. Sam got the word at 5:28 p.m.: There was no reversal of his denial.
“The decision posted on the decision site reflects the accurate result of your Early Decision application,” the follow-up said. “We regret this technical mistake and any confusion it may have caused.”
Hopkins, which admitted 15 percent of applicants for its latest freshman class, is hardly the first college to suffer an embarrassing misfire in an admissions e-mail. In February, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sent applicants an e-mail about financial aid that included a happy footnote: “You are on this list because you are admitted to MIT!” That information, for thousands of students, was wrong. Admission decisions at that point were still pending for those who applied in the regular cycle.
Other similar missteps have been reported in recent years. Fordham University gave false news of acceptance to 2,500 applicants last December; Vassar College incorrectly informed 76 students that they had gotten into the school in January 2012; and one of the most glaring mistakes came in 2009, when the University of California at San Diego admissions office sent acceptance e-mails to all 46,000 students who had applied, including the 28,000 who had been rejected.
David Phillips, vice provost for admissions and financial aid at Hopkins, said Tuesday that the e-mail mistake last week was a result of “human error.” Someone who works for a contractor that helps Hopkins with electronic communications pulled the wrong list of e-mail addresses, he said.
“We apologize to the students affected and to their families,” Phillips said. “Admissions decision days are stressful enough. We very much regret having added to the disappointment felt by a group of very capable and hardworking students, especially ones who were so committed to the idea of attending Johns Hopkins that they applied early decision.”
Of 1,865 students who sought early entry to Hopkins, 539 were accepted Friday. The rest were denied or deferred until regular admission decisions are made in the spring.
Of the 294 applicants who received the erroneous welcome message, nine had received deferrals and 285 had been denied.
Cathy Stephenson said Tuesday that she was irate at Hopkins. First, she said, the mistake was inexcusable. “You don’t crush somebody’s feelings twice,” she said.
She said university admissions officers should have called the affected students to apologize. “All we want is a personal phone call,” Stephenson said. “When I make a mistake, I do the right thing.”
Phillips said Hopkins did not make such calls because it did not want to exacerbate the problem by drawing further attention to a painful moment for the affected students. “We understand their anger and frustration,” he said.
Sam, a senior at Eastern View High School and an Eagle Scout, was at a swim meet Tuesday night, his mother said, and unavailable for comment. He is gearing up for the regular application cycle.
“Absolutely,” she said. “We have a plan B.”