Admission rates down in colleges across the U.S.

CHICAGO – Ah Spring. The crocuses are beginning to poke their pretty heads above the soil; the birds are building nests; and, throughout the land, a resounding chorus of rejection is heard.

This has been a record year for college applications and, hence, a banner year as well for rejections. Admission rates are down at Yale and Princeton, and Harvard took in the lowest percentage of applicants in the school’s history.

But it’s not just the Ivy League schools that are sending out more bad news. At the University of Chicago, for instance, 3,460 of 12,400 applicants were accepted (with another 1,500 put on a waiting list). That 27 percent acceptance rate is down 4 points in just one year and translates into 7,440 rejection letters.

Some such letters are fairly perfunctory – a nod to the difficulty of the decision given the rising tide of applications (which might well rise higher as more schools adopt the “common application,” one that can be sent to multiple schools). Others go to great pains to comfort the wounded, explain that it is not their fault and even hint that the breakup isn’t necessarily forever. For some applicants, such as those yearning to wear orange at the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois, the harbinger of their academic future comes in a single word posted online – “Admit,” “Deny,” or “Wait-list.”

“We follow that up with a letter that states the decision in the first paragraph,” said Urbana director of admissions, Stacy Kostell. “The second paragraph is about the difficulty of the decision.”

Indeed it’s difficult on both sides. All the admissions officers interviewed for this story noted that this is a time of stress around their offices. Some letters address this. “It is painful to us that we must turn away so many superbly talented students,” Yale’s letter notes.

“We know how hard it is to get a rejection letter and we know how hard it is to send one,” said Monica Inzer, Director of Admission and Financial Aid at Hamilton College, a private liberal arts school in Clinton, N.Y. “We have two letters we send out. One of them is softer, though we think both are fairly soft.”

Hamilton has seen a 19 percent increase in applications over the last two years. Last spring “was more of a bloodbath,” Inzer said. “People were caught off guard [by the sudden increased competition]. This year they seem to know about it.” The super-soft letter, which goes to children of graduates or of employees or siblings of students, begins with a gentle “no” like the other letter, but goes on with more explanation about the increased quality of the current pool of applicants. It ends with Inzer’s personal invitation to call her for further explanations.

“Almost all the calls come from parents, not from the students,” she said. “When a student calls, that’s the call I return first. To take that initiative on their part is difficult. That jumps out.”

The letters went out March 28, and decisions were posted online on the 29th. “That was a Saturday,” Inzer pointed out, “giving everyone a Sunday to settle down.”

Steve Syverson, vice president for admissions at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., said the letter he sends to those who didn’t make the cut is “intended to let them down gently and preserve their dignity.”

It notes that “despite your many fine qualities,” the competitive nature of the process means that, though many call, not all are chosen. “You don’t ever want to say, ‘You fell short,'” he said.

And for those who got a “no,” they comfort themselves with the thought that, just maybe, in their case, a mistake was made.

Stunning success will be the best revenge.