In the spring of 1994, I cried over being denied admission at Northwestern and Columbia … and three other elite universities. A close friend, trying to comfort me, only made me sob harder by saying: “Rejection builds character.”
She was right, though. Nearly three decades later, I trace so much of who I am, and the career I’ve built, to that awful week, when thin envelope after thin envelope kept arriving in our family’s mailbox in suburban New Jersey.
I ended up on a campus just 30 minutes away. Because Rutgers was huge, there was this need to prove myself, quickly define what I stood for, and distinguish myself from the crowd. I look back and realize the string of rejections left a bit of a chip on my shoulder and forced me to compensate for a lack of pedigree. This (constant) hustle proved invaluable in both traditional career ascension and my more recent entrepreneurial endeavors.
Over the last few weeks, millions of high school students learned their own college admissions fates. These days, the good news or bad news lands via a password-protected portal on a phone or laptop. That’s not all that’s changed: It’s harder than ever to get into a selective college or university. Harvard admitted a record-low 3.19% of all who applied; Bowdoin admitted 9%.
The trend line, ironically, comes as enrollment at U.S. colleges is plummeting. Meanwhile, employers, facing labor shortages, dangle six-figure offers and training programs to high school graduates. Such economics and efficiency are especially appealing to low- and middle-income families looking to bypass rising college tuition and student debt.
So while guidance counselors and private admissions experts characterize this year’s record low acceptances as a bit of a “bloodbath” for the Class of 2022, the big-picture is much more nuanced. The stats prompted me to turn to experts in college admissions to ask their advice when things don’t quite work out. What words do they have for those, like me once upon a time, crestfallen at rejection? And what does this all mean for the future of work?
Three books proved invaluable in my crash study of modern-day college admissions. They are:
Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions by Jeffrey Selingo
The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make by Ron Lieber
Valedictorians at the Gate: Standing Out, Getting In, and Staying Sane While Applying to College by Becky Munsterer Sabky
Don’t take rejection personally
Here’s a secret from Sabky: As an admissions counselor at Dartmouth, she was often more impressed with the students denied entry. “College admissions officers make business decisions based on what’s best for the college,” she says. “These decisions are not personal and an admitted student is no more ‘impressive’ than a denied student.”
This idea was reiterated by Lieber, albeit more bluntly: “It’s not about you. It just isn’t.”
Most experts agree that record numbers of applications (hastened by test-optional policies) mean that there is simply no way for overwhelmed admissions offices to take the time students’ applications actually deserve.
“Yours maybe got 8 minutes of their time and 2 minutes in a committee room, if they discussed you at all. They may have rejected you for any reason at all,” says Lieber, “or none whatsoever.”
For many, the uncertainty continues.
Anecdotally, according to experts, this year also resulted in a very high number of students on wait lists. Because of pandemic-era uncertainty, and also factors like the cost of attendance, admissions officials are trying to protect what’s known as “yield”: the number of students admitted who choose to attend. Amid so much uncertainty (take your pick: Covid, the war in Ukraine, rising prices, families’ own precarious economic situations), universities are pushing students onto wait lists to see what their incoming classes will actually look like before committing.
It’s why you might have a teen get into Yale but rejected from Vanderbilt, or into Cornell but waitlisted at the University of Michigan. Thus, declining enrollments and rethinking the value of a college degree do still have an effect on even the most elite universities. Tufts University had its most selective year on record with a 9% admissions rate (consider in 2001, the first year it notified students of results electronically, it was 20% ). Admissions dean J.T. Duck tried to explain the ever-changing calculus of college admissions: “Given last year’s strong positive response to our offers of admission, we have made slightly fewer offers this year and hope to be able to admit some outstanding students from our wait list in May.”
The waiting game is tough. But look at it another way: The graduating classes of high school and college have experienced unprecedented uncertainty in their young lives. The resulting resilience is a major asset for us who get to hire them into our workplaces.
Focus on your character, not just for admissions, but for life
It’s the first question Hafeez Lakhani, founder and president of Lakhani Coaching, a college admissions prep and consulting firm, asks clients: “How are you doing in cultivating a fulfilling high school career?”
There’s often confusion. Fulfilling to whom? Admissions officers? Parents? “Then you see their eyes open up because they realize you must be fulfilling to you first. Then others will notice,” Lakhani says.
That’s not to say that those rejected from their dream schools had no character. Hardly. But for both those who got in and didn’t, it’s solid advice to spend some time, whether through the next month, the next year, the next four years, figuring out your “character story,” as Lakhani calls it. The question of what you stand for is a query of life’s every turn: to get into classes, clubs, grad school, jobs, the boardroom.
As I’ve written over and over, a sense of purpose is what young workers most value in their jobs right now. A college rejection might have just been the gift that forces you to hone yours.
Consider taking a gap year
Where to find that purpose? Lieber devotes an entire chapter specifically to the gap year, assuring readers that time spent working, making music, traveling or volunteering “might help you get a better job someday.”
Research has shown that gap-year students get in less trouble, are more likely to graduate on time, and have higher GPAs, which in turn can lead to stronger job opportunities, he writes. And gap-year students can have life-changing experiences and stories to share with prospective employers.
On message boards and college admissions list-servs, I am increasingly seeing families say their children will take the gap year to work and save up money for college. Others report their children are burnt out from the pandemic and want to recharge via travel or time with family before throwing themselves into another educational setting with all its intensity and uncertainty. This represents a potential boon for employers seeking long-term interns or other talent.
Get excited about the options you do have.
Of all the books I’ve combed through on education and workplace readiness, Selingo’s stands out as a must-read. He did not respond to a request for comment but I revisited his words on this issue of rejection. On page 245, he assures families that graduates of so-called elite schools versus state universities are barely distinguishable.
“The differences between what happens to the graduates of Rice (ranked 16th by U.S. News), the University of Rochester (ranked 29th), and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (ranked 48th) are subtle at best,” he writes. “For forty years, top-ranked institutions have sold us on these distinctions, telling prospective students and their families that the brand name on the degree is what matters most when it comes to success after college … For economists, it’s a much more nuanced answer than before: majors and skills might count for more in the job market than the college itself.”
An Association of American Colleges and Universities survey on what employers want underscores his point; the survey finds that a breadth and depth of learning are key to success. Companies hire with an eye toward skills, internships, and the ability to work in teams.
Bottom line: You’re going to be fine.
We will not achieve workplace equity via the Ivy League
Another workplace effort coincides with record-low acceptance rates at elite institutions: a rethinking of elite institutions themselves. For ages, the best internships went to students and graduates of top-20 colleges. Over the last few years, though, diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts have extended to the source of recruitment and looking beyond the Ivy League. As this essay argues on the need for thinking more creatively during a tight labor market: “Your next great hire is graduating from a community college.”
Parents, it’s time to parent! Focus on the next four years not the last four.
We spend so much time focused on college admissions, which boils down to a single moment informing a student of a yes, no, or maybe. What if we focused instead on how to make high school, to use Lakhani’s word, as fulfilling as possible? What if we focused on the reality of many colleges (or even a gap year) being a perfect fit for the road ahead? Or what if we just focused more on the road ahead?
“A rejected student is still as bright, talented, and full of potential as he was before the rejection,” reminds Sabky. “If we teach our young people that they are no ‘less’ because of a rejection (and no ‘more’ because of an admission), it can remind them that what matters most is not the name on their college sweatshirt, but who is wearing it.”