The mistake affected 61 applicants for undergraduate spots at Delaware, who logged on Friday afternoon to the university's portal, My Blue Hen Home.
"I'm grateful that it's not more, but for those 61 kids, it's pretty horrible," said Louis Hirsh, director of admissions for the university, located in Newark, Delaware. "Parents have been angry, students have been upset and hurt. I'd be angry too."
Hirsh said that the glitch -- which he blamed on "human error" -- occurred Friday afternoon when all acceptance and rejection letters were sent out by regular mail and the online portal went live. "The first page you saw was absolutely correct," he said -- a Web page saying that notifications would arrive by U.S. mail.
But a link for "my invitations" brought students and parents to a page where they could sign up for accepted-students' visits -- and there they saw the happy words, "Congratulations on your acceptance to the University of Delaware."
Trouble was, only those 13,000 applicants who really had been accepted -- out of 24,000 who applied -- should have seen that page. Hirsh said "a chunk of computer code" caused the problem, even though his office had tested the portal again and again before it went live.
The college first realized something was wrong when students who had been rejected started signing up for visits. Over the weekend, they contacted the 12 students who had signed up, then on Monday realized that 61 applicants had been misled. Thirty-eight of them were actually rejected, while the rest were put on the school's waiting list.
Dylan Breger, 18, of Lincroft, N.J., was one of the 38. "That was the school he wanted to go to. We called all the family members," said his stepdad, Brian Beyer, 41.
Their elation turned to uncertainty on Saturday when the "congratulations" link disappeared, and then to disappointment on Monday when they learned the truth.
"It really stunk," said Beyer.
Dylan's mother, Maria Breger, 45, said she was probably more disappointed than Dylan was. "He picked himself up and brushed himself off," she said, and is considering the colleges where he really was accepted: Rider University in New Jersey and West Chester University in Pennsylvania.
The glitch provoked a storm of posts on collegeconfidential.com, where parents and students vent about the admissions process.
"I know you will honor those who registered for your accepted student day, right? The ones who posted on Facebook and ordered hoodies online? The ones whose grandparents cried because they were so happy for them?" wrote one poster. "If not, I'm afraid this might go down as one of the hugest flubs in admissions history."
Unfortunately, Delaware can't honor the false acceptances, said Hirsh, who said he feels terrible. "You get into this line of work because you like students," he said, adding that most families have been understanding.
The lesson that Maria Breger -- who herself works in computer services for a community college -- said she draws from the mistake: "Maybe old-fashioned snail mail is still the best way."