College Spam Mail: A Constant Struggle

Colleges are notorious for sending mail to drum up applications. These administrations claim to recognize your striking uniqueness and value in society. But how well do they really know you?

By Ellen Sheehy

My life changed the day that I took the PSAT. It wasn’t because I got an unprecedentedly amazing score and won a scholarship (I didn’t), or because I got an abominably low score and decided I would clean hotels for the rest of my life (I didn’t), but because I checked the box that allowed colleges to send me information.

I wasn’t instantly aware of the impact it would have on me; I merely reasoned that getting information from colleges might be helpful, and I could unsubscribe whenever I wanted to anyway. Two full months passed by quietly before I started reaping the consequences of filling in that little bubble.

I got the first email in December, from North Dakota State University, and had received fourteen more before the next week. By the time I began unsubscribing, I had lost count, and those colleges had helped me with so much more than I had imagined. I now know not only that they exist, but also that I am incredibly special. Let me explain: those colleges really believe in me. I have many reasons to think this.

For example, more than eleven colleges sent me emails that were almost exactly the same, so it would be easy for me to comprehend them. COVID has been hard, they all began, and changed many things; but one thing hasn’t changed and it is that you, Ellen, are an incredibly gifted student. We want you to succeed in life, so here’s a guide (complete with information about our college and a virtual campus tour) to help you choose the best place for your tertiary education. And hint hint, that place is us!

These colleges also thoughtfully eliminated the necessity of making design choices, as they sent me posters to decorate my room. And clearly, they value me more than the forest because they keep mailing me flyers. Folks, I am worth more to them than a fraction of a tree.

How could I not be certain of my own self-worth when this is happening? Trust me, if you’re feeling at all bad about yourself, just become a junior in high school. “I seek out students of the highest caliber,” Robert McCullough from Case Western Reserve University wrote, “to help them discover which college is the right place for them–and you’re one of the students I’m most interested in contacting.” The Stevens Institute of Technology pleaded, “I’d love to help you find a school as innovative as you are.” But none top the University of Sioux Falls, which announced, “I can see you creating lasting change in the world.” I am a top student, who is creative and is transforming my country. Or so I am told. But how do these colleges know if that’s really the case? The most they could ever find out about my academic performance is my PSAT score, which wasn’t all that wild. And they can’t learn anything about my extracurricular activities. I could be failing all my classes and binge watching Netflix 24/7 and they would be none the wiser, still prattling on about my outstanding accomplishments.

No college can be sure what they tell people about themselves is true. And I know that they’re more interested in my tuition check than they are in me–they have to keep their unique campuses up and running, after all. That’s one reason colleges ask for your ACT score. A This American Life podcast observed that colleges can use it to predict how wealthy you are, and then work it out so students who have more money pay them more. In this light, then, their emails seem a little false. They tell me they value me, but they don’t, at least not very much. To most of them I’m just another twenty-thousand dollar check. And that irks me because I have a philosophy of valuing people that doesn’t match up with what I’m seeing. It doesn’t bother me that I’m not worth much to colleges, but it does bother me that they say I am.

These colleges are flattering me. They send me emails telling me that I’m an amazing person and hope that I will like them for that. But flattery isn’t valuing other people. I believe that the way to show someone that you really value them is to tell them the truth. Think about it: it’s very easy to flatter someone. I could walk up to a person I’ve never seen and tell them a whole bunch of nice things. But in order to tell someone the truth, you have to spend time getting to know them, and most of us don’t try to get to know people we don’t value. Telling the truth (especially if it’s not pleasant) also shows that you care about a person enough to try to help them become a better person, even at the risk of making them angry. If my friend is mean to someone I would tell her that because I like her and I want her to grow in kindness. Once time has passed, she would see that as evidence of my valuing her. Or if my friend does something really amazing, and I tell her, she will appreciate it more coming from someone who knows her well than from someone who doesn’t.

I have a lot of experience with this, but one incident has stuck with me longer than all the others. It was my parents’ anniversary, so my three younger siblings and I were spending the night at my grandparent’s house. While we were there, I made a number of sarcastic and hurtful jokes about my sister. She is very gracious and didn’t say anything to me in response, and I didn’t apologize even though I knew I’d made her upset. My grandma saw all these interactions and pulled me aside. She gently scolded me and encouraged me to be nicer in the future. I think about that at least once a week still, and that was three or four years ago.

The reason my grandma did what she did was because she loved me and my sister. She didn’t want my sister to be hurt, but she didn’t want me to be a hurtful person, either. Telling someone the truth is a sign of valuing them, and if that person really values you, it will eventually mean a lot to them.

Works Cited

“The Campus Tour Has Been Cancelled.” This American Life, 19 Apr. 2021,

Header image courtesy of Jefferson Lines Bussing