Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Yesterday, Stanford University announced it had accepted a mere 7.2 percent of the tens of thousands of high school seniors across the country who applied for admission to the class of 2014. Other highly selective schools will be making similar announcements in the days ahead.
Meanwhile, in the world of law school admissions, a world I know well, applications are up at many schools by 10 percent or more, which means acceptances will be down by at least that much. This is, in short, the season in which hardworking and dedicated students across the country discover that their best was just not good enough.
I know how they feel.
I still remember, nearly four decades later, fingering those thin envelopes from the colleges and universities I yearned to attend. And the very thick one from Wellesley College, the only women's college I applied to and only because my mother volunteered to type up only that application.
Wellesley accepted me -- and offered me an extremely generous financial package, which my middle-class family (with my older sister already in college) very much needed. There was no question, no ifs or buts. It was not what I wanted, but I was going to Wellesley.
Like so many of the students opening thin envelopes this week, I had done everything I could to earn admission to the schools that didn't want me. I was a straight-A student, president of every organization, a scholarly baton twirler, a candy striper, at the very top of my high school class. And I held down a part-time job while doing all the rest.
But there were no Advanced Placement classes at the public high school I attended, no prep courses or tutors to teach me how to ace the SATs. My father didn't go to any of the colleges I applied to; my mother didn't go to college at all. I don't think I even knew what "legacy" meant.
It would be nice if I could tell you that I had just as much fun at Wellesley as I would have had at the places that rejected me, but I'm not sure that's true. I can tell you that, years later, I came to understand that in many, many ways, going to Wellesley changed my life for the better. It gave me confidence in my abilities and support for my ambitions that stood me in good stead through the challenges that came later, and Wellesley was the place where I met lifelong friends. But I certainly didn't feel that way at the time.
I didn't have a boyfriend, and I spent way too much time trying and getting rejected. The endless dateless Saturday nights no doubt contributed to nagging issues of personal insecurity that dogged me for decades. Would it have been different at a coed school? Who knows? There are things you simply never know.
But this much I do know, from the distance of decades. I know that being rejected by Harvard was a whole lot easier than losing my father a few years later, when I was in law school at Harvard. I would have traded that fat envelope in a minute.
I know that no one gets all Aces, that life is rarely a straight flush, beginning to end, and that what matters most is not the cards you are dealt but how you play them. A charmed childhood is no guarantee of a charmed life, and learning to deal with rejection is one of those bitter pills we all have to swallow sooner or later.
I know that after a certain point, no one asks you where you went to school; they ask what you have done since. It is not enough to accept what is. The challenge of life is to do more than that, to adapt, to turn it into something better and to not waste too much time and energy bemoaning what isn't.
So congratulations to all of you who will be heading to your second or third or fourth choices because the schools you wanted to attend said no or didn’t offer the financial aid you need. You may end up learning more from being turned down than you ever would from being accepted. It really is up to you. I proved them wrong. So can you.
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