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Lesson in UCLA error: Make sure that acceptance letter is for real.

UCLA has already apologized for mistakenly notifying 894 wait-listed college seniors that they'd been admitted. It's not the first or worst such case, and it won't be the last, say experts.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / April 11, 2012



Los Angeles

“Once again, congratulations on your admission to UCLA,” read an e-mail this week to 894 high school seniors, advising them of financial aid awards.

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The problem was that the seniors had been formally wait-listed.

While the e-mail went on to say “we hope that this information will assist you in making your decision to join the Bruin Family in the fall,” the error was discovered when the students called the school to ask why the e-mail then directed them to an online link to a financial aid letter that said clearly that they were on the waiting list.

So what happened here?

Education experts say the episode is indicative of a new era in which universities are increasingly inundated with student applications made easy by the Internet. The UCLA error is neither the first, nor the worst, nor legally actionable, the experts say. It is human error and likely to happen again.

The lesson, they say, as hard as this may sound at this time of year, is for students to open their college acceptance letters with a healthy dose of practical skepticism.

“We realize this is a particularly anxious and stressful time for students and their families as they try to make decisions about college admissions,” read a UCLA statement apologizing for the error. “We sincerely apologize for this mistake that may have led some of them to think they were admitted when they remain on the waiting lists.”

Experts say such episodes occur often enough that students should be wary and double-check before they discard some of their second and third choices.

“Colleges are complex places, database-wise. Many systems, interconnected, with several points of contact along the way. Some systems and functional areas talk easily with one another, others, less so,” says J.D. Ross, communications director for the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, who has been a higher-ed administrator since 2006. “This is an issue everyone in higher-ed is very aware of and we watch for it – it's something we take very seriously. No one wants to be in the media spotlight for ruining the day for hundreds or thousands of prospective students.”

Mr. Ross says the number of affected UCLA applicants is small compared to previous gaffes – which included UC San Diego, which sent out 28,000 admission notices in 2009 to students who were actually rejected. In 2010, US Santa Barbara erroneously told 60 applicants they were in the next fall’s class, when they were only on the waiting list.

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