meIn the spring of 1994, I cried because I was rejected from Northwestern and Columbia…and three other elite universities. A close friend trying to comfort me only made me cry more when he said, “Rejection builds character.”
But she was right. Nearly three decades later, I trace so much of who I am and the career I’ve built to that fateful week when thin envelope after thin envelope kept arriving in our family’s mailbox in suburban New Jersey.
I ended up at a campus just 30 minutes away. Because Rutgers was huge, there was this need to prove myself, quickly define what I stood for and separate myself from the crowd. I look back and realize that a string of rejections left something of a tap on my shoulder and forced me to make up for my lack of pedigree. This (constant) hustle has proven invaluable in both traditional career advancement and my recent entrepreneurial endeavors.
Over the past few weeks, millions of high school students have learned their college admissions fate. These days, good or bad news lands through a password-protected portal on your phone or laptop. That’s not all that’s changed: it’s harder than ever to get into the college or university of your choice. Harvard accepted a record low 3.19% of all applicants; Bowdoin admitted 9%.
Ironically, the trend comes as US university enrollment is plummeting. Meanwhile, employers facing labor shortages are offering six-figure deals and training programs to high school graduates. Such economy and efficiency are especially attractive to low- and moderate-income families looking to sidestep rising tuition and student debt.
So while counselors and private admissions experts are calling this year’s record-low admissions a bit of a “bloodbath” for the Class of 2022, the big picture is much more nuanced. The statistics prompted me to reach out to college admissions experts for advice when things weren’t going well. What words do they have for those who, like me once, were crushed by rejection? And what does all this mean for the future of work?
Three books proved invaluable in my rapid study of modern university admissions. These are:
Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside Admissions College by Jeffrey Seling
The Price You Pay for College: An All-New Plan 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 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 who were denied admission. “College admissions officers make business decisions based on what’s best for the college,” he says. “These decisions are not personal, and an accepted student is no more ‘impressive’ than a rejected one.”
This idea was echoed by Lieber, albeit more bluntly: “It’s not about you. It just isn’t.”
Most experts agree that the record number of applications (accelerated by test-optional policies) means there’s simply no way for overworked admissions offices to take the time students actually deserve.
“Yours may have had 8 minutes of their time and 2 minutes in the board room, if they discussed you at all. You may have been turned down for whatever reason,” says Lieber, “or whatever.”
For many, uncertainty continues.
It is unusual that this year, according to experts, there is also a very large number of students on waiting lists. Due to uncertainty during the pandemic, as well as factors such as the cost of attendance, admissions officers are trying to protect what they call “yield”: the number of admitted students who choose to attend. Amidst so much uncertainty (take your pick: Covid, the war in Ukraine, rising prices, uncertain economic conditions for families), universities are pushing students onto waiting lists to see what their incoming classes will actually look like before they commit.
So a teenager might get into Yale but get rejected from Vanderbilt, or Cornell but be waitlisted at the University of Michigan. Thus, declining enrollments and a rethinking of the value of a college degree continue to affect even the most elite universities. Tufts University had its most selective year on record with an acceptance rate of 9 percent (take 2001, when the first year it notified students of results electronically, it was 20 percent). Dean of Admissions JT Duck tried to explain the college’s ever-changing admissions calculus: “Given last year’s strong positive response to our admissions offers, we made slightly fewer offers this year and hope to be able to accept some outstanding students on the waitlist in May.”
The waiting game is hard. But look at it another way: High school and college graduates have experienced unprecedented uncertainty in their young lives. The resulting resilience is a huge advantage for those of us who employ them in our workplaces.
Focus on your character, not just for admission, but for life
That’s the first question Hafeez Lakhani, founder and president of Lakhani Coaching, a college admissions prep and consulting firm, asks his clients: “How are you doing in creating a fulfilling high school career?”
There is often confusion. Fulfillment to whom? Admissions officers? parents? “Then you see their eyes open because they realize that you have to fulfill yourself first. Then others will notice,” says Lakhani.
This is not to say that those who were rejected from their dream schools lacked character. Barely. But for both those who got involved and those who didn’t, good advice is to spend some time, whether it’s in the next month, the next year, the next four years, figuring out your “character story,” as he calls it. Lakhani. The question of what you stand for is a question that comes up at every step of life: getting into classes, clubs, graduate schools, jobs, the boardroom.
As I’ve written many times before, a sense of purpose is what young workers value most about their work right now. College rejection might just be a gift that forces you to perfect yours.
Consider taking a break
Where to find this purpose? Lieber devotes an entire chapter specifically to the gap year, assuring readers that time spent working, making music, traveling or volunteering “will one day help you get a better job.”
Research has shown that students experience fewer problems during their senior year, are more likely to graduate on time and have higher grade point averages, which can lead to better job prospects, he says. Students who take a gap year can have life-changing experiences and stories to share with future employers.
Increasingly, I’m seeing families on message boards and college admissions lists saying their kids are going to take a gap year to work and save money for college. Others report that their children are burned out by the pandemic and want to recharge with travel or time with family before throwing themselves into another educational environment with all its intensity and uncertainty. This represents a potential advantage for employers looking for interns or other long-term talent.
Get excited about the options you have.
Of all the books I’ve combed through on education and workplace readiness, Seling’s stands out as a must-read. He did not respond to a request for comment, but I revisited his words on the rejection issue. On page 245, he assures families that graduates of so-called elite schools are barely distinguishable from state universities.
“The differences between what happens to Rice graduates (ranked 16th in American 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, highly ranked institutions have been selling us these honors, telling prospective students and their families that branding on a degree is the most important thing when it comes to success after college… For economists, this is a much more nuanced answer than before: majors and skills can be they count more for the labor market than the faculty itself.”
A survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities on what employers want underscores his point; research finds that breadth and depth of learning are key to success. Companies hire with an eye on skills, internships and teamwork.
Bottom line: everything will be fine.
Equality in the workplace will not be achieved through the Ivy League
Another workplace effort is coinciding with record low acceptance rates to elite institutions: rethinking elite institutions themselves. Students and graduates of the top 20 faculties have always received the best practices. In the past few years, however, diversity, equity and inclusion efforts have expanded to source recruiting and look beyond the Ivy League. As this essay argues about the need for more creative thinking in a tight job market: “Your next great hire is a college degree.”
Parents, it’s parenting time! Focus on the next four years, not the last four.
We spend so much time focused on college admissions that it boils down to a single moment when we let a student know with a yes, no, or maybe. What if instead we focused on how to make high school, to use Lakhani’s word, like fulfills as much as possible? What if we focused on the fact that many colleges (or even a gap year) are perfect for the journey ahead? Or what if we just focused more on the road ahead?
“The rejected student is still as bright, talented and full of potential as he was before the rejection,” Sabky recalls. “Teaching our young people that rejection makes them no ‘less’ (and not ‘more’ for acceptance) can remind them that what matters most is not the name on their college shirt, but who wears it.”