How I Obtained Nearly 1,000 College T-shirts
If you’ve known me for more than a few years, you’ve heard my college T-shirt story. It’s one of my go-to stories whenever I’m in a “tell me something interesting about yourself” situation. If they’re still not impressed, I then throw out the fact that I have zero cavities, or perhaps more impressively, that I haven’t thrown up in over 20 years. A Seinfeld-esque streak which I hope to maintain for 20 more.
It started in high school. One of my history teachers would always put together these classroom games in which the winners would get to pick from a box of random prizes. The prize box contained all kinds of stuff: mugs, pens, pennants, and even T-shirts. I noticed that most of the items in the prize box had college logos on them, so out of curiosity, I asked him where he got all his loot. His method was shockingly simple: he’d occasionally e-mail random colleges asking them to donate items for his classroom. He gave me a website which listed the admissions e-mail addresses of all the top colleges in the nation. I jotted down the URL and couldn’t wait to get home and give it a try.
I got home and took a gander at the list of schools. It was massive. 1,700 to be exact. However, I quickly made up my mind: over the course of the next several weeks, I was going to e-mail every last school on that list and request a free T-shirt. And damn it, I did.
Now, I need to set the stage a little bit here. Keep in mind that this little experiment took place in the summer of 2003. DSL internet existed at the time, but unfortunately, my parents were still on dial-up. And not that fancy-schmancy AOL service, either. Nope, our internet service provider was Walmart Connect. Walmart Connect? Yes, Walmart used to have its own dial-up service and it was called Walmart Connect. My e-mail address was firstname.lastname@example.org. Embarrassing, right? Anyway, the internet speed was clearly going to be a major hurdle.
As I pondered how I wanted to go about tackling this gargantuan task, I wanted to do whatever it took to get the best results. I wasn’t interested in pens and mugs. I wanted T-shirts, and lots of them. Sending out requests for free shirts in a massive bulk e-mail was not going to fly, as I figured it would look too spammy. These requests needed to be personalized and sent individually. I drafted up the body of the e-mail in Word, basically saying how I was a prospective college student who wanted to gather a few shirts and wear them around to promote their school. I included my mailing address and noted my shirt size.
- Open a “new e-mail” window.
- Type “Hello” as the subject.
- Navigate to the database, click the name of the school, find the admissions e-mail address and copy/paste it into the “To” field of the e-mail.
- Copy/paste the body from Word into the e-mail.
- Navigate back to the database, copy the name of the school, and paste it in the greeting above the body (e.g., Dear Abilene Christian University:)
- Press Send.
I listed the above steps to give you an idea as to how long this process actually took. Each step seems minuscule, but when you’re working on a dinosaur of a PC with each webpage click taking 10+ seconds to render, it really adds up. I would usually sit down and just hammer them out in stages, typically at a clip of about 60 E.P.H. (e-mails per hour). You could really get into a rhythm, but let me tell you, it was absolutely grueling. You’d have a nice pace going, and then all of the sudden, your brain would just completely forget how to press CTRL + C, CTRL + V, etc. You’d have to stop, regain focus, and try again. It was an absolutely mind-numbing process.
About two weeks into the project, my hard work started to pay off: the shirts were starting to roll in. It started off slow–maybe a shirt or two a day. But one day, it just exploded. I don’t know if all colleges coincidentally chose the same day to start mailing out their crap, but all of the sudden I got about a dozen shirts in one day. The next day, 15. The next, 20. Shirts were coming in faster than I could unpackage them. Our mail lady was pissed. Our driveway was a mile long, and every day for an entire summer, she’d have to drive all the way to our front doorstep and unload armfuls of packages and boxes. But for me, every day was like Christmas morning!
You wouldn’t believe the postage cost on some of these boxes (anywhere from $5 to $15 apiece). My best haul came from Emmanuel College. They sent me a box of ten T-shirts. But these weren’t just any shirts. These things looked like they had been taken right off the shelves of their college bookstore. Very high quality. They were neatly wrapped and still had tags on them, priced at $10 each. What a haul. Emmanuel College was my Moby Dick.
The majority of the schools that sent me shirts were ones that you’ve never heard of. But that’s part of what made it fun. Whenever I’d wear one, people would ask, “Where the heck is that school?” My answer was usually, “I have no idea.” However, there were quite a few big schools that sent me shirts. Some of the bigger schools from memory were Notre Dame, Syracuse, Ohio State, BYU, Michigan State, Utah, Marquette, Indiana, and Pepperdine.
But it wasn’t just T-shirts. Even though I only requested shirts, some schools would also send all kinds of random college paraphernalia: pens, pads of paper, mouse pads, stress balls, pennants, sweatshirts, long sleeve Ts, hats, mints, calculators, key chains, water bottles, even rain ponchos! It was glorious.
That was a magical summer. I’m not kidding, every day for 3 months, something would come in the mail. I had hundreds of shirts: all different colors/designs, and all really unique.
A few more random thoughts before I wrap this post up:
- Many, many other people tried this after seeing/hearing how much success I was having. Every person that I know who tried it enjoyed some type of success. But very few, if any, had the drive (or free time?) to make it through all 1,700 schools on that list.
- People that I didn’t even know heard my story through other people and gave it a try for themselves. I was known as “the T-shirt guy”.
- When a friend or family member would give it a try, sometimes the person in admissions would recognize the city/state in their mailing address and reply back with “Are you the same guy who requested a shirt a couple months ago?”
- When the University of Utah replied to my request, they agreed to send me a shirt, but on one condition: I had to take a picture of myself wearing it and send it back to them. They put me on their website! Pretty cool. It was a really nice shirt, too. Nike, I believe.
- These shirts pretty much made up my entire wardrobe throughout the rest of high school and all through college. Chilly out? No problem. I’ll just throw on this comfy St. Thomas Aquinas College sweatshirt. Chance of rain? Piece of cake. Just let me grab my Point Loma Nazarene University rain poncho.
- On many, many occasions, I’d be wearing a shirt in public and would get stopped by someone. ”Whoa, you went to Loras College?! I was an ’87 grad! Go Duhawks!!!” They were disappointed to hear that I only obtained the shirt as part of an elaborate e-mail scheme.
- I went through the list a second time a couple years later, but only made it about halfway through. A year after that, I went through the list again and made it all the way. Over the course of all three attempts, I’d say I sent about 4,000 total e-mails.
- All in all, I would guess that I probably got between 800-900 T-shirts. I gave most of them away to friends and family. Gave some to Goodwill. Kept my favorites. I still have probably 40-50 of them.
Will I ever try it again? No, probably not. It was extremely time consuming. But what makes a future attempt even more prohibitive is the fact that U.S. News & World Report appears to have changed the layout of their online list of colleges. You used to be able to click on the name of the school and the admissions e-mail address would be front and center. I looked around on their current site, but I couldn’t find any admissions e-mails. There may be other lists out there, but there is absolutely no way you could do this without a really quick way to access a mass list of college e-mail addresses. Having to navigate through pages and pages to find each one would be impossible.
If this little T-shirt project taught me anything, it’s this: sometimes, all you have to do is ask.