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Apply Here—Please!

The good news is that my son, a high-school senior, did well on his college-entrance examination. The bad news is that, when we were signing him up for the exam, I listed my e-mail address instead of his.

I was trying to spare him from being inundated with recruiting e-mails. And I suppose I did. Instead, my inbox was the one flooded with, in some cases, dozens of e-mails each day.

On the bright side, I learned a lot about college recruiting that I didn’t know. Although I’ve been a professor for 26 years, and served as an administrator of some sort for 20 of those years, I’ve never been involved with the recruiting side—except for the years I spent as a basketball coach, but that’s a different sort of recruiting. Feel free to insert your own snide remark here.

The most interesting thing was how similar all the e-mails were, whether from flagships or regionals or small liberal-arts colleges or near-Ivys. I was also fascinated to note how the e-mails morphed, collectively, over time, as deadlines approached and then passed—or perhaps I should say, how the subject lines morphed, because I didn’t read very many of the e-mails.

I should also probably add that my son decided some time ago where he wanted to go, so he wasn’t really open to recruitment. I did forward a few of the e-mails that I thought might interest him, but, for the most part, I simply read the subject lines and then deleted them.

When I say that the subject lines morphed, I mean that they changed over time in terms of message and tone. At the beginning (immediately, I suppose, after his test scores were reported), all of them were intent on piquing his interest. Colleges with name recognition usually went with some variation on “Famous U. wants you!,” while the lesser-knowns tried something like “See what No-Name U. has to offer.” Nearly all of them, I might add, called him by his first name in the subject line: “Daniel [not his real name], did you know that Obscure SLAC has one of the best _____ programs in the Southeast?”

When a couple of weeks went by and he hadn’t responded, the subject lines took on a slightly puzzled tone: “Daniel, we haven’t heard from you!” “You must not have gotten our last e-mail.” “Is this your correct e-mail address, Daniel?” (Just wondering: What if they did have the wrong address? How is he supposed to answer that? “No, it isn’t”?)

With application deadlines approaching, the next round of e-mails began to sound a little desperate. “Only two weeks left to apply, Daniel!” “Daniel, the deadline is approaching!” “Are you trying to tell us you aren’t interested, Daniel? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?” OK, none of them actually said that, but a few pretty clearly implied it.

Then, as the deadlines came and went, the tone became more conciliatory, maybe even a little pathetic: “Did you forget to send your application, Daniel?” “Deadline extended!” “A special deadline extension just for you, Daniel!”

I understand that the business of recruiting students these days is as competitive as the business of getting into a top college is for the students themselves. I also know that, while my son could probably get into most of those colleges, there are probably a few he couldn’t get into, and they know it. They’re hoping to get him to apply specifically so they can reject him, because we all know that “elite” status relies heavily on how many, and whom, you turn away.

Fortunately, he has already been accepted by his top choice, so we have the luxury of observing all of this as mildly interested spectators. Or rather, I’ve had that luxury. My son is pretty much oblivious. And you know why? Because that wasn’t the correct e-mail address.

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