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Dealing With Admissions Rejections

February 25, 2019 :: Alex Collazo

What do you do when you are rejected from your first choice school?

As college and MBA admissions consultants, we are always cognizant of the fact that our work has the potential to dramatically alter the lives of our clients. Decision letters will roll in over the next few months, and we’ll hear back from hundreds of clients who are moving halfway across the world to go to a school we consulted on. These client’s relationships, finances, perspectives, and so much more are about to be transformed—very exciting!

But… what about someone who got rejected from their dream school? What happens then? Well, it’ll feel like the end of the world. It’s not. There are still many moves left in the game of life after college or grad school. Some of the most important figures in history started their career with a brutal rejection, and were still able to do big things even without their dream education. In fact, you could make a compelling argument that we would not know these people’s names if they hadn’t been rejected.

Here are four interesting things people have done after being rejected by their dream program.

1. Become President of the United States

Barack Obama’s political and personal style can be summed up in one word: professorial. Obama’s background as a professor of constitutional law shows through in everything he does, from the way he argues, to his clothes, to his smallest rhetorical tics. But the 44th president wasn’t always so comfortable in academia. According to his wife, “[Barack] … didn’t take school seriously in high school, he barely got his work done – he was a bum.” Harsh! Perhaps predictably, then, a 17-year-old Obama was rejected his dream school, Swarthmore College, back in 1979. Obama says of the rejection “It really broke my heart, actually.”

Everything turned out okay for Obama in the end, however. He matriculated to Occidental College instead, and transferred to Columbia University two years later. Friends say he really came into his own academically at Harvard Law School, at which point he found his true passion in politics. By 1992, the middling student Swarthmore rejected was teaching constitutional law at University of Chicago Law School and well on his way to public office.

The lesson? There are still a lot of chances to turn things around even if this application season didn’t go the way you planned. Persistence and refusing to give up on your goals are far more important long term than any one admit letter.

2. Start a civil war

In 19th century China, the key to success was the civil service examination system. Pass, and you could become a government official, move to a larger city, and secure your family’s future for generations. Fail, and you had to settle for your lot in the provinces. Hong Xiuquan was, by all accounts, a promising student. But when it came time for the actual examinations, he just couldn’t handle the pressure. He choked. Then he choked again. And again, in 1837. After the third rejection, the young man suffered a nervous breakdown, described by historian Stephen Platt:

“When he got [home], he collapsed into bed and called his family, who crowded around him. He apologized to them that his life was over and he had let them down; then he closed his eyes and lost all strength. They thought he was dead. But eventually he woke up and began telling them about strange things he had seen while he was asleep.” (Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, pg. 61)

The visions brought on by Hong Xiuquan’s failed exam became the basis for a religious-political movement and eventually the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, a rebel state which he ruled as king and prophet. Hong Xiuquan fought a bloody civil war against China’s Qing dynasty government from 1851 to 1864, reigning over up to 30 million subjects before his ultimate defeat. The war resulted in 20-30 million deaths, making it both the deadliest civil war and the biggest overreaction to academic rejection in human history.

This is a good example of what NOT to do after a ding. Like Hong Xiuquan, you probably invested a huge amount of time and energy studying for tests and crafting your application. It can be incredibly frustrating to feel like that effort was wasted, but really, it wasn’t. You learned about yourself, about how to apply to things, and about the topics you had to study for entrance exams. That knowledge is still with you, and can be applied to other applications in the future… but only if you aren’t in jail for inciting insurrection.

3. Revolutionize physics

You probably already know that Albert Einstein invented modern physics while a patent clerk in Bern, and that he wasn’t a great student as a child. A lot of this is exaggeration: Einstein was always great at math and physics, even within the strictures of a traditional turn-of-the-century college. His bad marks came in… every other class, which he simply didn’t care about as much (yet, he came around on the humanities later in life).

What interests us, however, is his rejection from every university assistantship to which he applied. Essentially a funded dissertation, admission to any one of these programs would have allowed Einstein to avoid the patent office job and focus on his studies. Instead, Einstein was rejected from everywhere—for some time, repeatedly. The cause? According to Einstein, a bad letter of recommendation from his professor Heinrich Weber: “I would have found long ago if Weber had not played a dishonest game with me.” Fortunately, it turned out that der Depperte (“the dopey one”) was perfectly capable of handling patents and doing groundbreaking physics at the same time.

Folks, always be 100% sure about your recommenders! If Einstein can make this mistake, anyone can. If you choose to apply again in a later season, and have even the slightest suspicion that a recommender screwed you over, you should start over with a whole new set of recommenders.

4. Start an artistic movement

Impressionism might be a bit basic these days, but in the 19th century Monet and Manet were considered quite edgy for… not having many hard edges in their paintings. Both were rejected from art schools, exhibition spaces, and prestigious fellowships, and both lived in poverty for large portions of their lives. You may think these parallel struggles would have made the two Frenchmen friends—and it did, but not until after a bitter rivalry over their too-similar names and mutual refusal to adopt a pseudonym.

It’s hard to imagine these artists being nearly as famous as they are if they had been accepted to the academies they sought admission to. Their refusal to adapt to existing styles is key to their eventual recognition, but also the reason they never gained admission to the inner circles of the French art world. In some cases, rejection is the key to success.

Are all these examples unrealistic? Probably. Most of us can’t turn a rejection into a presidency or a total war. But the key idea is that these historical figures didn’t let rejection stop them.  Neither should you. You might have to take a different path, a longer path, a less prestigious path, but there is always still a path to your goals… or possibly an even cooler outcome. So keep on going!

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