A letter from your child’s top college choice arrives. It’s thin, rejection-letter thin. Yet it’s not a rejection letter. Nor is it an acceptance letter. Welcome to the “likely letter,” says Andrew Ferguson, author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.
My sense of relief, and maybe his too, was genuine but short-lived. The problem with a safety school is that although it’s the place you’re sure you can get into, it’s also the place you know you don’t really want to go to. His allegiance over the last few weeks had been shifting. Notre Dame fell behind daily throughout the winter, as he checked the local temperatures in South Bend, Indiana. BSU was now at the top of the list. The shift in his thinking occurred not long before the local paper ran stories about the mounting difficulty of getting accepted at BSU.
“An increasing number of students with top grades and impressive test scores”—many from our area, one article said—“are losing slots at the state’s premiere schools to out-of-state students,” who could afford to pay higher tuition. The article told the story of a local SuperKid. A valedictorian with a 4.01, captain of the lacrosse team, prizewinning photographer… “But he still couldn’t get in,” the reporter wrote, dumbstruck.
Then one afternoon my wife brought in the mail and held up an envelope addressed to him. “Uh-oh,” she said, handing it to me. It was from the office of admissions at BSU. It was thin—wafer thin, whippet thin, rejection-letter thin. “I can’t open it, can I?” I said.
“No,” she said.
So I held it up to the light, turned it around and back to front and downside up, shook it stupidly, like a chimp with a graphing calculator. Under a reading lamp I could just make out the opening lines of a letter, addressed to “Mr. Ferguson.” I read aloud what I could.
“The committee on admission has reviewed your application something something something I trust this will be the case with you and something encourage you to continue to challenge yourself…”
A kiss-off. They don’t open with “We regret to inform you” anymore. Instead it’s all weasely indirection. My face was suddenly very hot. I remembered how I’d felt thirty years ago, when the thin envelopes came: guilty, offended, angry, humiliated, and deeply sorry for myself. But this time was much worse, because this time it was happening not to me but to him.
He didn’t get home till almost dinnertime. I heard him coming in the door. He dumped his backpack with a floor-shaking whomp, and went into his room to change. I paced around the kitchen as his mother got dinner ready. We didn’t look at each other. When he emerged I told him he’d gotten a letter from BSU. “Oh God,” he said. I handed him the envelope. “It’s really thin,” he said. He sliced it open with a thick finger.
I watched him scan the first few lines, the sentences I’d been able to pick out.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“No,” he said, waving me off. “Please.”
He read for a long time, reading and rereading. “It’s from the dean of admissions,” he said finally. “I’m not sure what it means, but I’m not rejected. Not yet anyway.”
He handed me the letter, and I saw that the flattering first line wasn’t the dean’s way of letting him down easy. “Please give serious consideration to our school,” he wrote, “as the place where you might continue to grow and thrive.” He suggested the boy come for an overnight visit—which “students often find helpful in making their choice of the college they will ultimately attend.”
There was no offer of admission, however, no flat assertion that he had been accepted to BSU.
“So are you in or not?” asked my wife.
“I don’t know,” my son said. “It’s not a rejection letter, but it’s not an acceptance letter either.”
Then what was it? I’d never heard of such a thing—a nonacceptance acceptance? A nonrejection rejection? If it wasn’t an acceptance then it was the work of a sadist. The dean was dealing with thousands of young people and their parents at an emotionally tender moment. Surely he knew the mildest tremor would be interpreted as an earthquake and send them running out to the street in their underwear, hysterical. A school could never send such a letter to a kid and then not make a solid offer. It would be impossibly cruel.
I was confused; therefore I became pedantic and bogusly authoritative. I improvised a little lecture on how the market worked. Admissions went both ways, I told my wife and son. There were buyers and sellers. We’d been assuming all along that we were the sellers, trying to get the schools to buy us. Suddenly the situation was reversed. We were the buyers. The letter was the work of a seller — a seller who didn’t want to admit he was a seller. The admissions committee had pegged the boy as someone they were going to admit. Yet decisions couldn’t be announced till the end of March. In the meantime, they didn’t want some other school to grab him first. It wasn’t a cruel tease, it was an act of preemption.