The day I was accepted to college, the letter was waiting for me after school, peeking out from a stack of mail on a counter. I could see the return address but I couldn’t determine the envelope’s thickness.
Having watched my older siblings go through this rite of passage, I knew a thin envelope almost certainly meant rejection. A fat letter was more likely to include both a message of congratulations, and additional details about what to do next.
Crouching next to the counter, I tried to judge the envelope’s heft using a side view. It didn’t quite lay flat, suggesting there was almost certainly more inside than a single piece of paper.
I opened the flap, and I saw the letterhead stationery wrapped around a color brochure.
This letter was definitely fat.
Reading the New York Times story about applicants to Vassar College who were mistakenly told they had been accepted on early decision, I felt deep empathy. A computer error during a test of the system resulted in an acceptance message being sent out to both accepted students and those who had been turned down.
This is probably a mistake that won’t have significant lasting consequences beyond the initial disappointment, but it’s still hugely unfortunate for the students and for Vassar. As one of the students told the New York Times, she is now rethinking her college plans: “I want to major in computer science, and Vassar doesn’t even know how to use a computer on the biggest day of our lives.”
This error also represents one of the trickier aspects of college admissions, which are now largely a paperless process. The upside is that students can upload their materials and not fret about whether their application was lost in the mail. It’s also easier for teachers who must submit letters of recommendation, often for many students. But the downside is that technological mishaps like Vassar’s can easily occur (the New York Times’ reports the University of Delaware and other campuses have made similar mistakes).
There’s another reason I’m not wholly enthused about the online notification system. Every once in a great while, I flip through the pages of my high school scrapbook. I always stop to look at my college acceptance letter. I remember how it felt in my hand, and I can see the creases and stains that show how many other people held it, read it and shared my joy.
You can’t do that with a screen shot.