Preparing for College

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.