The Ivies Rejection Blues: Singing Your Own Song

So, that much anticipated and dreaded message from Ivy League School X Y and Z finally arrived informing you that, while your application was strong (you’re great, talented, and wonderful), the school has rejected your application due to the sheer number of qualified candidates. Good luck in your academic career.

Good luck? Go to hell. Is this why I’ve worked so hard for the last three years? Hell, no…for the last eight years ever since my father took me to Harvard and said, “this is where you’ll go to college.” And now, you’re telling me I’m not good enough for Harvard? I’m not good enough for Yale? Heck, not even good enough for Cornell? All these years of busting my chops, doing homework, smiling at the teacher on my way in and on my way out, raising my hand to answer every single question asked, turning in assignments on time all for nothing! So that I can attend Georgetown or Binghampton?

As if Georgetown or Bimghapton or any of your so-called safety schools, which, in reality are fine institutions, were the embodiment of gloom and doom…

Still, quite understandably you keenly feel the sting of rejection at this moment. Moreover, the impact of the message has been magnified tenfold by all those happy, gloating faces on Facebook (“I got in Bovine University! Yay!”) each with two hundred (two thousand?) likes. Even he got in, you’re thinking.

And I. Did. Not.

The more you think about it, the worse it gets. The many months of preparation, the countless college visits, the perfect (though, admittedly hazy) image of your college freshman self happily ensconced in the ideal dorm room of your fantasy suddenly fades away. Disbelief is replaced by anger. You want to punch the wall—imagining how it’d feel to flatten the happy faces on unhappy Facebook.

But why do you have such aggressive thoughts? You do so because you are taking the decision made by overworked admissions officers (who had to go through tens of thousands of college apps in the last few months) as a personal rejection. As my students read in the Psychology and Literature course (ah, that accursed Baumeister book with those rambling, dense articles I had to read for no reason), “not only does physical pain increase aggression, but psychological or emotional pain, such as…social exclusion” (Bushman and Bartolow, 314). And boy, do you feel socially excluded right now!

After the momentary fit of rage, dense clouds of melancholy, regret, and depression descend upon your sagging shoulders.

I don’t want to go to class tomorrow. I can’t face those happy faces (and shit). [Oh yes. You curse now more freely—after all, what have you got to lose?]. I can’t even face my own face in the mirror. Sleep. Watch Netflix. Eat. Repeat the cycle. My life is over.

Of course, you know very well that your life is not over—not by a long shot. You may even recall the words of some well-meaning adults who had told you at various points in the past year that the Ivies are not the only way to a successful life (and may even lead you towards distinctly unsuccessful lives, laden with crushing debt and an even greater sense of failure). Yet, those words ring hollow now. You are thinking that you have failed yourself and failed your parents by not being able to “outperform” your friends (and enemies) with “Congratulations!” in their letters.

So what now? Is your life really over? Have you really failed?

If you’re still reading, please allow me to suggest that you have not failed. Despite your best effort (great essay, by the way, which may have turned out even greater with the help of my brand new College Essay Guidebook—wink wink), so-called merit is not enough. There are thousands upon thousands of equally (or even less) qualified candidates whose applications admissions officers sift through. Often, they end up choosing people from that pool just as carefully as you draw your next straw out of the box for your afternoon lemonade.

To make things even worse, the admissions officer’s judgment may have been affected by such factors as the weather. As Vos and Luce assert in Advanced Social Psychology, “On sunny days, admission officers give more weight to whether the applicant has social or extracurricular activities on his or her application whereas on overcast days they more heavily consider the applicant’s academic record” (749). The point is this: the fact that you have not been admitted to a single Ivy League school (or to your dream school) is not a testament to your failure as a student.

Skipping classes and work from now on (I’m so done with school) and giving up on learning as the manifest reaction, though, will be just that.

Your life is not over and you know it. You’ve already been admitted to a number of other schools and are about to be admitted to some others (with or without financial aid). The school you’ll attend will provide you with the skills and experiences you’ll need to succeed in whatever field you choose to enter. You may even find that none of the predetermined paths in life work for you and decide to carve out a path of your own. How do I know this? Honestly, I don’t. I’m just saying it to make you feel better. But to be serious once more, I have a pretty good hunch based on the fact that you’ve put so much energy and effort into trying to get into your “dream” school. For that, my friend, is what you need to live a meaningful life: focus, determination, and, most important of all, intellectual curiosity.

You’ll also need something else: a firm, inner-compass, which is not subject to the magnetic attractions of popular opinion regarding the nature of success. For now that the default pat-on-the-back (coupled with unspoken envy) due all Ivy League college students will not be part of your life (unless you find yourself in an Ivy League graduate school), you are freed from some of the suffocating expectations that may have weighed you down for years and are free to change or refine your own definition of success.

Right now, you may feel as if you had just lost somebody near and dear. Indeed, you’ve lost such long-time acquaintances as Ms. Yale Harvard and Mr. Princeton Dartmouth. And as with any loss, you have already shifted into mourning mode.

I totally understand. For, while I only applied to two colleges as a high school senior (and felt a strong sense of gratitude when Brooklyn College admitted me), I can still recall just how lousy it felt to receive polite rejection letters day after day from “great” graduate schools such as Columbia, Yale, and Princeton. “Even” CUNY’s Graduate Center (which in actuality is also a great school) rejected my application. Still, when NYU admitted me into its MA/PhD track in English (albeit without any financial aid), the path before me lit up towards, well, more rejections from tenure-track positions and, after years of teaching as an adjunct professor, towards the Baccalaureate School for Global Education in Queens (3 years) and Stuyvesant High School (8 years and counting).

When my scholarly book, Arminius Vambery and the British Empire: Between East and West appeared in 2016, I felt a great and a half-serious sense of vindication. Columbia, Yale, Princeton, schools that many years before had deemed me unsuitable as a potential scholar, obtained a copy of my humble book and put it on the shelf in their libraries. What I could not internalize at the time of the rejection letters and only realized quite recently was that I, too, was not deemed an unsuitable scholar but, rather, was beaten out by somebody just as suitable as I was. Again, it was a luck-of-the-draw situation. Yet, what matters is that I ended up producing a significant scholarly book (as the reviewers seem to agree) and, to some extent, did it on my own terms.

Similarly, you, too, will end up producing worthwhile work if you keep the flame burning in your breast.  What you need to focus on right now is that the keys to your happiness and well-being are already on your keychain.

Now, go find them and write your own book.

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