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Column: My college applications and the dreaded thin envelope

Nowadays, college admissions offices notify applicants whenever they feel like it, mostly in March. Many of them send emails instead of letters. What this means is that high school seniors who have applied to those schools can find out on their laptops or smart phones where they will or will not be spending the next four years.

It used to be that colleges sent these notices by regular mail for delivery on April 15. Back then, of course, there was no email. Applicants hoped for thick envelopes, enclosing forms for admitted students to fill out and return. The dreaded thin envelope meant you weren’t going there.

Every April, I think back to my college application experience. I applied to three colleges, but two of them didn’t really count. I was going to Yale because the Leahy brothers from Claremont had gone there, and I wanted to be like them.

Things didn’t go exactly according to plan. Along with many of my Stevens High School Class of ‘57 classmates, I awaited the mail’s arrival on April 15. In mid-March, however, my third-choice school, apparently trying to get the jump on the competition, mailed out its notices. Mine arrived in a very thin envelope. Rejected!

I went to see the principal, “Doc” Lord. He told me not to worry. “You’ll get into Yale,” he said confidently, “and that’s where you want to go anyway.”

“That’s true,” I replied, “but I’m not off to a very good start. I’ve been turned down by my ‘safety’ school, and I’m not feeling very safe.”

He offered to make a phone call to see why that particular college hadn’t seen fit to take me. The next day he told me he had spoken to the admissions officer, who said they had given my application careful attention but decided their school wasn’t my first choice, and they preferred to admit students who wanted to go there, meaning not Yale.

“He did say they would take another look at your application, “Doc” Lord told me. “But don’t worry,” he added, “you’ll be going to Yale.”

Around the end of March, the school that had rejected me, the one that wasn’t either my first or my second choice, sent me another thin envelope.

“It’s too thin to be an acceptance,” I thought to myself. “They can’t reject me twice, can they?”

I discovered that there is a third possibility. The letter said, “We have reconsidered your application and congratulations, you’re on the waiting list.”

I didn’t give that particular school any further thought. I was going to Yale, after all. It was really just a formality, waiting for confirmation on April 15.

That date fell on a school day, and when I got home for lunch there were two thin envelopes on the front hall table, one from school number two and one from Yale. Both letters said the same thing – you’re not in and you’re not out.

So there I was on three waiting lists with no place to go. I waited some more, 73 days to be exact.

On June 27, 1957, my older sister and I were preparing to leave for upstate New York, where we both had jobs at a summer camp. We packed her car after breakfast, and then I said, “Let’s wait until the mail comes.” She didn’t have to ask why, and neither did my parents.

We waited a couple of hours until the mailman appeared at our front door. He handed me one thick envelope and two thin ones. School number three, the one that had rejected me in March, was the thick one. College number two said no, and so did Yale. So much for “Doc” Lord’s assurances and following in the footsteps of the Leahy brothers.

“I’m going to Brown,” I announced, and off we drove.

Joseph D. Steinfield is a partner is the Boston law firm, Prince Lobel Tye LLP. He lives in Boston and Jaffrey.

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