Elite rejection

Don’t despair if you didn’t get into an elite college, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni advises 12th-graders. It doesn’t mean you’re less capable or worthy.

It may mean only that you lacked the patronage that some of them had, or that you played the game less single-mindedly, taking fewer SAT courses and failing to massage your biography with the same zeal.

A friend of mine in Africa told me recently about a center for orphans there that a rich American couple financed in part to give their own teenage children an exotic charity to visit occasionally and mine for college-application essays: admissions bait. That’s the degree of cunning that comes into this frenzy.

Dumb luck plays an important role too. Top colleges get many, many applicants who are very well qualified. They could decide by dart board and get a great bunch of students.

I was rejected by Radcliffe (girls didn’t apply to Harvard then) and wait-listed by Yale. It was the first time I’d ever tried and failed. It hurt, even though I got into Stanford. Being rejected turned out to be great practice for job hunting and life.

About Joanne


  1. Mark Roulo says:

    “It doesn’t mean you’re less capable or worthy.”
    It might 🙂

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Let’s crazily assume that something like prep courses actually matter, and let’s assume that “biography massaging” (whatever that is) actually matters, too.

    If you and I left wrestling practice at 7pm, walked home, did three hours of homework, and then I went to bed while you spent an hour massaging your biography before going to sleep and joining me once against at school at 0530 for a JROTC workout, well… guess what?

    You’re better/more productive/more worthy than I am.

    And if Saturday rolls around and we go to our wrestling tournament, compete, and then while I go out with the team for pizza, you head out to that little strip mall where the SAT prep classes are…

    You’re kicking ass while I’m eating pizza.

    The thing is, Frank Bruni can’t have it both ways. He can’t say that it’s all a crapshoot that doesn’t have any bearing on merit/worthiness (whatever he means by that) on the one hand, while pointing out all the things that successful candidates are *DOING* and claiming that those activities have an effect on admissions on the other.

    To claim the latter is to admit that the admissions process is actually weighing something.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      The thing is that the colleges are trying to predict future student performance (among other things … these colleges are also trying to maximize the future size of the endowment and lots of other non-financial parameters). There will be noise in this prediction (possibly a lot of noise). It may well be that it would take decades to show a difference between the kids who get in and those who didn’t,but look the same on paper. And the colleges have no good way to even validate their own models, so one risk is that you actually admit the “wrong” folks (but don’t worry … no one will ever know).

  3. Crimson Wife says:

    The issue I’ve been seeing in the past few years is not that smart kids are getting rejected by their “reach” schools and having to settle for their 2nd or 3rd choice school. They’re getting rejected by 9 out of 10 or 11 out of 12 and having to settle for colleges that if they were 5 years older, wouldn’t even have been on their list at all. Like the girl who was vice president of my kid’s 4H club. She was valedictorian of her high school, a varsity athlete, had taken 10 AP courses, had >2300 on her SAT’s, and the one essay she asked me to read was good. She got rejected not just from Stanford and UC Berkeley, but also UC Santa Cruz and UC San Diego. She wound up going to Cal State Long Beach on scholarship, but it really made me nervous about my own kids’ prospects.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Harvard, once questioned on race, SAT, and admission, said they look at an app “holistically”, which is to say there are probably a lot of items which–purposely–can’t be quantified.
    So decisions can’t be challenged.

  5. Did anyone talk about the amount of debt these students may pile up at these so called ‘elite colleges’?

    The other day listening to Dave Ramsey (financial debt guru), he was talking about some persons racking up 120,000 in student loan debt for a history degree.

    I don’t think the person is going to be able to pay that back in their lifetime, do you?

    • Crimson Wife says:

      Ivies and other elite schools typically have very generous financial aid packages. The kids who are graduating with $120k in debt after undergrad are those who attended 2nd and 3rd tier private colleges whose endowments don’t allow for hefty financial aid packages.