You’ve Been Hacked: MIT Apologizes for E-mail Gaffe


A point for print: Even engineers make mistakes. Photo by current MIT student, Noor Titan Hartono.

You might have heard about the recent news involving MIT, an undisclosed (or simply unknown) amount of e-mails, and the small glimmer of hope that a gaggle of teen geniuses clung to as they awaited the arrival of their very own metallic tube. A small collective “yes” may have well traveled the world as both a sigh of relief and jubilation on February 5, 2014. Well, it was quickly and just as equally quashed. And the response, as you might not have guessed, has been overwhelmingly positive. That’s right: No hard feelings.

The dreams of some of this world’s most promising youth down the proverbial drain and they weren’t even paining for revenge (emotional damages or otherwise). Quite the opposite, actually. They were understanding, altogether sympathetic, of those in the admissions office and of one man in particular. Chris Peterson, self-proclaimed “King of the Internet,” had cultivated a genuine rapport with prospective students visiting the well-trafficked MIT Admissions blog. These students were undoubtedly drawn to Peterson’s honest humor and panache. And so when Peterson, himself, could relate to the suffering of the students—having personally been on the receiving end of a similar mishap—something unexpected and amazing happened. Forgiveness.

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 7.05.55 PM

Chris Peterson may very well be the “King of the Internet.”

“I have never forgotten that. I was rejected form seven of those ten schools, but that
letter hurt the most, not only because it was my first choice, but because the
mistaken identity added insult to injury. It made me feel like they didn’t even care.”
–Chris Peterson

One applicant hopeful, Prachi, chalked up the error to an honest mistake—one that any MIT-material student would have the good sense to pardon. Mahdiazhari Austian, too, said it was no big deal. He thanked Peterson for sharing his personal experience with the group. Aarif Khan even went so far as to praise the busy admissions staff in spending the time explaining the issue.

So, how did this happen? And why didn’t we see a drone death strike? Easy: PR 101.

Be Quick: Peterson addressed the student audience immediately and in a space he knew they would congregate and discuss.
Be Transparent: Peterson detailed what went wrong. He took personal responsibility for the error—though not at all his alone—without blaming anyone.
Be Authentic: Peterson shared an anecdote that was personal and highly relevant. The apology was sincere and honest.


7 thoughts on “You’ve Been Hacked: MIT Apologizes for E-mail Gaffe

  1. Its interesting how they send the tube of stuff to the new students. My undergraduate school sent a envelope with the words Congratulations on your acceptance on so you know you got in even before opening it. My Marist acceptance on the other hand never arrived I found out I got in with an email telling me its time to register for classes. It had to be sent out 3 times before I finally got a copy of it ( after my first two weeks of classes). I have also received an error acceptance letter but when I got it I just laughed because I never sent in the application. I had just signed up to the school site to get information on their programs. MIT was not the first school to have this issue and it won’t be the last. I feel bad for the people that do get rejected but it happens with technology.

    • It is interesting, but also completely unique and complementary of the MIT technophile culture.

      Thanks for sharing your Marist experience. Obviously, the error did not dissuade you from attending. Still, as it was a frustrating occurrence, had it at all changed your initial impression of the university?

      • Sorry just saw your response now. No it didn’t because it was around Christmas time and I understood there were more letters and packages out so I figured it just got lost in the mail. At first though I was a little worried that I hadn’t actually been accepted, but then I got another email and called to get the information I needed to register and I was in the system. So at that point I just wanted the letter to have and made a joke of it when it actually arrived.

  2. Great post – I didn’t know that this had happened with MIT. I like the PR101 you added at the end and how it related to what happened.

  3. Unfortunately, a few colleges this year have fallen victim to the release of false admission decisions including Vassar and Fordham. It could happen to any college, and if you’re an admission counselor, this is one of your worst nightmares.

    I think Peterson was really smart about how he responded to this controversy. Most public apologies or statements are over-written, generic and often times authored by a PR professional. It’s such a sensitive discussion and a stressful time for prospective students and families. I’m sure this caused a wave of incoming phone calls/e-mails and Peterson was able to create what seems like a strong and consistent script for those handling the calls to follow. Consistency counts in times like these. Kudos to MIT.

    • I do recall the Vassar mishap, but I was unaware of the same thing happening at Fordham.

      For MIT, Peterson’s apology was personal and real. It was undoubtedly a humbling experience for those “reach” students awaiting a decision and a reaffirming one for those ultimately admitted. While the technological error (do you see the irony?) may have been inevitable, the reaction was uncommon and welcomed.

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