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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Admissions officers predict that more schools will experiment with new and different kinds of notifications to attract the attention and deposits of high school seniors who are applying to more colleges than ever. The percentage of students who apply to at least seven colleges has doubled in the past decade, to 22 percent.

Jim Maraviglia, chief undergraduate admissions officer for the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, says he has to provide a flashy acceptance video because studies show his average applicant applies to anywhere from nine to 12 other schools and will choose from about six offers. In addition, as a science and tech school, Cal Poly attracts applicants more fluent in text messages and Tweets than snail mail. "Our studies show that our students rate our method of communication 10 to 12 times better than that of our competitors," he says. And his research shows that Cal Poly's constant and sophisticated electronic communication persuades many students to choose Cal Poly over tough competitors. Besides, Maraviglia notes, by reducing the number and size of letters Cal Poly sends to its 27,000 applicants, electronic notifications save tens of thousands of dollars in printing and postage.

While many students are eager for any changes that bring them decisions faster, high school counselors have started complaining about some colleges' E-mails. "We have had tears and cheers at inappropriate places and times, disrupting the academic climate and, more importantly, unnecessarily upsetting many students and their classmates," says Marjorie Jacobs, director of college counseling at SAR High School Riverdale, a Jewish day school in New York City.

Some colleges are responding by rescheduling the release of their electronic notifications. After receiving complaints from high schools about students suddenly celebrating or mourning in the middle of the school day, Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., now posts its decisions at about 8 p.m. eastern time on a few predetermined Fridays so that "people have time before they see their friends," says admissions dean Monica Inzer.

Other admissions officers say rising college competition and the downturn in the economy are sparking them to invest more money and attention in paper acceptance packets. Worried that the economic downturn might scare some students away from private schools like St. Bonaventure, admissions director James M. DiRisio upgraded his college's T-shirt package this year. His applicants typically file about five other college applications and have at least a couple of choices in the spring, he says. "When it comes time to pick one school, it becomes highly, highly emotional," he says. The goodies, and lots of follow-up calls, messages, and letters, ensure that "they are going to remember my institution when deciding," he says.

Even a traditionalist school like Kalamazoo College is printing its hand-drafted and hand-signed letters on better-quality paper and is sending out bigger packets so that acceptances will look more impressive.

For some students, that personal touch is what really makes the difference. Alexandra Norman, a high school senior in Dearborn, Mich., was wowed by her Kalamazoo acceptance letter, which quoted from her recommendations. While she says waiting even a few extra days for paper notifications was excruciating, she thinks that all the effort she put into her applications deserves formal responses. Her acceptance letters from schools like Michigan State University "were more generic," she says. And while she would have enjoyed receiving a T-shirt from any school, she doesn't think trinkets would change her mind. Kalamazoo's personal letter persuaded her to visit the campus, and now it's her top choice, even though it will most likely be more expensive. "They took an interest in the information I provided," she explains. "I'm not just a number to them."

Today's students may be digital natives, but they don't, it seems, want to be treated like digits.

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