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:
- Acknowledging the offense
- Explaining what happened
- Communicating feelings such as remorse, shame, humility, and sincerity
- 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.
Read more on writing effective apologies in the chapter "Write Apologies to Mend Fences and Support Relationships" in my book, Business Writing With Heart.
How do you feel about the Johns Hopkins incident?