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About That Email by Chris Peterson SM '13

an error, and an apology

February 5, 2014

Earlier today, Kris blogged about financial aid information we need from our early admits and current applicants. Shortly thereafter, we sent an email to these students with this information as well.

We use MailChimp to send emails to prospective and admitted students. MailChimp requires that, in the footer to each email, we include a line explaining to the recipient why they received the email, to help them distinguish desired email from spam.

The footer to that email, as all emails before it, should have said this:

You are receiving this email because you applied to MIT and we sometimes have to tell you things about stuff.


But what it actually said was this:

You are on this list because you are admitted to MIT! (/^▽^)/


Here’s what happened:

We have two (well, more than two, but only two matter here) lists in MailChimp for any given admissions cycle: a list for admitted students, who receive updates specific to their admitted status, and a list for applicants, who receive updates about the ongoing cycle. All admits are applicants, but not all applicants are admits.

Earlier today, I was working with a colleague to clean and consolidate these lists. Cleaning means removing students who have expressed a preference to no longer be emailed by us (by marking messages as spam, by withdrawing their application from MIT, by instructing us that they do not wish to receive email or phone calls from our office, etc). Consolidating means synchronizing the preferences across the two lists so they are both up-to-date.

Usually we do this by deleting and remaking lists. However, this time we tried the recommended MailChimp technique of combining lists. The expected outcome of this approach is that all student accounts in the list are updated to reflect the most recent expressed preference without having to delete and remake lists such that you risk losing important preferential data.

However, there is also an (apparently) undocumented side-effect, which is that combining also imports the footer notice from one list to the other, in this case from the admit list to the applicant list. In other words, it replaced one line, in small print, at the bottom of the email, after we had already (extensively) drafted, reviewed, and approved the text of the email itself. We never even knew.

When I was your age I applied to ten colleges. Eight of them were elite liberal arts colleges. Two of them were safety state schools. I would have gone to any of them, but I only wanted to go to one of them. I loved it. I loved everything about it: the campus, the location, the tradition, the people. It as the only place I was really, legitimately excited to go.

One day, in April, I got a thin envelope in the mail from this school. It was addressed to Christine Peterson Fitzpatrick, and it informed me I – or she, or someone – had been denied entry to their school.

I called the admissions office, hoping that surely there must have been some mistake. No no, they told me; the letter may have been a mistake, but I was most definitely rejected. And they didn’t even apologize for the misprint.

I have never forgotten that. I was rejected from seven of those ten schools, but that letter hurt the most, not only because it was my first choice, but because the mistaken identity added insult to injury. It made me feel like they didn’t even care.

Almost ten years later I know better. I know that the admissions officers at this school care. I know how complex a communications project at this scale can be. It’s so easy to make a simple mistake. And yet it still hurts when I think about it. And it crushes – crushes – me to think that I might have unintentionally inflicted something similar on some of you.

So, that’s what happened. I’ve fixed the footer in MailChimp. If you are an early admit, you have everything you need. If you are a current applicant – deferred EA, or current RA – you should expect your decision in March, precise date TBD.

My guess is that overall a very small number of our current applicants even noticed this; I didn’t even know until someone pointed me to the MITCC thread about it. But any number of people getting this kind of mixed signal is too many. I’ve been on that side and I know how it feels. And if you’ve now felt it too, in part because of me, I’m so, so sorry. If you want to talk, post below or send me an email.