Letter to Princeton Admissions -- One Applicant Draws a Line in the Sand

Letter to Princeton Admissions --  One Applicant Draws a Line in the Sand

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 Editor’s note: One rite of passage in early Spring is the arrival of college admissions acceptance or rejection letters. For commentator Stephen Fong -- a senior in high school in San Francisco who is waiting to hear on his applications to Ivy League universities – one school has lost its luster.

SAN FRANCISCO -- This week high school seniors like myself will learn whether we have been accepted or rejected by the universities we dream of attending. Before those thin rejection or plump acceptance letters arrive, I need to share what happened to me when I applied to Princeton University. I call this my Open Letter to Princeton's Admissions Office and publish it in the hope that students who come after me will be forewarned -- and that Princeton as one of the nation's most prestigious schools will reform its application procedures and avoid degrading student applicants who want nothing more than to be taken seriously.

As an Asian American, I applied to Princeton because of its strong East Asian studies department and its historic ties to Beijing University where I also hope to study some day. Having grown up on the West Coast, I also welcomed the opportunity to study in the East Coast and learn a new culture. So I was excited when I received an email on January 29 from the person who was to conduct my formal interview. He asked me to meet him at a trendy cafe named The Grove on Chestnut Street at 11 a.m. on Saturday, February 9.

I arrived early and sat at a table to wait, looking up whenever a new customer entered. But my interviewer never showed up. At first I thought he was simply looking for a parking place or was just running late. After waiting an hour, I realized he was not going to come. The waiters saw me constantly scouting out the restaurant and gave me eggs and toast free of charge. I left baffled over how Princeton could have simply made a mistake. The email notifying me of my interview had made clear this was a crucial part of the admissions process. Did this mean Princeton had decided not to consider me as an applicant? Was I just not worth the time it would take for the interview?

As a high school student, I spent the rest of the weekend wracked by self doubt. By Monday, however, I decided to complain to the admissions office itself. I sent an email to the Dean of Admissions, dated Feb. 11, asking for a clarification of their policies regarding undergraduate admission interviews. The admissions office called me the next day to ask what I wanted. Once again, I requested they send me the rules governing admissions so I could understand how to proceed. I explained that I wanted to correspond through emails rather than phone calls to avoid any "he said/she said" dilemmas. I also mentioned how students in San Francisco each year receive a student hand book that spells out our rights and responsibilities and the consequencies of breaking rules. Wouldn't Princeton be governed similarly in its behavior toward applicants?

On Feb. 13, I received an email from the no-show interviewer asking to meet and explaining (but not apologizing) that he had "forgotten" about my interview. He also informed me that since the deadline for submitting his recommendation was the following Monday, we had to meet right away or I would risk jeopardizing my application to Princeton.

Suddenly, it seemed, I was the one to blame. I wrote to the admissions office on Feb. 14 explaining my dismay and again asking for formal guidelines. The next day the college counselor at my high school took me out of class to inform me that "someone from Princeton" had started calling the school. I also learned that person had left messages on my home phone. Now, I felt as if my privacy had been violated.

The next week the president of the Princeton alumni association for Northern California emailed me to set up a new interview with her before Mar. 3. I also received an email from the original interviewer that seemed to trivialize the entire affair: "As previously noted, the 'interview' is an informal chat for you to ask questions about the Princeton experience. Also, as previously noted, the lack of an interview was entirely my fault and will have no adverse impact on your admissions application."

If it was not important, I wondered, why pressure me for another interview?

On March 1, I finally received an email from the Dean of Admissions that there are no "bylaws.” To me that means there's no transparency governing the admissions process. Princeton gets to choose the applicants they like and that's that.

I still hold Princeton University in awe as an institution of learning and I still aspire to attend. But Princeton should know that when there are no formal protocols for applicants like myself to follow, it's hard not to assume that acceptance or rejection is simply the result of someone's personal whim. And student applicants who read this should also know that when we are disrespected in applying to a college, no matter how prestigious, be prepared to draw a line in the sand.