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Articles / Applying to College / Bad Outcomes = Good Lessons

Bad Outcomes = Good Lessons

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Jan. 23, 2014

Starting in mid-December every year, high school seniors begin getting the results of their college applications. December outcomes reflect their Early Action (EA) or Early Decision (ED) applications. Some applicants are elated when they’re admitted. Others are disappointed (or even crushed) when they are denied. A third group is left hanging when their decision is deferred until spring. The group that I’d like to talk about today is the “rejected.” I wrote about dealing with rejection in another article, where I said, in part:

… Getting a rejection letter from a college or university doesn’t make you a bad person. Unfortunately, some high school seniors see themselves in a less-than-positive light when they read the bad news from a highly desired institution.

Dealing with rejection is difficult. Most high schoolers tend to take being turned down by a college or university on a personal level. They seem to think that the letter from the admissions office is really saying something like, “You are deficient and we don’t want to have anything to do with you.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth is that in a lot of cases some rejected students could have done as well, if not better, than those who were accepted. This isn’t a rationalization or sour grapes. At schools where there is a significantly larger number of applications than seats (schools whose acceptance rate is 50 percent or less), there just isn’t room for all the qualified applicants. This fact is borne out by the so-called Wait List. A wait list is a group of “in-betweeners” who haven’t been rejected but haven’t been admitted. They will be offered admission if the number of enrollments doesn’t meet expectations for the incoming freshman class …


I’ve always maintained that things in life tend to work out for the best and that what appears on the surface to be a resounding defeat can actually lead to much better things. The long and winding road of life can take some very interesting and even exciting detours, although while we’re going through those excursions off the Interstate of our plans we most often don’t have the foresight to see any positive outcomes.

My attitude about life’s disappointments is what made a recent article catch my eye. Jeff Selingo is an author, contributing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, and a professor at Arizona State University. Concerning college admissions, he writes in Why a Rejection Letter From Harvard or Other Top Colleges Can Be Surprisingly Helpful that “… for some parents and students today, college admissions has turned into a game, where getting to Go seems to be ultimate goal rather than the education or degree itself.” That’s pure wisdom, in my view. Let’s look a bit deeper into Jeff’s rationale.

In my article about dealing with rejection, I noted:

… One famous dean of admission said that his institution received so many outstanding applications that he didn’t have the heart to send rejection letters. He noted that placing these fine young men and women on the wait list was his way of saying, “We should have admitted you, but we didn’t have room.” Such is the case with many good colleges. Everyone who is good enough to get in isn’t always offered admission …

Selingo comments on the emotions of some applicants and parents regarding receiving bad news from colleges:

… Consider the reactions of a few students and their parents who found out last week that they didn’t get accepted into the University of Virginia, one of the nation’s most elite universities, which accepts fewer than 30% of students who apply. Here’s what one parent wrote on a blog maintained by a senior assistant dean of admissions at the university, which gives outsiders a rare window into the admissions process: …

“As a parent I find myself stunned my daughter was denied…over 1360 on the SATs, almost a perfect 800 on the writing, ranked 6in her class and straight As and A+ all 4 years. Add to that on the varsity track team for 4 years, active in her community and carrying a full AP COURSE load this year where she’s carrying a 4.8 out of a possible 5.0. Scratching my head wondering how she wasn’t acceptable.”

From a student:

“Pretty confused as to how I didn’t get in. With a 4.3 GPA, a 34 on the ACT, and being a National Merit Semifinalist, I’m wondering what could’ve been missing from my application for UVA to have denied me.”

I followed Jeff’s UVA link to the blog of “Dean J” where I found some additional interesting comments about being denied at UVA. [Please note that “we’re” not singling out UVA here. It just so happens that UVA has had the “courage” (if, indeed, that’s the right word) to address the impact of denials on its applicants.]

Dean J prefaces his blog spot with this:

I’m so sorry this sort of entry is needed. I hope you all can look at your options and get excited about your other schools. If your immediate reaction is “I’ll transfer”, don’t let that plan keep you from getting involved in campus life at the school you choose. I think many students come to think of their next choice as “home” and can’t imagine leaving it after a little while. Give yourself time to explore you options.

I hope you’ll read this post and remember that this decision is probably about our numbers. You didn’t do anything “wrong” (a common question). I’ll leave you until tomorrow, when I’ll be back to answer questions.

Please be polite and respectful of others when posting.

Here are a few of my favorite comments inspired by Dean J:

– honestly find humor in the fact that I was denied! A couple more years like this and Tech will far surpass uva in terms of average intelligence of their students

Which inspired a couple interesting retorts:

– It’s comments like that that make Tech look bad.

– Coming from someone who was denied tonight, like yourself, there’s something that can be said for exhibiting graciousness in defeat.

– You know that sick to your stomach feeling? Multiply that times ten after getting rejected from your first choice dream school. :”( Best wishes to all those in the same boat. Hang strong, I’m trying to at least.

– It will be ok. I am in the exact same boat. I was sure that this was the school for me. It makes me sick knowing i worked my butt off in high school and it still wasn’t good enough:(. Excuse me while i spend another day crying.

Dean J consoles:

– I think it’s natural to give yourself some time to be sad about a door closing, but when this time is past, you’ll be able to focus on the many doors that are open in front of you. You have an adventure ahead of you! Best wishes in choosing the path that makes you excited and happy!

And perhaps the best comment of the lot:

– Three years ago my eldest daughter was rejected from the University of Pennsylvania (where she was a legacy applicant) and several other highly ranked schools before being admitted to UVA OOS. We visited and fell in love. She is so happy at UVA and can’t imagine being any place else, but three years ago she was devastated not getting into PENN. Yesterday my youngest daughter was rejected by UVA. Apparently UVA wasn’t right for her, and that’s OK – she’ll find the right place. All the others who were rejected will, too – it’s hard to see that right now, but in a few months, you will realize it. The process stinks, but it works in the end. You’ll be fine …

Meanwhile, Jeff Selingo wraps up with this:

But whether intentional or not, we’ve created a sense of entitlement among high-school students these days who have excelled within their own little world for much of their adolescence. College admissions is perhaps the first time where they are competing with a much wider world of talent, much like the one that they are about to enter for the rest of their lives.

A lesson in rejection is a good one to have at a young age as it makes you appreciate what follows even more and allows you to take No as an answer in stride in the future. While I congratulate those students accepted to UVA last week, they will have to wait a bit longer for that life lesson.

I added bold emphasis to what I think is the punchline here. As my title suggests, many times (the majority, I think) bad outcomes can lead to good lessons in life, and often better results. If you’ll excuse me for quoting myself once again, I have been known to say:

Take a little time to feel disappointed about not getting into your most-desired school(s). It’s perfectly natural to feel bad. Don’t dwell on it, though, and, by all means, don’t develop an obsessive attitude about it. Don’t hate that school from this moment on. Don’t view successful candidates as elitist snobs. Accept the fact that you didn’t make the cut–for whatever reason–and get on with your life.

Embrace those schools that have embraced you. Select the one that best suits your needs and prepare to have a great higher-education experience. Yes, indeed; there is life after rejection.


Don’t forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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