Between the evening of March 13 and the morning of March 14, eight Duke University Medical School applicants received the news they had been waiting for -- they had been accepted.
The only problem was, they hadn't.
A computer error mislabeled the admissions status of eight applicants for a period of less than 24 hours, falsely notifying them that they had been accepted to the fifth-ranked medical school. The school returned their status to pending when it caught the mistake the next morning.
Seven of the eight applicants called the admissions office the morning of March 14 to check whether the acceptance was valid, said the medical school's director of admissions, Brenda Armstrong. The school informed them that such notification was not official, and that formal acknowledgment of their status would only come through a signed letter in the mail.
Arta Lahiji, a University of California at Los Angeles graduate and one of the mislabeled applicants, said Duke was one of her top choices and that she checked her admissions status at the site every day. The night of March 13, after receiving what she thought was an acceptance from Duke, Lahiji withdrew herself from consideration at two of the other medical schools to which she had applied<and all such withdrawals are final.
Lahiji said she too called the office the next morning, but not because she was waiting for an official letter, which she said she never knew was the school's only form of official notification. Lahiji has since called and written the school numerous times requesting information and a re-review of her application.
"It's been an emotional roller-coaster," she said. "What they did was wrong. Even if they made that person celebrate for just a day, even if they made that person tell their family for just a day.... I want them to make sure something like this does not happen again."
Armstrong said the school had clearly communicated to applicants<through the website and through a signed acknowledgement<that only a signed letter was final notification. She also said the computer system that posts acceptance status will be overhauled, as it is almost every year, so such a glitch likely will not happen again.
The website posted a notice reminding applicants that while all admissions decisions will be posted on the web site by March 22, no decision is official until applicants receive a letter of acceptance signed by the Dean of Admissions and the medical school dean. Armstrong said this disclaimer had always been posted, but Lahiji said it was not put up until a week after the error.
"Students must take some responsibility in the application process," Armstrong said. "So if the process doesn1t work, students need to take responsibility in realizing this and acting accordingly."
Association of American Medical Colleges Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Robert Sabalis responded to an e-mail Lahiji sent the AAMC. According to his e-mail to her, he reviewed the case and stood by Duke's decision.
"While you were incorrectly informed of an 'accept' status at Duke on its website, you were also informed that this notification was erroneous as soon as possible after the error was found," Sabalis wrote. "Duke has apologized for this error and provided a second review of your application by personnel who were unaware of the controversy surrounding your situation. It appears that neither the first nor second review of your application has resulted in a favorable decision by the Duke Admissions Committee."
Lahiji, who has been accepted to several other medical programs and is currently planning to attend the University of California at San Diego Medical School, said she still wants Duke to consider her as an applicant.
"As much as this incident hurt me, I feel like what Duke did does not invalidate their academic reputation," Lahiji said. "It's always been a dream school to me."
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