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Johns Hopkins’ Apology: How It Fell Short

You may have read The Washington Post story about Johns Hopkins University sending early-acceptance emails to 294 students who had not been accepted. Here’s the story in brief:

Nine of the 294 students had already received deferrals to the regular admission process (not early acceptance), and 285 had already been denied admission. Unfortunately, a contractor company, ApplicationsOnline, used an incorrect email list and welcomed the 294 applicants with a joyful 144-word email whose subject was “Embrace the YES!” According to The Washington Post, it began:

Dear ______, [with the student’s first name]

Welcome to the Class of 2019! We can’t wait for you to get to campus.

Until then, as one of the newest members of the family, we hope you’ll show your Blue Jay pride.

The acceptance email went on to talk about the cool communications in the student’s future:

You’re among the first with the right to use #JHU2019. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are waiting for you. (And so are we! We’ll be collecting your tweets, updates, and photos to share with the whole JHUniverse.)

Then, hours later, came the second rejection, with the subject “Apology for Email Error”:

Dear ________, [with the student’s first name]

Earlier today, you may have received an email from us with the subject line: Embrace the YES!

Please note that this email was sent in error.

The decision posted on the decision site reflects the accurate result of your Early Decision application.

We regret this technical mistake and any confusion it may have caused.

The Office of Undergraduate Admissions
The Johns Hopkins University

Is that 54-word apology sufficient? No, it’s a mechanical, hasty message sent out quickly to correct an error.

Having recently gone through the college application process with my daughter, I can imagine how some of the misinformed students may have felt: confused, guardedly excited, and eventually heartbroken–again. After all, this was their second rejection email from the prestigious JHU.

In his excellent book On Apology, Dr. Aaron Lazare, retired dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, identifies four parts of an effective apology:

  1. Acknowledging the offense
  2. Explaining what happened
  3. Communicating feelings such as remorse, shame, humility, and sincerity
  4. Making or offering reparations

The Johns Hopkins “apology” falls short in all four parts.

1. It barely acknowledges the offense. The sentence “Please note that this email was sent in error” does not accept blame for the erroneous email or acknowledge its potential harm.

2. It does not explain what happened.

3. It falls short in communicating feelings. The words “apology” in the subject and “regret” in the email do not communicate sincerity or remorse. In contrast, David Phillips, vice provost for admissions and financial aid at Johns Hopkins, told The Washington Post:

We apologize to the students affected and to their families. Admissions decision days are stressful enough. We very much regret having added to the disappointment felt by a group of very capable and hardworking students, especially ones who were so committed to the idea of attending Johns Hopkins that they applied early decision.

That kind of language should have been in the apology–not a perfunctory “We regret this technical mistake.” The mistake was much more than technical in its possible hurtfulness.

Also, the apology should have come from Mr. Phillips or another person in charge of the admissions process–not from the faceless Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

4. It makes no reparations. Granted, real reparations would be difficult if not impossible to make. But a sincere, complete, contrite apology would have gone a long way in repairing the relationship.

According to The Washington Post’s reporting, other colleges have made similar mistakes in welcoming students who were then barred from admission: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Fordham, Vassar, and University of California at Davis. Perhaps universities (and their contractors) ought to follow Santa Claus’s behavior of “Making a list, checking it twice” before sending out emails broadcasting acceptance.

And when they make a mistake, college admissions departments (or their contractors) should put more thought and heart into their apologies to students and their families.

How do you feel about the Johns Hopkins incident?


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

8 comments on “Johns Hopkins’ Apology: How It Fell Short”

  • As a parent of one of these students, I know that my son was very hurt when he got rejected a second time. He was also further embarrassed by having to call friends and relatives to tell them that he didn’t get in after just telling them the opposite. He also had to remove Facebook posts about his acceptance. In addition he lost two days of preparing other applications because he wasn’t ready to deal with the admission process after receiving the JHU emails.

    I was very upset that Johns Hopkins never really apologized for the mistake. I assume that the same contractor who made the original mistake was the one who sent the poor apology letter. At first, all I wanted to see was an apology similar to what you described in your article from a proper school official, but after thinking about it for several days, I believe that the application fee should also be reimbursed since the school didn’t handle the application process properly.

    It’s a shame that JHU has made a bad situation worse with their insensitivity. Talking only through the media when pressed is not a way to make amends. Maybe they should also refund the JHU gear that my son purchased since he won’t wear any of it again.

  • Hi Lynn,

    I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog for about a year now and have learned a lot! Please know that the college and hospital are named after their benefactor, Johns Hopkins. The pesky s on Johns is often left off. 🙂 Happy holidays!

  • Hi Lynn, I agree with your sentiments on their apology falling short in the worst way, in all four parts. You wrote a beautiful explanation that begs to be shared. I also agree that the admission fee should be refunded as a way to make reparation to the affected students. Thanks for your informative and useful blog – I always enjoy seeing it in my inbox.

  • On one hand, I’m not sure the university had much of a choice. They couldn’t realistically have granted any resolution that would have made the students any less disheartened. It’s an unfortunate mistake, but a mistake nonetheless.

    On the other hand, this event merely highlights the high disregard with which many medical schools hold applicants. The admissions process has cultivated a tradition of “circus shows” that put aspiring medical students on the center stage.

    For example, they couldn’t even muster the decency to send an individual letter to each candidate – instead they gave the job to an outside party. Furthermore, when did email become the standard of formal communication? It costs less than $1 to print/sign a letter (with postage). If that amount of money is an issue, the school has bigger financial troubles to deal with.

    In short, it was a blatant display of unprofessional conduct.

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