4 Reasons a Rejection Letter Isn't Always the End

In some cases, you can appeal the admission decision or get advice on how to transfer in.

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Over the next few weeks, America's colleges will mail and post online hundreds of thousands of rejection letters. Some, especially electronic notices that say little more than "Denied," can feel especially harsh to applicants who have spent months sweating over essays and tests.

But admissions officers say rejected applicants should not automatically trash rejection notices unread. After all, a few colleges mail thin acceptance letters. And occasionally, schools do make mistakes. Admissions officers also point out that many schools send different kinds of rejection letters to different students and that some schools have comparatively liberal appeal and transfer rules. A careful reading of a rejection letter just might provide some surprises and even a little hope.

Hard or Soft? While big schools typically bulk-mail a single message to all rejectees, some smaller colleges tailor their denials to different students. "Hard" denials are final. "Soft" letters use kinder words and often hint at hope.

Appeal? Most schools, especially the highly selective colleges flooded with desperate applicants, say they just don't have the staff to consider appeals, and they often say so in their rejection letters. Other schools will reconsider applicants who have something legitimately new to add to their applications. At the University of Georgia, for example, although appeals are not mentioned in the standard rejection letter, they are occasionally considered. "The student really has to pursue and request" an appeal to the Faculty Admissions Committee, says Patrick Winter, senior associate director of the admissions office. That group will generally recommend the university president reverse a rejection only if "there is any information that we didn't have" in the application. He says that fewer than 4 percent of the appeals gain admission. Grinnell College in Iowa also doesn't encourage appeals but will consider them from very persuasive students (not their families). "The student has to be the appealer. It is what the student has to say that changes our minds," says Seth Allen, Grinnell's dean of admissions and financial aid.

Transfer? Binghamton University in New York suggests to all of its 15,000-plus rejectees that they consider transferring in eventually. Hamilton College in New York offers to advise rejectees on which courses to take to help their transfer admission chances and waives the application fee for rejectees who try to transfer in within two years.

Legacy? Some schools send legacy applicants—children who have relatives who attended or have donated to the school—different rejection letters from those for regular applicants. "Students who have no [family] ties to the university get a fairly basic letter," says Jim DiRisio, director of admissions at St. Bonaventure University in New York. "But when we know there is a tie—a sibling or an alum—we recognize the connection (in the letter) . . . . It is a little bit softer."