UF was Ryan Lott’s dream school.
The then-17-year-old New Jersey high school senior was one of 30,800 who applied for a spot with UF’s class of 2019. To separate himself from those students, he sent an admissions officer a dozen red roses and about eight chocolate chip cookies, which cost $30. He also sent a $25 T.G.I. Friday’s gift card.
A few weeks later, he was accepted to UF.
Each year, more students apply to Florida’s top colleges, but roughly the same number are admitted. To stand out from other applicants, students send food, flowers, jewelry, photo albums and videos to admissions officers.
On Friday, UF invited 13,624 students to join UF’s class of 2020. With more than 32,000 applicants, the school’s acceptance rate went from 44.4% for the class of 2019 to 42.5% for this year’s admits.
Lott, now an 18-year-old UF exploratory freshman, said he thinks his odd gifts to admissions officers helped him get accepted to UF.
“I was a little nervous, definitely. It’s tough to get into from the New Jersey area,” he said.
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Dacia Bowra, a UF admissions officer for the last 10 years, said gifts don’t affect applicants’ chances. When UF is sent small items, such as flowers and food, they are put out for the entire office. Items of greater value, such as gift cards or jewelry, are sent back.
But despite this policy, she said she’s noticed more students like Lott trying to stand out in one way or another.
Once, a student sent her an orange and blue chair after being told there was a limited number of seats available at UF.
“He said that he won’t take up that much space,” she said.
Another student sent in a Wheaties box with his picture on the box and quotes about how great he was, she said. The box’s nutritional information showed the student’s’ academic record.
Letters of recommendation are another way students try to diversify themselves from others, Bowra said. Parents will have senators and state representatives write letters. But they’ve gotten other letters as well.
“There was a letter of recommendation from a dog,” she said.
It’s also common for students to send in treats, such as jam, apple butter and cookies, she said.
What Bowra remembers most, she said, is one student who sent cookies to the office every month for about five months.
But UF isn’t the only school to receive odd gifts from prospective students.
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At the University of South Florida, David Lee Henry, the admissions director since 2010, said he hasn’t seen students send much more than photo albums.
“There’s traditionally a lot of creativity that goes into these photos and albums,” he said.
The albums are usually painted green and gold with the USF bulls symbol on top, he said. But unlike admissions officers at other Florida universities, he said USF has seen less of these gifts in the past two years.
“They’re just really trying to sell the fact that ‘I’m a bull, I bleed green and gold,’” he said.
At the University of Central Florida, the admissions department receives yellow and black photo albums, with pictures of high school students dressed in UCF clothes, said Gordon Chavis, the vice president of admissions.
He said he remembers one student who wanted to study photography sent a picture of herself dressed up as a knight, UCF’s mascot.
UCF’s admissions have gotten more competitive, he said, and students have tried to make them stand out because of that.
“I think they try to emulate whatever they think the institution wants,” he said. “If you really want to impress us, send us black and gold.”
He said one student sent enough Papa John’s pizza for the entire admissions staff — about 75 people, to boost his chances.
“Over the years, they just kind of blur,” he said.
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Even with elaborate gestures, some students can’t face their rejections. It’s a day that Maureen Yeung, a UF admissions officer, doesn’t look forward to.
People will drive to UF after decisions come out, she said.
One student, after being denied admittance, stood outside the office of a former admissions officer, holding a sign up to her window, Bowra said. The sign read, “Please admit me.”
A few parents have even moved to Gainesville, she said, taking a staff job at UF in the hopes there is a preference for children of faculty and staff. But there isn’t.
Parents have also offered to pay in full for their child’s tuition if admitted, Bowra said.
“There’s a gentleman from New York who offered to pay all four years of tuition right now,” she said.
Students have also forged a letter of admissions to get in, Yeung said. When students receive their admissions letter, their friends who weren’t accepted will change the name on the letter and call admissions saying they were accepted, but haven’t received admissions materials.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.