I promised myself at a very young age I was not going to turn into my father. That promise now lies tattered and torn along the primrose path of my youth and middle age.
Admissions has its cycles, most days somewhat less dramatic than The Great Circle of Life featured in the Lion King. Or so we’d like to think. But this current annual part of the cycle is the one that strikes at me the most: The cycle of hand-wringing and wailing and gnashing of teeth over the rejection season.
You know the cycle: It’s April, so the most selective institutions in the country have fulfilled their destiny by slaughtering larger and larger percentages of the young lambs who dared approach their altar. And no matter how high the slaughtered number gets, more and more lambs, somehow believing they are the chosen ones, the ones who will survive, line up for the ritual next year. And our fascination with the rejected continues to grow, despite the fact that, as I wrote earlier, of all degree-granting, four-year colleges in the country, only about 1% of students attend one of the institutions that accepts less than 13% of applicants; 3.5% attend a college that admits less than a quarter of applicants. And this is before we think about the community colleges in California, that enroll at 9% of all college students in the nation.
And have no doubt: The rejection stings. That’s intrinsically true of any rejection of course, but because my generation has played up the importance of getting into the “right” college, and further advanced the collective belief that “choosing a college is the most important decision you’ll ever make,” it’s harder than it needs to be.
My first professional conference was in 1985 at AACRAO in Cincinnati, remembered mostly for two things: The only time I’ve had a pizza I didn’t like, and a presentation by Fred Hargadon, who was at the time the former Dean of Admissions at Stanford, but had not yet taken the job at Princeton. He was asked to fill in at the last minute for someone else, so although his words were unscripted and unrehearsed, they will stay with me forever. He said, “In all my years of doing this, I’ve only learned two things: First, that the block on which you are born determines more about where you end up in life more than anything else; and second, that if we had to choose the worst age to force someone to choose a college, it would be 17.” He was right, on both accounts.
So, this is not about the students feeling the sting. It’s about us. And about my father, who believed that allowing kids to make their own mistakes, to suffer a little from them, and to learn lessons later on actually made them better people. That extended beyond mistakes, though, to all of life’s experiences: What happened to you made you who you were; a little adversity and difficulty are good things. (By the way, thanks for that, dad, wherever you are.)
Every time I hear about the collective angst over rejected teenagers, or every time I hear adults devising ways to help them cope with the sting, I think of this: The 200,000 kids who enlisted in WWII before their 18th birthday, many of whom fought at Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, The Battle of Anzio, or Omaha Beach. And I’m not even one of those flag-waving patriots who chokes up at the National Anthem.
Those kids had it tough. Many didn’t come back, and didn’t get a chance to attend their third-choice institution.
Let’s put our arm around the shoulders of kids who got rejected. Tell them to keep their chins up, to move on, and to realize that in the end, this will probably be considered a minor setback. And then, let’s do the same for ourselves.