College Rejection Doesn't Have to Mean Frustration

Students can do a great deal, both before and after applying, to ensure that they maintain their sanity, embrace colleges' decisions, and actually increase their chances of getting into their favored schools.
12/13/2014 01:03 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2015

Two years ago, Pittsburgh-area high schooler Suzy Weiss became the Rebecca Black of college admissions: an earnest teenager unwittingly, and perhaps unflatteringly, thrust into a spotlight.

But whereas "Friday" was all in good fun, Weiss' Wall Street Journal op-ed "To All the Colleges That Rejected Me" expressed publically how tens of thousands of high school seniors feel: that the brutality, and opacity, of the admissions process all but negates their sincere efforts to do well in school and develop their talents.

Weiss' lament, then, is not unique. But it is, perhaps, best left for the dinner table, over a meal of, as Weiss herself admits, "sour grapes."

As colleges once again reveal their early action and early decision acceptances this week, many students are probably reliving Suzy's frustration. Fortunately, students can do a great deal, both before and after applying, to ensure that they maintain their sanity, embrace colleges' decisions, and actually increase their chances of getting into their favored schools.

Know the Odds
Plenty of ink has been spilled over the infinitesimal admission rates at the most selective colleges. Due to the size and quality of the talent pool overall, there's little reason for any applicant to prima facie assume that he is going to beat those odds. A 10 percent admission rate means a 90 percent rejection rate. Applying to three schools 10 percent admission rates doesn't result in a 30 percent chance of acceptance. These numbers are daunting, to say the least. But I'd rather that students be sobered at the beginning of the process, and make smart choices about where to apply, than be disappointed at the end.

Understand the SAT
Suzy revealed that she scored a 2120 on the SAT. Strong as it is, this score put her below the median of successful applicants at some of the colleges that rejected her. Based on SAT's alone--and admission is never based on SAT's alone -- Weiss was not an outstanding candidate. Even students with stratospheric SAT scores face acceptance rates that are only a few percentage points higher than for the applicant pool at large. The acceptance rate for Princeton's class of 2018 applicants with 2300+ was only 14 percent.

Understand What 'Holistic' Means
College insist that they review applicants "holistically." It's a confusing notion, but it's an important one. Strong grades and test scores are crucial, of course. But highly selective colleges consider teacher recommendations, application essays, activities and extracurricular accomplishments, sense of humor, ethical perspectives, and, to Suzy's seeming chagrin, ethnicity and socioeconomic status -- among many other things. Admissions officers are human beings with plenty of inscrutable foibles and preferences. Often, they might not even know what they're looking for. Some of the most compelling applicants come with entirely unexpected interests and personality traits. In other words, "holistic" can sometimes mean "random."

Respect the Competition
Weiss' flippancy about not founding a charity or "having two moms" belies the fact that many kids these days do come from remarkable backgrounds and can lay claim to incredible accomplishments that they have pursued sincerely. They are published authors. They have made medical breakthroughs. They have filed patents. They have won nation music competitions and debate tournaments. Several of my students were, like Weiss, pages in the U.S. Senate. Many of these students rendered me impressed and humbled, and I'm sure they had the same effect on admissions officers. They deserve no derision and no second-guessing.

Be Modest
High schools are small places. Everyone knows who the academic superstars are, and those superstars deserve to be proud of themselves -- as did Weiss, with a 4.5 GPA. But there are over 40,000 high schools in the United States. Each of those schools has its superstars and local heroes. Each one has to be prepared to become anonymous the moment he or she submits an application. Regardless, modesty is as much a virtue now as it ever was. If a college has to choose between a braggart and an equally qualified worker bee, the worker bee will get the nod nine times out of ten.

Seek Counsel
Weiss' most sympathetic lament is that she was "lied to" about the nature of meritocracy and the rewards of hard work. Weiss may be right. But it's rarely the colleges that do the lying. Colleges publish their statistics and do their best to explain their processes of evaluation. If Weiss has a quarrel, it should be with anyone-parents, friends, teachers, and even college counselors-who failed to tell her the odds, explain the strength of the competition, and prepare her for the reality of college admissions.

Dream of an Education, Not of a School
I'm wary of the tendency for students to so firmly attach themselves to a single faraway place that they lose perspective, raise their stress, and, ultimately, come off as so anxious that they actually undermine their chances of admission. (Imagine the rec letters for the student who must, must, must go to Harvard?) Moreover, it's not a great idea to pin a dream on the whims of distant, anonymous decision-makers. Smart, ambitious students can find happiness and success in a thousand different places. Students shouldn't "dream" of a specific school. They should dream of getting a great education.

For Suzy and her many counterparts this year, I can promise one thing: the sting of rejection will fade. Good kids will get into great schools, make close friends, have a ton of fun, and learn more than they can ever imagine. When they line up at the dining hall this fall, they won't find sour grapes anywhere on the menu.

A version of this essay appeared on ArborBridge's blog.