Harvard acceptances trashed by AOL

David Abel
Boston Globe
Dec. 27, 2001 06:30:00

For thousands of college applicants this fall, the news from Harvard was the most anticipated e-mail of the year: Did they get in or not? But someone forgot to tell America Online.

The nation's biggest internet serivce bounced back dozens of e-mail messages sent by Harvard to its early applicants this month - deleting the big news as junk mail.

"This wasn't exactly the instant response we intended," says William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College.

After anthrax cast a pall of uncertainty over the US mail system, Harvard College this fall sought a quick, surefire way of informing applicants about whether they had been admitted, deferred, or rejected.

Following the lead of other schools, admissions officials decided to use e-mail to notify nearly all of the 6,000 students who applied in the early-admissions process this year.

For reasons that AOL officials couldn't readily explain, the Internet-service provider blocked between 75 and 100 of those e-mails earlier this month because the servers identified Harvard's messages as "spam," part of the crush of annoying junk mail that bombards almost every e-mail user.

"We fight a daily battle against spam at the server level, where we filter it out," says Nicholas Graham, an AOL spokesman. "Spam is our No. 1 problem. But it's hard to say what would have caused the system to filter e-mail from Harvard."

This isn't the first time AOL deleted mail sent by an educational, medical, or other large nonprofit institution. Sometimes, because of certain characteristics of messages, such as the size, quantity, or address, the servers automatically block certain e-mail from reaching its destination, Graham said.

The delayed notification turned out to be more of a nuisance for Harvard than the students who applied.

When nearly 100 applicants didn't hear from the college at the appointed hour, most just picked up the phone and called the admissions office to find out whether they were accepted.

The vast majority weren't. Harvard admitted 1,174 students, rejected 191, and deferred 4,677 for the regular admissions process, which ends in the spring.

To correct the problem with the school's first experiment in instant notification, admissions officers plan to post a prominent note on the college's Web site, alerting students to make sure their servers don't block e-mail from Harvard. The university also sends a letter in the U.S. mail, as it always has.

Unlike other schools, however, Harvard doesn't plan to set up a special Web site for applicants, one in which they could log into with a special code to find out whether they were admitted. That, admissions officers say, would be too much of a target for enterprising hackers.

"We're learning from our mistakes," Fitzsimmons said.



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