Why do schools have admissions departments when they’re really in the rejections business? Christopher Buckley presents the most godawful rejection letters ever sent—and some pretty famous dropouts.
As someone who has received his fair share of rejection letters over the years, let me extend a collegial hug to the many fine, talented, but clearly brain-challenged high-school students who will be receiving college rejection letters this spring.
Before you post a comment calling me a supercilious twit: The sentence above was designed to run the gamut of rejection letter types, from We’re so, so very sorry to Take a hike, idiot.
In between those two extremes is the inevitable foul-up. This year’s classic Oops award goes to the University of California at San Diego, whose admissions department (by the way, why do they call them “admissions” departments when they’re really more in the “rejections” business?) sent out an email to 47,000 high-school seniors, congratulating them on being admitted. The only problem was that 28,000 of them had been rejected earlier in the month. The “admissions” director quite properly accepted all responsibility but, in a clear ethical lapse, did not publicly disembowel herself on the front quad.
When a student wrote Reed College’s admissions department to ask if they’d received all his application materials, they sent him back “what was apparently intended to be an interoffice memo which read ‘He’s a deny.’”
Sometimes, colleges even manage to screw up acceptance letters. Some years ago, Arizona State University famously sent out a letter that began:
To the parent or guardian of Truman Bradley
Dear Parent or Guardian:
Congratulations on 987-65-4321’s admission to Arizona State University! We commend you for the significant role that you have played in helping him to prepare for this exciting and critically important time. ASU is committed to providing an outstanding collegiate experience, and we are pleased that he has chosen to take advantage of this tremendous opportunity. We are fully prepared to assist 987-65-4321 in making a successful transition from high school to college.
At least they got Truman’s Social Security number right. His father had the wit to respond:
Thank you for offering our son, 987-65-4321, or as we affectionately refer to him around the house, 987, a position in the ASU class of 2003. His mother, 123-45-6MOM, and I are very happy that such a prestigious institution of higher education such as ASU has extended this offer.
In selecting a college for 987, we are looking for a place that will prepare him for the technological challenges of the 21st century.
Patrick Mattimore of Examiner.com wrote a very funny and sadly informative piece two years ago about students awarding prizes for best and worst rejection letters. That particular year, Harvard was head and shoulders above the rest in the “most obsequious while maintaining utter insincerity” category:
“Harvard lets students know how ‘very sorry’ they are to reject them. They then bestow three wishes, none of which they grant. First, Harvard wishes that they were writing with a different decision. Second, they wish that it was possible to admit the rejectee. Finally, they hope the student they deny will accept their best wishes.”
Another category was concision. Normally, it takes at least two words to introduce the dismal theme (“We regret”). But Northwestern improved on that. Its rejection letter began, “After...”
In the category of “Most Emphatic,” Cornell was the clear winner. It sent out an email informing the rejectee to bugger off, and then added that he would be getting a follow-up letter confirming his unworthiness. In so many words, as Mattimore riffed on it: “We don’t want you. Get it? We really don’t want you.”
The “grand prize for total insensitivity” went to Reed College. When a student wrote its admissions department to ask if they’d received all his application materials, they sent him back “what was apparently intended to be an interoffice memo which read ‘He’s a deny.’”
A nifty site called www.collegiatechoice.com contains a few primo examples of these, among them the ASU’s letter accepting 987-65-4321. It was all too much, apparently, for a young man named Paul Devlin. After getting the heave-ho from one too many colleges, he wrote a letter that was published in the New York Times. It begins:
Dear Admissions Committee:
Having reviewed the many rejection letters I have received in the last few weeks, it is with great regret that I must inform you I am unable to accept your rejection at this time.
This year, after applying to a great many colleges and universities, I received an especially fine crop of rejection letters. Unfortunately, the number of rejections that I can accept is limited.
All I can say is, any “admissions” department who’d turn down someone who could write a letter like that is in the wrong business.
If you ask people of my generation (I’m 56—the grave yawns), I suspect many of them would tell you what I would certainly tell you, namely that we wouldn’t stand a chance, by today’s standards, of getting into the colleges that accepted us back then. This is not false modesty. One…weeps to hear the stories. The “admissions” director of Yale some years ago candidly admitted that it could fill three incoming freshman classes with more or less identically qualified applicants.
Seeking consolation for those of you who will endure these god-awful letters this spring, I went to a site called—literally enough—collegedropoutshalloffame.com. There’s no better solace than learning who, among the rich and famous, flunked out, dropped out, or never went at all.
The good news is that there are hundreds of names on it. More. As the late Carl Sagan would say, billions upon billions….
To name a few, in more or less alphabetical order:
Edward Albee, playwright. Trinity College, three semesters.
Woody Allen. A double dropout (NYU and City College)! The Woodmeister famously wrote that he was “thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics final. I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”
Kevin Bacon. Dropped out of high school. Come to think of it, didn’t he play the really smart, screw-up kid in the movie Diner? The one who knows all the answers on Jeopardy? Also, come to think of it, wasn’t he a Bernard Madoff victim? Hmm.
Warren Beatty. Northwestern, one semester. It just goes to show that a college dropout can score a babe like Annette Bening.
Carl Bernstein. His fellow reporter Bob Woodward went to Yale. Is there a moral here?
Yogi Berra. The most quotable American philosopher in history!
James Cameron, he of Titantic and Terminator. QED.
George Carlin, the smartest comedian since Lenny Bruce.
Andrew Carnegie. Went on to become one of the richest human beings on the planet and endowed more than 300 public libraries.
Scott Carpenter, the Mercury astronaut. Whoa—an astronaut? Are astronauts supposed to flunk out? He missed the final exam at the University of Colorado at Boulder on heat transfer. Dude!
As I say, billions upon billions—or as Timothy Geithner (Darmouth, non-dropout) would say, trillions upon trillions, but why don’t we just stop at Winston Churchill, who never attended a day of college and managed to win World War II. With a little help from a Harvard man.
If your terrific, wonderful, deserving kids get one of these “he’s a deny” letter or another on the theme of “go away and stop wasting our precious time,” steer them to the college dropout hall of fame. It will give them the audacity of hope.
Audacity of hope…say, isn’t that the title of a book by that guy who started out at Occidental, transferred to Columbia and finished up Law Review at Harvard?
Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and is editor-at-large of ForbesLife magazine.