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Sunday, January 30, 2011

On Getting the Call: Telephoning Accepted Veterinary College Applicants

by Donald F. Smith, Cornell University, January 30, 2011

Ninety-five year old Dr. John Murray’s voice quivered as he told me how he was informed of his acceptance at Cornell’s veterinary college in summer 1935. He had traveled to Cornell to meet the dean a couple of months earlier and was awaiting the college’s decision.

Time went on and I didn’t hear anything. I had given up hope of being admitted when, along in July, I saw my Dad coming into the tannery where I was working. He was holding a letter, and I knew right then that this was it—it was either yes or no. He handed me the letter and I looked up in the left-hand corner:  NEW YORK STATE VETERINARY COLLEGE. My fingers were trembling as I opened the letter and read those opening lines: 'We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted.'  That letter changed my life forever.
Today’s candidates more commonly receive their acceptances by password-secured e-mail. However, for the last few years I was dean, I personally telephoned as many accepted candidates as I could reach during the week assigned for notification. The surprise and joy at the other end of the line was an experience I looked forward to each year.

Reactions varied, of course. One woman cried for three minutes without uttering a coherent word before she finally decided to hang up. A man was so convinced that I was one of this fraternity brothers playing a trick on him that he shared some unprintable words before he, too, hung up. These were the exceptions, the more common reactions being surprise on being accepted and gratitude on hearing it through personal contact. Together, they created an indelible memory.

When appointed as chair of the Admission Committee this year, I recommended that we reinstate the personal phone calls after a hiatus of three years, and once again I had the honor to share the good news with accepted students.

There are logistic challenges, of course. Placing cold calls reaches only about one-third of candidates on the first try. Exchanging phone messages, especially with students who are working long hours, or in remote places during semester break can be especially difficult. However, it is really quite amazing how they find us, once they know that there has been a call from Cornell.

A personal call also allows an opportunity for a brief initial conversation, with a few expanding to an extensive exchange of questions and answers. The more important benefit, however, is that it opens a line of communication if there are additional questions at a later time.

We are often asked where we were when bad things happen, for example, the Challenger Explosion or 9/11. But why not make a joyous event also memorable? A final-year student wrote to me a few days ago, reminiscing on his veterinary college experiences. He ended with a comment regarding the call he received from me over the Christmas break in 2007.

I can't believe it's been 4 years since you personally phoned on our acceptance, and all of us will probably always remember that day.
Perhaps its hyperbole, but I think we are both richer for that experience.

Dr. Smith invites comments at