Host: Over the past few weeks, many fat and many more thin envelopes arrived in the mail—some confusing, some 1)inadvertently cruel, at least to disappointed teenagers.
So after reading all those college rejections, which was the toughest one that you read?
Sue Shellenbarger (Columnist, The Wall Street Journal): I think Stanford University and Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, were up there, although this was certainly not a scientific survey, I have to emphasize. But some colleges are more direct and honest than others. And some of them say, you know, not all of our applicants met our standards. And I think Bates certainly falls into that category.
Host: You mentioned Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, quote, “The deans were 2)obliged to select from among candidates who could clearly do sound work at Bates,” leaving you strongly, I guess, with the impression that you could not do strong work at Bates.
Sue: But it’s interesting, isn’t it? That I think part of this—much of the story is in the people who receive the letter. Of course all the applicants at any college can’t do the work, but—and the letter is fairly honest and direct. And the dean of admission there is—takes great pains to write a respectful letter, agonizes over it, as do most of these deans, tries very hard to be clear, but, you know, again, respectful. It’s very hard to phrase a letter that someone isn’t going to take wrong because these students are at such a sensitive stage at their lives.
Host: Sure. Here’s an email from Irene in Buffalo, New York. “Two months ago while at work, I received an acceptance e-mail into one of the top graduate programs I applied to. I jumped for joy, put on my 3)two weeks notice, and said a few things to my boss about how sick I was of my job. Fifteen minutes later, I received an email explaining the acceptance had been sent to the wrong person, and that I was in fact rejected.”
Sue: Oh, that’s the worst of all possible outcomes. That happened on a larger scale at University of California, San Diego this year, where they accidentally sent an invitation to an admitted student’s open house to some 29,000 rejected applicants. It’s not a good time to make a mistake.
Host: Mary is with us from Denver.
Mary: Mine was actually a wait-listing letter from Stanford—so I thought it was interesting that you found that the one of the worst ones for direct ones—and it was for medical school. And I remember the opening line, word perfect, 25 years later. It started: This letter can’t make you very happy, but it could have been worse.
Host: What? They could have told you you had cancer?
Mary: Well, what they said is, you know, we’re wait-listing you, not rejecting you. Interestingly, the letter had one grammatical error and one misspelling—from a university…I got accepted to Columbia University and went there for med school. And I thought about sending Stanford a letter back that said: “This letter can’t make you very happy, but it could’ve been worse. You could’ve accepted me and I could be rejecting you.”
Host: Mary, you’ve gone on to triumph after triumph, I’m sure—from strength to strength.
Mary: Thank you so much.
Host: Let’s go to the other end of the4)spectrum. Are there any colleges that you found that did it well?
Sue: Certainly, yes. Harvard, Duke—both had outstanding letters that—actually…
Host: Oh, well, they’ve had a lot of experience.
Sue: They—that’s right. They certainly have. Both of them, I think, provided something that the reader is looking for. And first, it’s an assurance that you’re going to do fine anyway. This is not a rejection of you as a human being. And second, kinda some help putting the rejection in perspective, taking the long view if you will.
Harvard, in particular, said past experience suggests a particular college a student attends is less important than what the student does to develop strengths over the next four years. Right away, it tells the reader, you’re OK, you’re going to be all right. And one of the, one young woman from Texas who got that letter said, you know, it made me feel proud for having even applied, and that’s a real accomplishment.
Host: That is an accomplishment. But, yeah, you do get those that, you know, suggest that maybe you’re better off checking out your local junior college or something like that.
Sue: Yes. Some of them make you feel pretty low. It’s true.