Cole Bettles had been rejected by a raft of universities when he received an e-mail from UC San Diego on Monday congratulating him on his admission and inviting him to tour the campus. His mother booked a hotel in San Diego, and the 18-year-old Ojai high school senior arranged for his grandfather, uncle and other family members to meet them at the campus for lunch during the Saturday orientation.
"They were like, 'Oh, my God, that's so awesome,' " Bettles said. Right before he got in bed, he checked his e-mail one last time and found another message saying the school had made a mistake and his application had been denied.
In fact, all 28,000 students turned away from UC San Diego in one of the toughest college entrance seasons on record had received the same misfired message, raising their hopes only to dash them again in a particularly cruel twist on the perils of instant communications in the Internet Age.
UCSD admissions director Mae Brown called the snafu an "administrative error" but refused to say whether the mistake was made by one or more members of her staff or by a contractor or if those responsible would be disciplined.
The e-mail, which began, "We're thrilled that you've been admitted to UC San Diego, and we're showcasing our beautiful campus on Admit Day," was sent to the entire freshman applicant pool of more than 46,000 students, instead of just the 18,000 who had been admitted, Brown said.
The error was discovered almost immediately by her staff, which sent an apology within hours.
The admissions director, who said she was in the office Monday until midnight answering e-mails and phone calls from disappointed students and their parents, said she took full responsibility for the error.
"We accessed the wrong database," Brown said. "We recognize the incredible pain receiving this false encouragement caused. It was not our intent."
All applicants were notified by e-mail weeks ago that admissions decisions were available online, according to UCSD officials, but Bettles said he was unaware he'd been rejected.
"It was really thrilling for a few hours; now he's crushed," said the young man's mother, Tracy Bettles. "Unless you have a high school senior, or remember what it's like, you don't know. It's really tough on them."
Schools such as Cornell University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Northwestern University's prestigious Kellogg School of Management have made similar admission notification blunders in the last five years, but UC San Diego's mistake was by far the biggest.
Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said colleges are concerned about the dangers of e-mail notifications but believe the benefits outweigh the risks.
"This is a source of constant worry at colleges. They use extremely sophisticated systems of communication from the front end of applications all the way to alumni relations for all kinds of high-stake business, and bad things can happen all the way," he said.
Within moments of receiving the erroneous UC San Diego e-mails, students were abuzz on sites such as Facebook and College Confidential. In their posts, some students were hopeful that the university had changed its mind; others thought the e-mails must be bogus.
When the apology hit their inboxes later in the evening, their posts turned scornful over how the university could make such a massive goof. Some proposed jokingly that all who received the e-mail should show up en masse at Admit Day.
Many California students were already struggling to cope with what appears to be a particularly tough year for college admission, especially at the state's public universities. Facing budget cutbacks, both the University of California and California State University have capped enrollments for the fall. UC San Diego reduced its freshman enrollment target by 520 students, to 3,775, Brown said.
Aakash Agarwal of San Jose said UC San Diego had been among his top choices, but he was not surprised when he was rejected weeks ago because of the stiff competition. He said he laughed in surprise when he received the e-mail on Monday.
"I was thinking maybe they changed their mind in terms of admitting me," said the 17-year-old senior at the private Harker School . But he checked the admissions website "and sure enough, I was still rejected."
"These kids are sitting on the edge of their seats waiting" to know what colleges they will get into, said Teri Kuwahara, director of the college and career center at Palos Verdes High School. Kuwahara said one of her students, after receiving the first UC San Diego e-mail on Monday, went out to dinner with her family to celebrate, then returned to find the second message wiping out her chances.
"The wrong click of a button could affect a lot of people very quickly," she added.
Morgan Currier, a senior at the Cleveland High School humanities magnet in Reseda, said she had already decided to attend the University of Washington when she received the congratulatory e-mail. She checked her page on the UCSD applications portal and learned her status hadn't changed, so she called the admissions office to get the straight story.
"We got the answering machine with a message left over from Christmas, saying 'Happy Holidays,' " said Currier, 18, of Northridge. "This is a prominent UC, and they didn't seem to have their act together."
Currier said UC San Diego was the dream school for two of her friends who received the university's welcome e-mail. "When they got the apology, it was just like getting rejected again," she said.