MIT sent an email to applicants last week about financial aid with a line at the bottom that read: “You are on this list because you are admitted to MIT!"
For prospective students already accepted through MIT’s early action program, the line was simply part of a routine missive. But for the many applicants still awaiting a final admissions decision in March, those 11 words may have raised false hopes of entry into one of the world's top higher education institutions.
It was not immediately clear how many students received the message in error. But the gaffe prompted an apology from MIT's admissions office and an explanation how the mistake occurred.
“My guess is that overall a very small number of our current applicants even noticed this,” Chris Peterson, an MIT admissions counselor who handles web communications, wrote on an admissions office blog. “But any number of people getting this kind of mixed signal is too many.”
He said the error occurred after admissions staff tried to consolidate email lists of both applicants and admits using a technique recommended by the email marketing service provider MIT uses, MailChimp.
“However, there is also an (apparently) undocumented side-effect … it replaced one line, in small print, at the bottom of the email, after we had already (extensively) drafted, reviewed, and approved the text of the email itself,” he wrote. “We never even knew.”
The "footer" of the email sent to applicants still awaiting a decision from MIT should have said: "You are receiving this email because you applied to MIT, and we sometimes have to tell you things about stuff."
Peterson said admissions staff noticed the error after some confused applicants began posting questions about the email on a college admissions forum website.
In the comments section of the MIT admissions office blog post, many said they hadn't noticed the line at the bottom of the email and most said they forgave the school for the error, especially in light of the apology.
"From the time I read that footer yesterday until reading this post just now, I was a limbo of confusion," said a comment from the username Jack Fossen. "Now I'm just a little bummed, but oh well. Thank you for explaining the error so promptly."
Another commenter said they were glad they saw the blog post apology before the read the email's ending.
"Thank God I didn't notice that footer," wrote username Danish. "I might have died from a heart attack seriously!! (O_o) And don't worry Mr. Peterson, you didn't do that purposely. Everyone does mistakes and this post of yours shows how much you regret this one."
A comment by the username Corey Cook joked: "I was hoping that admissions was trying to send some subtle hints about being accepted, but I guess we'll have to wait until March to find out. Haha."
The email, even if inaccurate, is still a point of pride, said another comment.
"I'm happy to say that I received an email telling me that I was admitted to MIT, even though it was a mistake," the comment from username Monica said.
The errant email was first reported on by The Tech student newspaper.
Peterson can sympathize with any applicants who were alarmed. He wrote on the MIT admissions blog that when he was applying to colleges, his top choice school sent him a rejection letter addressed not to him, but to “Christine Peterson Fitzpatrick.”
He said seven of the 10 colleges he applied to rejected him, “but that letter hurt the most, not only because it was my first choice, but because the mistaken identity added insult to injury. It made me feel like they didn't even care.”
“Almost ten years later I know better,” Peterson continued. “I know that the admissions officers at this school care. I know how complex a communications project at this scale can be. It's so easy to make a simple mistake. And yet it still hurts when I think about it. And it crushes -- crushes -- me to think that I might have unintentionally inflicted something similar on some of you.”
“I've been on that side and I know how it feels,” he added. “And if you've now felt it too, in part because of me, I'm so, so sorry.”