A year after a technical glitch erroneously told 76 Early Decision II applicants they had been accepted into Vassar, the Office of Admissions released its digital decision letters this past Friday, Feb. 1. This time, a network of programming safeguards ensured a similar mistake would not occur.
In the hours before reading her decision, Elliot James of Gilbert, Arizona, was not expecting good news.
“I was dead sure I was going to be rejected,” said James in an emailed statement. “There was no hope–I couldn’t allow myself even one tiny iota of hope, lest I’d let it crush me entirely when the time came.”
So when she read her acceptance letter, preparing to see the words “unfortunately,” but instead finding a “congratulations,” she was certain there had been a mistake.
The Early Decision II letters for the Class of 2017 were posted online without any mishaps, unlike the Early Decision II letters for the class of 2016.
Last year’s mistake was caused when, as a test, a generic acceptance letter was put up online before the decisions went live. This letter was mistaken for the actual decision letters which told some students that they had been accepted, but also told others that they had been deferred or denied admission.
Within half an hour, 122 of the 254 students who applied ED II saw the test letter (The New York Times, “For Some Vassar Applicant, Joy Then Misery as College Corrects Mistake”, 1.28.12).
The college notified all applicants of their real admissions decision only a few hours later. Later, in a gesture of apology, the College refunded the $75 application fee for all students who had been misled. Vassar also offered to contact colleges from which students had retracted their other applications.
“We understand how very upsetting this is for those students who viewed the inaccurate decisions that we posted online, and we are very sorry to have added to the overall stress of the college admissions process for these students and their families,” said President Catharine Bond Hill in a statement at the time (NBC New York, “Dozens of Vassar College Applicants Mistakenly Get Admissions Letters”, 1.30.12).
The debacle was a national story and brought unexpected attention to the school.The Washington Post offered the headline “Vassar Accidentally Accepts Students.”
The literary journal McSweeney’s published a satirical letter of condolence “penned” by President Hill, which at one point says, “You are young, and there is ample time for you to regroup, to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I can be anybody I want to be, except a Vassar alumnus/a.’”
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid David Borus now says Vassar has transitioned past that incident. Early admissions this year was up over 8% from the previous year.
“We have now gone through three additional cycles of posting decisions (regular decision in March, ED I in December, and ED II last week),” said Borus in an emailed statement, “and all has gone quite smoothly.”
For this he applauds the work of the Computer Information Services (CIS).
Shortly after the incident, Director of the Administration Information Services (AIS) Elizabeth Hayes met with her colleagues, a group of programmer analysts, to discuss what could be done. They drew up a list of measures that would prevent last year’s type of mistake, which is admittedly scarce, from happening again in admissions or any other department.
AIS purchased new hardware that separates out test code from production code. Then an automated system performs an additional check, again sifting for test code that slipped the server.
“That can’t happen anymore, but it [the automated system] still checks,” said Hayes.
Humans are screening for mistakes, too. Programmers peer-review each other’s code, and, as a final line of defense, the programmer who enters the code into production is never the same one who wrote it.
Hayes framed these changes as part of a basic responsibility between a service provider and the recipient.
“We sit with our costumers, our departments,” said Hayes, “and we evaluate every single step of that function of the code to make sure what they’re asking for is what they’re going to get and what we provided is what they’ve expected.”
She said she and the AIS call the administrative departments they help “customers,” not because they contract out their work, but because they want to provide excellent customer service.
She described the new changes in an email, “We have implemented a rigorous change management process to all the code that we write.”
Meanwhile, dozens of students who were applicants last week have joined the ranks of the Class of 2017.
Xiangyi Tan from Hefei, China, was also accepted through Early Decision II. She wrote in an emailed statement that when she read her decision letter at 5 a.m. in the morning, she screamed so loud her mother thought she had fallen out of her bed.
When asked why she decided to apply to Vassar, Tan explained, “Vassar is more of a character than other schools. I especially admire its accepting, free artistic environment and its focus on multidisplinary studies. It’s my top choice.”
Although hundreds of spots for those who applied regular decision remain unfilled, the Office of Admissions is already satisfied with this years’ pool of applicants.
“This year’s early decision applicant pools in both the first and second rounds were very strong,” said Borus. “We feel that the early decision process has resulted in an excellent base on which to build the rest of the Class of 2017.”
James, however, doesn’t see herself as special. “I certainly do not feel unique or interesting let alone even a smidgen talented, intelligent, or worldly,” she wrote. Instead, she considers herself a normal suburban teenager.