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Never mind: 'Big mistake' cited as USF St. Pete takes back 430 admission letters

The university says "human error" in the admissions office resulted in 680 applicants receiving an acceptance email while only 250 of them have actually been admitted. The rest are still under review.

Samantha Santos was scanning groceries at Publix on Saturday when her phone buzzed from beneath the cash register. It was an email congratulating her on admission to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Elated, the 17-year-old Pinellas Park High School senior quickly told a coworker, then called loved ones to share the good news. But all the excitement died an hour later, when the university sent a second note: "There was an error in the system. Please disregard the previous email."

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About 430 other soon-to-be high school graduates across Pinellas County had the same experience, according to the university. "Human error" in the admissions office resulted in 680 applicants receiving an acceptance email while only 250 of them have actually been admitted and the rest are still under review, said chancellor Martin Tadlock.

"We regret it," he added in an interview. "We pride ourselves on our relationship with the community, and this doesn't represent that. It was an error and a mistake."

Santos compared the ordeal to a roller-coaster, calling it "heartbreaking" for her and so many others in the Class of 2019.

"I get that mistakes are made and everybody makes mistakes, but this is kind of a big mistake," she said. "It's like playing with everybody's future."

According to university spokeswoman Carrie O'Brion, a staff member wrongly thought a spreadsheet of applicants' names had been sorted to include only those admitted. Instead, everyone on the list — those admitted and not — was included on the first email sent out.

Now, the university is in the process of contacting each of the recipients of the mistaken email to answer questions and "discuss possible pathways for admission" in the future, she said. Meanwhile, staff is working to ensure a glitch like this never happens again.

Tadlock noted that admissions at USF are rolling, meaning the affected students could still be accepted in the coming months. But that's little comfort for many, like Izaiah Harris, 17, who have important, time-sensitive choices to make about the future as graduation draws closer.

He tried to find out more Saturday by calling the admissions office to inquire about the conflicting emails. But the man who answered simply told him there was a glitch in the system and to check his application status online. When Harris did, nothing was there.

Now, he plans to skip the school day at Pinellas Park High on Monday so he can meet with someone at USF to figure out where his application stands. He would do it later in the day, but those hours are already filled with extracurriculars and dual-enrollment classes at St. Petersburg College, he said.

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"I'm really confused and time is running out," Harris said, adding that he was shocked at the lack of detail in the second email. "This is throwing my plan off because there are decisions I need to make."

Both he and Santos are in the criminology program at Pinellas Park High and hope to continue those studies in the four-year criminology track at USF St. Petersburg. If that isn't going to work out, they each need a backup plan.

While Santos is disappointed by the university's mix-up, it's still her No. 1 choice for college. She applied knowing her test scores were lower than the average for acceptance but decided to try anyway.

"Getting the acceptance email fulfilled my dreams," Santos said. "When I received the second email, it was like my dreams were crushed."

For now, all she has to go on is an online application status that says "under review."

Contact Megan Reeves at Follow @mareevs.