As the leaves start turning green and the air becomes fragrant with pollen, final college admissions decisions begin to roll out. This can be both a joyous and difficult season, depending on the outcome. Students spend months crafting their college applications and, regardless of insightful essays, stellar GPAs, and high test scores, many students still receive letters with that fateful line: “We regret to inform you…”
When I was a kid, we characterized college-decision season as “the long walk to the mailbox,” because, believe it or not, decisions were not received electronically. I would see my teenage neighbors excitedly run and fling open their mailboxes looking for “the large envelope.” The large envelope contained the coveted acceptance letter as well as glossy brochures detailing the next steps to start their brand new lives. Other students would approach the end of the driveway gingerly as if opening the mailbox too quickly would awaken sleeping spirits if they found the infamous “small envelope.” You know, the envelope containing one thin piece of paper that always began with the insincere words of regret that you were denied admission.
During my time working as a college counselor at a private high school, one of the most difficult things I witnessed, besides the “rejection tears” in my office, was seeing how kids were terrified to celebrate their success, for fear of the reactions from those who didn’t get the outcome they wanted. One year, there was a student who would bully her peers so severely when they were admitted into a particular popular highly selective public university, students would refuse to post their joy on social media or even tell their counselor when they were admitted, because they didn’t want to face her wrath.
Earlier in my career as a college admissions officer, I would take call after call with parents who couldn’t comprehend why ANY school would reject their child. They demanded to know, in detail, everything that kept them out. Rejection is tough for EVERYONE. Especially when it comes to college rejections, because they feel so personal. You put in the work for years, getting that varsity letter, winning that concerto competition, becoming class president, and filling bags at the food bank. You stayed up until dawn, solving complex equations, writing literary analysis, and memorizing formulas. The toughest Random House publisher could have easily accepted the final draft of your essay. And, your teachers wrote you the kind of recommendations that will get them a thank you in your Academy Award acceptance speech. You checked all the boxes. Nevertheless, some college “regretfully” informed you that you didn’t make the cut.
Take it from me, that rejection has nothing to do with who you are as a person. The most important takeaway from this blog is to remember it is NOT personal. Many colleges have limited spots and thousands of excess applications. They each have unique university goals for admitting particular students in a specific cycle, which often has nothing to do with GPAs, test scores, or resumes. Think about auditioning for a choir. You may be a soprano who could rival Renee Fleming, but, if last year, they filled all of their soprano spots and they only have room for altos THIS year, you’re out of luck. I know when they “regret to inform you,” a wave of self-doubt crashes over you. All of a sudden, you feel like you aren’t good enough. But, I am here to tell you that you ARE good enough, you WILL be successful, and you WILL have a phenomenal college experience. Your rejection isn’t personal; it’s just business.
It may not seem like it now, but it will be ok. Trust me, in a few years, you will be able to write what I call a “Dear Misplaced Dream” letter. And, let me tell you, it feels terrific. How do I know? I WAS REJECTED TOO!
Remember me? I was the girl from Marietta, Georgia, who applied Early Decision on October 26, 2003. (Just so you know UVA, my birthday was October 25, so I spent my 18th birthday obsessing that your application was perfect.) From the moment I stepped onto your campus in Charlottesville, I fell in love both with The Lawn and my tour guide, Harvey, who wore an orange tie covered in the UVA insignia. I wrote a fantastic essay about the 4th movement of the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings. I’m sure by the end, your eyes welled up with emotional tears from my self-proclaimed Pulitzer-worthy prose. I had the GPA and the SAT score. My grandmother couldn’t have written more beautiful recommendations, and my extracurricular and humanitarian accomplishments could have rivaled Gandhi (at least in my 18-year-old mind).
And guess what, you rejected me.
I went through my specific college rejection stages of grief. First, denial. Surely this must have been some horrible mistake! I was so dramatic about the whole scenario that my father told me I was missing my calling as a soap opera star. Then, anger. Every navy and orange article of clothing in my closet, regardless of whether or not it had that smug Wahoo’s face on it, went directly into the trash. Finally, depression set in. I will never forget how my Dad caught me trying to donate my beloved violin to Goodwill, because what was the point? Surely some other kid would learn to play it better than me and be admitted to UVA.
And yet, guess what happened? My life didn’t end.
Only a few days later, while I was drowning my sorrows in a large order of McDonald’s french fries, my mother came down and told me that there was something for me up on the family computer screen. I sulked up my staircase and saw what looked like a letter on the desktop. In the top left-hand corner, I spied the Old Well Logo emblazoned in beautiful light blue. My heart caught in my chest as I dared to read the first line:
I didn’t need to read anything more. I started running around the house, screaming! The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wanted ME! I was going to be a Tar Heel! I quickly replaced the bare space in my closet previously reserved for navy and orange with Carolina blue. I immediately rescued my violin from the pile of misplaced dreams of Wahoos, living on The Lawn, and what’s his name with the orange tie.
My life wasn’t over. Nope, my life was just beginning!
So UVA, here’s the deal. We packed up our SUV that fall and drove from Marietta to Chapel Hill. I met my best friends. I replaced my suitcase full of city-artistic black clothes with pastel polos and Ray Bands. I learned to love (I mean really really love) basketball. I became a Kappa Kappa Gamma and found sisters I never knew I had. I did an honors semester in England. I learned that I’m NOT an artist but more an art historian. And, I loved UNC so much that I became a tour guide, which led to my future career in admissions. I cried like a baby when I took off my cap and gown four years later as I got in the car to drive to my new home in Texas.
In short, I had the perfect (for me) college experience. I now plaster my car with national championship bumper stickers (04, 09, and 17), my wifi network is #GDTBATHxxxx, which means it’s a “Great Day To Be A Tar Heel.”
So, thank you, UVA. Thank you for rejecting me. Thank you for making me the person I am today. I wish I could send you a fruit basket. Honestly, the Harry & David kind! Your decision at the pinnacle of my senior year in high school was the best rejection I’ve ever gotten.