College Acceptance Letters Are Glitzier, but Rejections Are Harsher

College admission letters get fancy so students will enroll, but electronic rejections rise, too.

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College admissions officers are jazzing up their acceptance notifications—sending out fancy certificates, T-shirts, tubes of confetti, or Internet links to videos of fireworks—in an effort to inspire loyalty and lock in commitments from today's fickle and worried high school seniors.

While many students enjoy the new twists on what used to be just fat and thin envelopes, others are criticizing some of the changes to admissions notifications. Some students are less wowed by glitz than by old-fashioned personal letters that show an admissions officer actually read the essays. Some high school officials complain about school disruptions caused by midday fateful E-mails or text messages. And some students say the new electronic rejections—some of which are little more than "Admissions decision: Deny"—feel much harsher than the traditional letters enclosed in ominously thin envelopes.

The controversy over the best way to inform students of their fates is likely to heighten in 2009 as a growing number of colleges experiment with:

Text messages. Baylor University is one of a growing number of schools that blast out congratulatory text messages (though it sends rejections via snail mail).

Videos. Elon University has started informing this year's accepted students by E-mailing a link to a video of cheering crowds and the words "Congratulations. You've been accepted to Elon!" followed by inspirational music and shots of the scenic North Carolina campus. After receiving complaints that its Web admissions notifications weren't celebratory enough, Binghamton University added flash animation to its E-mail last year. The University of Georgia, which has for several years greeted accepted students with a link to an animated graphic of fireworks, says this year's fireworks will be flashier than ever. Bryn Mawr, which launched its video acceptance last year, is promising an even better video this year.

Goodies. St. Bonaventure University in western New York this year gussied up the acceptance package (which contains a T-shirt) that it sends out. MIT sent out a tube filled with a poster and confetti to its early acceptees, as it has for several years. Other schools are shipping bumper stickers, decals, and other knickknacks.

Fancy letters. Ithaca College three years ago replaced its single-page acceptance letter (contained in a misleadingly thin envelope) with what it calls its "Phat package"—a foot-long envelope emblazoned with the words "Something big is about to happen." Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., upped its game this year with a fancy new translucent envelope holding a green linen folder embossed with the college seal and the words: "You have been accepted."

Certificates. Baylor this year joined many other schools, including Rutgers and Elon, in sending out suitable-for-framing acceptance certificates. 

Rejections, too, are changing, though not necessarily for the better. Some student posters on have complained that after all their hard work on essays, electronic rejections can feel especially brutal. A Rice University rejectee said he felt awful when he logged on to read "Admissions decision: Deny" and then got what he called a "hard, cold" formal rejection in the mail. A Stanford rejectee said that school's preference for electronic rejections aggravated feelings of worthlessness. "They say they won't be sending you an actual letter because that would only make it worse. Ha ha like I didn't cry enough," wrote one poster.

Chris Muñoz, vice president for enrollment at Rice, says he hasn't received many complaints about the school's notifications. Rick Shaw, Stanford's director of admissions, says the college is trying to reduce waste by encouraging the 20,000 or so rejected applicants to take their bad news electronically, though it will send a formal letter if a student asks. "We are saving a lot of trees," Shaw says. In response to complaints about previous electronic rejection letters, he says he has "softened" the wording of the message that 90 percent of Stanford applicants will receive this year.

Corrected on 03/4/09: An earlier version of this article identified Elon University by an incorrect name.