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Enveloping fate of emailed admissions

MY IMMEDIATE thought when I received my first job rejection over e-mail was, "Why couldn't they at least send me a real letter so I could get a free drink at Orbits?" The more I mulled it over, the more angry I became at the use of impersonal, casual e-mail to deliver such weighty news.

Unfortunately, this seems to be a growing trend. An Odds and Ends tidbit last Thursday in The Cavalier Daily reported that applicants to Northwestern University this year were notified of their admission via e-mail. When asked if the University might employ e-mail to notify applicants of acceptance in the future, Dean of Admissions John A. Blackburn indicated that it could happen as early as next year ("Re: Admissions," April 20).

There's no doubt that technology breeds convenience -- and there's nothing wrong with taking advantage of that fact. Just the developments in the University's technology in the four years since I started at the University -- like online registration and mass e-mails about crime incidents -- have made life just a little easier.

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  • April 20, 2000 Odds and Ends

    But all these developments beg an important question: Where do we draw the line? At what point does convenience eclipse propriety or professionalism? It's a question we'll ask again and again in the next few years as technology grows. It's time we realize that convenience isn't always worth the consequences.

    The idea of e-mailing college admission (or rejection) letters is an excellent example. Practically, there are too many possible glitches in e-mail systems to consider sending important correspondence this way. It's much too easy, for instance, to falsify e-mail documents since they bear no signature, or even the appropriate letterhead. The only remotely telling identification is the sender's address, which talented hackers can manipulate with little trouble.

    Similarly, a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education documented the confusion surrounding Web sites like and -- which bear no affiliation to their namesake universities, and were purchased legally by private companies or citizens. Imagine a student receiving an e-mail from an address like, a name which seems perfectly legitimate, but really means nothing. The potential for misunderstanding -- and the resulting emotional distress -- is great. ("As 'Cybersquatters' Multiply, Colleges Try to Protect Their Good Names," Jan. 21).

    E-mail is also much less reliable in terms of delivery. With some of the more complicated e-mail addresses, like Prodigy's odd combinations of nonsensical numbers and letters, it's easy to make a mistake in typing in the address. And while servers usually notify the sender if an e-mail cannot be delivered, if the incorrect address actually belongs to someone else, it will appear to the sender as though nothing is wrong.

    Of course, these potential glitches easily can be tempered by sending hard copies of the letters as a follow-up to the e-mails. That, however, would not negate the emotional strain on a student who mistakenly was informed of admittance or rejection due to an e-mail glitch.

    Even if universities could find some fool-proof way of using e-mail to distribute their yeas and nays, this is one bright idea that should never get off the ground. The casual, unprofessional nature of e-mail is completely at odds with the gravity of the college admissions process.

    A student's senior year in high school probably is one of the most turbulent of his life. When he begins school in September, he knows something is coming to an end, but he doesn't know precisely what lies ahead. There's a restlessness, an unsettled feeling that accompanies all the test-taking and application-filling of those early months.

    Then there's the knowledge that he will be judged by a group of strangers, that they will look at his life on paper and decide whether he is good enough. Then, there's the waiting. The agonizing weeks or months of knowing it's out of his hands, that all he can do is bide his time until the offers arrive. It is a time of paralyzing anxiety.

    Those letters, then, that begin to arrive in the mailbox, are so much more than just a piece of paper. They are his future. They are his self-worth. They are his ticket in -- or out. They are maybe the most important letters he will ever receive.

    It is ludicrous, then, to imagine that something of this magnitude could pop up in his in box among forwards about favorite pick-up lines and elf bowling. The venue that produced a whole language of punctuation-formed smiley faces and discourages the use of capital letters is far too relaxed to deliver such heavy news.

    If University officials have any respect for the students who have taken hours to carefully select and apply to their institutions, they should grant these students the courtesy of a formal, professional reply. Signed, sealed and delivered by hand. There is, after all, some news that shouldn't be just a click away.

    (Katie Dodd's column appeared Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily.)


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