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 collegeconfidential.com 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.
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.