Jenna Kress sat down at her computer one recent evening to check the status of her application to the University of Georgia. The 17-year-old senior at Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County let out a scream when video fireworks lighted up her screen.
She got in.
The next day she learned, also online, the fate of her bid for the University of Texas at Austin: She was denied.
“Didn’t really hit me that hard,” Kress said. “I was so on my Georgia high that I didn’t care that much.” Kress said she barely scanned the UT letter once she got the gist. “I didn’t need to read the other fluff they put in there to make me feel better.”
April 1 marks the height of decision season for colleges nationwide, a date by which most have told high school seniors whether they made the cut for next year. Like Kress, many students nationwide have learned to cope with the ups and downs of an admissions process utterly changed from the thick-or-thin envelope ritual their parents endured.
While some holdouts continue to rely only on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver the news, growing numbers of colleges have migrated to online notification in recent years, via Web sites or e-mail.
At the same time, more students are applying to more schools in an effort to better their chances. More than 27 percent now apply to at least seven schools, a University of California at Los Angeles survey found, roughly double the share of a decade ago. Five percent now apply to a dozen or more schools, and many elite colleges report record or near-record totals of applications.
The flood of applications means that prestigious colleges are often delivering mass rejection via electronic form letters to several thousand or tens of thousands of students at once.
“The trick is to convey a sense of sympathy, understanding and respect through an online blurb,” said Greg W. Roberts, dean of admission at the University of Virginia.
A record 29,000 students applied to U-Va. for this year’s entering class, up more than 50 percent from the total five years ago. Of the applicants to the coveted public university, 8,530 were offered admission. Decision letters were posted online at 5:30 p.m. March 21.
“Great care and attention to detail is given to every student who applies to the University,” the denial letter said. “Please know that these decisions are never easy, and we recognize and respect your accomplishments and talents.”
Inevitably in the social media era, such notifications trigger waves of online celebration, dejection and consolation through Web sites such as Facebook or College Confidential. U-Va. itself gave students a forum to vent on the university’s official admission blog as soon as the letters were released.
“U-Va. was my dream school, the place I’ve wanted to go to & what i worked towards my whole life,” one student wrote that evening. “Now I don’t really know what to do.”
“Here’s what you will do,” replied an admissions officer with the handle Dean J@UVa. “You will pick one of the other schools. You will go there. You will have a FABULOUS time and cram your brain full of great ideas. It will be okay!”
Among the region’s prominent colleges, the College of William and Mary, George Washington University, the University of Maryland and the University of Maryland Baltimore County also deliver denials online. GWU and UMBC send paper versions too.
“We hope that this final decision will not deter you from any of your personal aspirations,” Henry R. Broaddus, William and Mary’s dean of admission, writes in the college’s denial letter. The wording seeks to make clear appeals are not an option.
Shannon R. Gundy, director of admissions for U-Md., uses the denial to pitch an alternative path to College Park: “[W]e strongly encourage you to consider transferring to the University of Maryland.”
Virginia Tech, Georgetown University, George Mason University, American University and St. Mary’s College of Maryland send bad news in the traditional thin envelopes.
“I do actually hand-sign all the denials,” said Patricia F. Goldsmith, dean of admissions for St. Mary’s. “It would be a whole lot easier to push a button and not have all this paper. But I feel like I owe them a personalized response.”
Some Virginia Tech letters include a special line for students whose parents, siblings or grandparents are alumni: “Recognizing that your family has close ties with Virginia Tech made this decision all the more difficult.”
For tens of thousands of students seeking admission to Ivy League colleges, tension peaked at 5 p.m. Thursday, when the ultra-selective schools posted their decisions. Twitter erupted within minutes: “too bad i dont need you anyway :) #harvardreject #princeton2017” wrote one student presumably denied by one and accepted by the other.
Following tradition, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology posted its decisions electronically on March 14, or 3/14, a.k.a. Pi Day. But not at 1:59 p.m., as one might guess from the first digits of the mathematical constant: 3.14159. On weekdays, colleges generally prefer evening notification to ensure student privacy. MIT decisions went live at 6:28 p.m. on Pi Day, timed to echo the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its radius.
Knowing that rejection is so prevalent, students who apply to elite schools seek to raise their chances by sending far more applications than their predecessors in generations past. Some high-volume applicants also are hunting the best possible financial aid deals.
Whitman senior Cindy Wang, 18, applied to 18 schools. She takes an unusual approach.
“I don’t like to check my decisions,” she said one Friday morning in an interview with Kress and several other college-bound students from Whitman. “I’m going to wait until I have all of them so I can find out all at once.”
Rourke Donahue, 17, of Washington-Lee High School in Arlington also applied to 18. He said he knows a student who applied to 24.
“The way the market is nowadays, you really can’t apply to just a few,” Donahue said. “You have to be realistic.”
He has experienced online denial — from where he would rather not say — and online acceptance from top-tier schools such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Emory University. Northeastern University’s acceptance came via an e-mail one night at 11 — “kind of strange” timing, he said.
Donahue said he has found some peace at the end of a grueling several months. For his applications, starting last summer, he wrote about 30 essays. It was the equivalent, he said, of adding a high-level class to a schedule that already includes five Advanced Placement courses.
“This process was stressful because I chose to make it stressful for myself,” Donahue said. “I was very aware of what I was getting into.”
Eyal Hanfling, 17, a Whitman senior, applied to a more modest number of schools — five. In December his application for early admission to Brown University was deferred, glum news that he picked up from his smartphone one day after a track workout at school. It was doubly glum when he got the same news repeated via snail mail, “which I thought was overkill,” Hanfling said.
“But I knew life would move on,” Hanfling added.
Subsequently, Hanfling was accepted by the University of Chicago. On Thursday he learned, while riding in a taxi in Costa Rica, that Harvard and Brown had turned him down. But Hanfling called that disappointment “ephemeral” and said he is “incredibly excited” about Chicago. The prestigious school sent him an item that is useful for the Windy City and impossible to deliver via e-mail: a congratulatory scarf. “Really cool,” he said.