The Old College Try

May 9, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Rejection is tough.

About a month ago, high school seniors heard from the colleges they’d applied to. There were a lot more rejections than acceptances. That’s just the math. This year’s seniors are the product of a birth-rate peak in 1990, and not only were there more kids, but each kid was sending out more applications – not to three or five schools but to a dozen. The numbers are especially daunting at the elite schools. Harvard and Yale had more than ten applicants for every place.

How do you deal with that kind of rejection? At my son’s school (one of New York’s selective public schools), they have a Wall of Rejection – a wall in the main lobby where kids tape their rejection letters.

Apparently, other schools do something similar. At Newton South in Massachusetts, it’s called the Wall of Shame. Bad choice of names. In fact, it should be the Wall of No Shame. When you see all those letters, you come to understand that there’s no shame in being rejected. Disappointment, yes, but not shame. It’s one thing to know in some abstract way that others have been rejected. But seeing the evidence of specific cases –“Omigod, Eric got rejected??” – provides more real comfort. Those rejection letters of the standout students make your own seem less stigmatizing.

One student even created a customized Harvard rejection letter for himself.*
(Click on the letter to see it in a readable size.)

He’s kidding, of course, about his own qualifications.

On the downside, only a day or two after the Wall of Rejection went up, some kids started wearing t-shirts or sweatshirts from the colleges where they had been accepted and would be going in the fall. If you were rejected from Brown (as it seems just about everyone was), you don't want to walk down the hall and see a kid wearing a Brown t-shirt

*The print in this picture may be too small to read, though if you click on the image, you may be able to get a larger version. The letter says in part,
What were you thinking? There is no way I would EVER offer you admission to the class of 2012. Over twenty-seven thousand students, a record number, applied to the entering class. A great majority of the applicants could have been successful here academically, and most candidates presented strong personal and extracurricular credentials as well. You, however, had no business applying here. Your grades are terrible, your scores were awful, and your extracurriculars were non-existent.

Harvard is out of your league, kiddo. Get over it.
And under the signature
P.S. If you appeal this decision, apply for a transfer, or apply for grad school here, I will hunt you down.


tina said...

When I got my first tenure-track job, I handed the (enormous) pile of rejection letters I had amassed to a grad student friend of mine who would be on the market the next year. While I expected it to be helpful for her, I found that handing those off was surprisingly empowering for me, too.

Anonymous said...

I'm so afraid of those letters... The white clean smooth rejection... I'm so afraid. 4.1 GPA and I seriously have my doubts. I feel like crying just thinking about it... *Chews nails*