I offered my condolences to the father of a student turned down by their dream school. The father seemed to be taking the news in a calm, but disappointed, manner.
But his goodwill had its limits, which was clear when he talked about the letter his child had received. “The second half of this letter is absolute nonsense” he said. “It says, ‘You have a great deal to offer as a student, and we know your future will be bright.’ What is that all about? If he has so much to offer, then why didn’t they take him?”
Rejection letters are tricky things, to be sure, and it’s wise for colleges to offer as much support as possible when communicating a no. At the same time, these letters need to consider the cognitive domain of the reader as well as the affective domain. If all you have to offer is a hug after just saying no, that’s not going to confuse everyone—it’s going to anger them, which is what the colleges wanted to avoid in the first place.
What would have helped this rejection letter? Well:
Data Once a student is told they weren’t admitted, it’s pretty reasonable they’d like to know why. This is where a few basic numbers can be a college’s best friend. “We saw an increase of 14% in our applicant pool over last year, which meant we had to turn down many students who would have otherwise been admitted.” “The average high school GPA of our admitted students this year was a 3.7, a significant increase over past years.” Anything along these lines gives the student some idea as to where they stood, and why they landed where they did.
Institutional priorities Every college has its own quirks in the admissions decisions each year, and they aren’t always the same. A lack of engineering applicants increases the chances that students who wanted engineering are more likely to be admitted, while an increase in History majors means a smaller percentage of them are going to get a Yes. Some of these priorities are established at the start of the year, while others are shaped by the applicant pool. Either way, it’s not unreasonable to share them with applicants whose hopes have been dashed, since it provides context.
Encouragement to apply again This year’s applicant pool may be record setting, but that may not be the case next year. Following up a little bit of data with the suggestion they consider applying again, either as an incoming freshman or a transfer student, drives home the idea that the college really did think the student had possibilities. And with a big drop in high school seniors coming up, it’s not a bad idea to build next year’s applicant pool now.
That said, there is one thing that should never go into a rejection letter. Suggesting that the student wasn’t admitted because the college sensed the student didn’t align with the college’s mission or values statement is nothing short of insulting. Sure, oboe majors shouldn’t apply to engineering school. On the other hand, saying a student isn’t admissible because of some philosophical divergence is pretty cheeky. Would this student really not have been accepted if the applicant pool had dropped by 20 percent?
It’s commendable that colleges want to support students when they hear bad news, but support suggests a framework that lifts them up, not one that leaves them with more questions, or hurt feelings. Keeping it real is the key to an effective No letter, and the best way to respect a student’s intelligence. by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.