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Articles / Applying to College / What Do All Those College Admissions Mailings Really Mean?

Dec. 22, 2007

What Do All Those College Admissions Mailings Really Mean?

Question: My son applied to several small colleges. We should receive decisions in a couple weeks (January). He still keeps getting information from the schools, including a Christmas card from one college, personally signed by the Dean of Admissions. Is this something they do for all applicants?

Colleges have reached an all-time high (or more like a LOW, my opinion!) when it comes to currying favor with students whom they might--or might not--eventually accept. Typically, the thrust of such PR campaigns is aimed at seniors who have not yet applied, as colleges endeavor to boost ratings via increased applicant pools and thus smaller accepted-student rates. Yet even students, like your son, who have already submitted applications, can expect some "suck-up" correspondence from admission officials ... including those who will eventually say, "No." It's not surprising that parents and students are often confused by the missives they receive from colleges and by the mixed messages that this correspondence can convey.


Sometimes such correspondence is indeed a tacit way of saying, "We like you," but it can also just be another way of saying, "We want you to like US, and then we'll decide later what to do with you." My best guess is that a personally signed Christmas card falls under the "Good news" rubric, but I can't say for sure ... which is why this sort of marketing approach is so annoying. I've seen the ol' give-'em-a-leg-and-take-it-away syndrome too often. Kids get their hopes up and then the rug is pulled out from under them. This is especially true when teenagers are beleaguered with bids to apply. Even the most selective colleges--those that have their pick of the strongest applicants in the world--are often not above casting a wide net when it comes to encouraging applications, only to send out boatloads of "no thank you" notes, come April.

Sometimes, however, the mailings from colleges do send a pretty clear message that proclaims, "You're going to get in." Last year, for instance, a student in my orbit received a personal letter in March from the dean of admissions at one of his target colleges. The letter invited him to join an exclusive academic program, one that was open only to the school's top freshmen. This boy was puzzled because he hadn't gotten his acceptance news yet, but the invitation certainly made the school's intentions known. He did receive his official acceptance a week later. A Christmas card, however, is far more ambiguous, so I can't say with certainty what that means. (It does surprise me, however, that in this era of celebrating diversity, a college would send Christmas cards unless it's a school with a strong church affiliation.)

I don't know which colleges are filling your son's mailbox these days, but--if you're curious about what the correspondence means and don't want to wait for the decision letters to find out--there's nothing wrong with suggesting to your son that he telephone the schools themselves and ask politely if every applicant received a Christmas card (or the other promotional material he's gotten) or if certain candidates were singled out. Since you said you'll hear in January anyway and since it's almost vacation time and offices may have closed already, it might be better at this point just to wait. But if your son continues to receive encouraging correspondence from any colleges with later notification dates, he shouldn't be reluctant to call and ask about what it all really means. He might get yet another cryptic response, but there's no harm in trying.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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