Coping with being rejected from a top school
May 15, 2014 3:57 PM   Subscribe

My transfer application to a top school was recently rejected, and it was the last undergraduate application that I could send in. Would like some advice on coping with it.

My reasons for transferring were: Stanford's department for my major would be vastly better and more prestigious, and also more interdisciplinary and angled towards what I'm looking for. It would be a better and more true-to-college environment than my current college. It's way more social than my current university and could have led to better friends/opportunities/life trajectories. Generally, it would have been a more high-quality experience.

I want to have the best opportunities for myself, and I've worked really hard to maximize those opportunities. While the school I am at now is very good, I feel like I need to maximize my opportunities to be successful, and this is a huge setback because not getting into Stanford means that I'm not able to maximize that. While I would be okay with not having the *absolute best* in general, I see college as such an important part of my development/trajectory that it's really hard for me to accept not getting the most I can out of it. That just feels like failure.

The ways I've been coping have been mostly around figuring out what things are good about where I am now and how to make more of an initiative to maximize the opportunities I have here. I'm also well aware that I can be seeing Stanford through the “grass is always greener” thing and comparing my real experience at my current college with a rose-colored picture of Stanford (that might have some truth or might not). I was wondering if you guys had any thoughts on how to cope emotionally/psychologically with this and work towards accepting it.
posted by suburbs to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
1. Give yourself a day or two to just sit with your feelings and be upset about this. This really sucks, and it's perfectly OK to be angry that you didn't get what you wanted.

2. So what I'm getting here is that you're already an undegrad at a good four-year university. So, that's what it is. Applying to Stanford and not getting in is kind of a no-harm-no-foul situation, because if you didn't get in, the alternative was to stay at the perfectly good school you already attend. You lost nothing in this small failure. This doesn't impact your future in any meaningful way.

3. Failure can be good. You come off as a smart and successful person who probably has not had to face failure a whole lot of times in life. This can be a liability, especially as you head towards adulthood, where you will almost certainly fail at something at some point. You need to learn that just because you don't always get what you want doesn't mean the story is over. You fail and then you get back up and move forward. Try again*. Do another thing. Just keep moving forward. I was an overachiever as a young person, and it has made me very risk-averse as an adult because I never had to become comfortable with not always achieving what I wanted on the first try.

4. Develop a plan for moving forward. I'm guessing you're somewhere between 19-21 and have anywhere from 1-3 years left at your current school. Make the most of it. Don't think about how some other school would be "better". There is always going to be something better out there that you can't have, just because of circumstances outside your control. Look at what opportunities actually exist and take them.

5. Don't think of your future as a wide open field of doors, and your goal is to "maximize" that. Think of your future as you being a person who is happy. Which of those doors lead to the happiest you? At a certain point not far down the road, doors start closing. A lot of overachiever type kids are given a framework where YOU CAN DO ANYTHING. But the goal isn't to do All The Things, the goal is to find your place in the world. It doesn't matter if somebody somewhere else has more than you. It matters that you found your place. Yes, not getting into Stanford closes some doors. But so did not becoming an HVAC technician, learning the clarinet instead of the violin, getting a summer job as a camp counselor and not an office clerk, etc. You can't do all the things, and you never could, so just go figure out what you actually want and not what an abstract version of you could have in a perfect world.

6. Stop seeing paths that aren't available to you as "better", or failure to achieve the best possible thing as not having the best opportunities for yourself. It just is what it is. I was never going to be Mark Zuckerberg, so when I didn't invent a social networking platform at 20 it wasn't a failure to maximize my opportunities, it was just another in a long list of things I didn't do. Likewise Mark Zuckerberg was never going to join an art collective and create a life-sized narrative comic book installation that people could walk through. He will never know the joy of telling a story through architecture. That's not a failure for him, just a thing he didn't do.

7. In like three years it is seriously not going to matter at all which college you graduated from. In a lot of ways it doesn't matter right now, and if you continue to harp on Stanford being better than your current school, you'll likely start alienating people who could be important to you. Whether that's friends, professors, future career connections, whatever. At the end of the day, you're still smart and nobody cares.

*You probably can't literally try again to transfer to Stanford, but you get what I mean. Figure out your next step, and do that.
posted by Sara C. at 4:13 PM on May 15, 2014 [18 favorites]

It's totally OK to feel disappointed about this.

But here's what I would say. I went to Harvard. I loved it. I value the time I spent there and I can point to direct advantages I got by going there. All that stuff is true.

But: when I was 18, I thought it was imperative that I go to Harvard. I thought my classmates were the ones on the fast track to success.

And of course, as you'd expect, my classmates are now doing pretty well. Lots of us are rich. Lots of us have advanced degrees. But my idea that the Harvard kids were the future masters of the universe? Totally wrong. Twenty years later, I can see that of the people who are really doing amazing things and making a difference in the world, plenty went to elite colleges; but more did not.
posted by escabeche at 4:15 PM on May 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have been rejected from Stanford for undergrad, Master's, and the PhD program twice. It would have been a good place for me to go for my academic interests, and I would have liked it.

I was also rejected from another college that I would have really liked to go to. But life still worked out. I made friends for life at the school I went to, and those people are very much like family to me. I had a lot of great opportunities at the school I did attend and made sure to maximize those.

For a lot of us, college applications were the first time we had to deal with being rejected for something in our lives. It was hard, but you get end picking yourself up and moving on, trying not to focus too much on the path not taken. If things aren't working out for you at your current school, look into other alternatives.

I assume there are plenty of people in your field DIDN'T go to Stanford and yet succeeded. Figure out what they did to get there.
posted by deanc at 4:17 PM on May 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

You could try reading biographies of people you admire. They usually contain stories about how, at some point, they wanted to do X and that did not work out and their later success was somehow directly fostered by the fact that X did not happen.

Similarly, you could watch time travel and "alternate time line" stories (movies and TV episodes -- the various Star Trek shows have a number of these). These often make the point that our lives are a continuous fabric and if you pull or cut a single thread, it comes unraveled or goes a completely different direction.
posted by Michele in California at 4:31 PM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Arguably the most successful person from my high school is a woman who had great test scores, grades, and extracurriculars and who, for whatever reason, did not get into any of the highly selective colleges she applied to. She ended up going to a less selective school that's very good but not amazing, and she was the queen rock star of that college. Because of her stand-out amazing success there, she ended up at a highly selective grad program and now makes boatloads of money doing something she loves.

Meanwhile, I (and a few others from my class) got into and attended a highly selective, elite college, and it was hella hard and I did not distinguish myself, because I was surrounded by amazing rock stars. I loved it there, but it definitely didn't do anything for my career, because no one's cared where I went for college in at least five years (...I graduated in '08).

Look at this as an opportunity. Be the king or queen rock star of your college. Gather fabulous recommendations from lots of professors, be the president of whatever club, get the best internships. Be like my pal, and rock the socks off the school you're at, then move on to a top-notch grad school or job.

Anecdata, anyway.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 4:41 PM on May 15, 2014 [15 favorites]

What goodbyewaffles said, times 100. Don't underestimate the psychological and career benefits of spending some time as a big fish in a small college pond.

Most people I knew from my elite college are doing just fine, but that seems to mostly track with their ability, i.e. they'd have risen to the level of their talents no matter where they went to school. Meanwhile, having also taught at an only-OK school, I've also observed plenty of superstars who distinguished themselves from their run-of-the-mill classmates and went on to great things.
posted by Bardolph at 5:29 PM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I will simply ask why you can't apply anywhere else?

If you think your current college isn't working for you, well, that's a great reason to transfer, even if it's not to Stanford. Take a year off and work in your field and reapply to other schools that you like more or that are better in your field.

College is expensive, and it does matter. I honestly don't know why people who went to super elite schools bother to say otherwise. My undergrad was great in a lot of ways but it not being one of the top schools in any field has really seriously hampered my career trajectory. It would have been okay if I'd have wanted to stay in my home state, but I didn't. It was expensive, too! I could have gone to a school that was a better fit, and not transferring out is one of my biggest regrets.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:30 PM on May 15, 2014

I transferred to Columbia for the same reasons you wanted to transfer to Stanford. The verdict I give that move is: meh. Lots of successful people went to prestigious schools. More successful people didn't.

I think you'll find once you graduate that the impact of where you went to school on your life is actually pretty small, unless you want to be president or want to be a douche at dinner parties.

Acceptance to a school says zero about your worth and intelligence. Really. So be a little sad from rejection sure, have a whiskey, say fuck them, and move on and be awesome.
posted by Lutoslawski at 5:38 PM on May 15, 2014

nthing Lutoslawski; whatever field you are in - whatever field - most of the most successful people did not go to Stanford.

I went to a very "prestigious" university in my country for my undergrad degree; I enjoyed it a lot. Difference it has made to my overall career and trajectory: 0%. I am not exaggerating.

There's more than one path up the mountain my friend, and that is presupposing you want or need to climb the mountain at all.
posted by smoke at 6:04 PM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have no idea what schools the people I associate with went to and I don't even care to ask because it matters not one iota.
posted by Dansaman at 6:13 PM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am an academic and so it totally DOES matter what university I went to, and I have missed out on a ton of jobs against people who went to Oxbridge or Ivy League universities. So people who are saying it doesn't matter can't know that unless they know what career you are aiming for. It MIGHT matter, and that sucks.

Obviously if you can keep trying to transfer to a better university, you should do that, if you still want to. But also bear in mind that if you are undergraduate, you can try to get into a top university to do a graduate degree, and then it won't matter where you went to undergraduate.

As for feeling better about it, there are two things that I have found help me to deal with disappointments like this. The first is to not let myself believe that a rejection is a statement that I am not good enough. Rejections can happen for all sorts of reasons, commonly that you are somehow "not a good fit", and that is often due to some sort of misunderstanding anyway. For a while there was this thing I really wanted to do in my career that I just couldn't make happen and it was really getting me down and I was starting to feel completely worthless without it. So I started making a list of people in my field who I thought were incredibly awesome and who I would trade places with in a second, and who hadn't done that specific thing. I ended up with quite a long list. And whenever I felt bad about not having done that thing myself, I recited in my head the list of names of other people in the "haven't done it" club. So you could try that. Compile a list of people who didn't go to an Ivy League university who you think are very successful and admirable despite that. Better yet, if you can find out, compile a list of successful people who were REJECTED from Stanford.

The other thing that helps is something a career counsellor once told me. She said that she had often met people 10 years or more after she had helped them with career decisions, and she had asked them about whether they felt they had made the right choice, and EVERY SINGLE PERSON said they had. She said that even people who felt like they screwed up their options in the short term found fulfillment in their career in the long term, and/or came across certain opportunities and experiences that they wouldn't have done if they had taken the other path, and which they wouldn't trade anything for. Maybe that just means that people are good at building narratives about their lives that justify their decisions. But whatever: it means they are happy. And you will be too. At some point in the distant future, I bet you will look back on your final years at your current university and be able to pinpoint some opportunity or event or relationship that you wouldn't have had if you went to Stanford and that has ended up being extremely important to you.
posted by lollusc at 6:36 PM on May 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

It is worth noting that if you want to be an academic, it does matter much more. You probably won't get a job at a top tier university without having gone to one. But academia is more concerned with pedigree over performance than the vast majority of the working world.
posted by Lutoslawski at 6:45 PM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Academics" is a big world. OP, if your heart is set on Stanford it probably means your chosen field is science or engineering. If you're aiming to be an academic in those areas, it matters where your Ph.D. is from, but not at all where your undergrad degree is from. Be a star where you are, get into a top Ph.D. program (they definitely don't draw only from Stanford!) and move forward from there.
posted by escabeche at 7:15 PM on May 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

There was a section of Malcolm Gladwell's most recent book* that studied the differences in career paths between graduates from different universities. The main difference found was that only the top thirty percent of students in the sciences at each school stayed in the sciences. (So if you're not on a science track, this may not apply to you.) Basically, being the big fish in the little pond makes it more likely that you will keep doing what you love.

*David and Goliath, chapter 3, "If I went to the University of Maryland, I'd still be in science."
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:35 PM on May 15, 2014

Actually, the only working academics I know who've stuck with it and are realistically pursuing tenure track positions in their 30s are mostly people who went the "big fish in a small pond" path.
posted by Sara C. at 7:35 PM on May 15, 2014

I was going to chime in to echo escabeche's comment-- there are lots of situations where it does matter which school you attend: the curriculum, opportunities, and environment (including the recruiting process) at elite colleges make it easier to get a job at places like McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, Google, or in Investment Banking. In the sciences, it's certainly easier to find the research opportunities that will build your CV to make you application very attractive to graduate schools. But I said easier, not guaranteed, and it just takes effort and focus to achieve those same things outside that milieu, rather than allowing one to get those opportunities through osmosis elsewhere.

What matters much more for your career in, say, science is to start building your CV now to position yourself for good graduate programs and good advisors you want to work with. Your success as a graduate student matters much more to your career than where you went to undergrad. Your undergrad can set the stage for that, and certain universities are better at preparing their students than others, but preparing yourself for the road ahead wherever you are now matters more than where you went to undergrad.

The truth is that it's a long life, so don't let this bump in the road that would only amount to a couple years of your life determine your entire trajectory. The fact that you had the determination and focus to figure of what you wanted and applied to Stanford to get it is a better indicator that you have what it takes to succeed than simply being at Stanford does.

Also, this won't be the first time you will be rejected from something. So consider this practice.
posted by deanc at 7:51 PM on May 15, 2014

Thank you, all. I really appreciate these comments. It's very true that the number of people who are successful in the field I'm in have not gone to Stanford, and I suppose the difficulty is thinking about that from the outside perspective (that it doesn't matter _that_ much) versus my own. The school I am at right now is very good, which makes these fears even less necessary, I think.

I think it'll be alright. Just have to give it some time and some perspective. Thanks guys!
posted by suburbs at 8:16 PM on May 15, 2014

For what it's worth... life has a way of working out.

Anecdata: I was crushed when I missed going to law school by only a few points on the entrance examination. Went to an okay local college for a journalism degree instead, which gave me time to take French lessons on the side. Long story short, I fell in love, and I'm heading to graduate school this fall to train as an interpreter, which will suit me much better than the law career I so desperately wanted.

So you never know. Maybe not going to Stanford is the universe's way of telling you it has better things in store for you.
posted by Tamanna at 9:40 PM on May 15, 2014

I'm sorry for your disappointment, which I know is real and I know you're trying to cope with the pain of what feels like a very significant loss. I bet it feels like certain doors have closed to you forever, even though if you think it through, you know that's not the case.

You also know the deck was stacked though, right? You know highly selective US college admissions is pretty much the exact opposite of a meritocratic process. You didn't get in to Stanford because you were not, say, an amazing high school athlete in a male-only sport that makes a lot of money for the school, such as football or baseball. If only you had your intellect and you had been a left-handed pitcher, or one of the best wide receivers in Texas, Stanford's coaching staff would have made room for you.

You also didn't get into Stanford because you are not the child of wealthy (enough) parents, at least one of whom attended Stanford as an undergrad. You also didn't get in because perhaps you are Asian-American, and at this current moment in history, unfortunately, discrimination against folks of your race in higher ed admissions is perfectly legal.

My point is, put some thought into why our society puts so much stock in "prestigious" colleges, and why we buy into society's messages. Go read what Dear Sugar has to say about prestigious colleges. She wrote:

"What is a prestigious college? ... What sorts of people go to prestigious colleges and not prestigious colleges? ... You might, for example, be interested to know that the word prestigious is derived from the Latin praestigiae, which means conjuror’s tricks. Isn’t that interesting? This word that we use to mean honorable and esteemed has its beginnings in a word that has everything to do with illusion and deception and trickery. Does that mean anything to you, Awful Jealous Person? Because when I found that out, every tuning fork inside of me went hum. Could it be possible that the reason you feel like you swallowed a spoonful of battery acid every time someone else gets what you want is because a long time ago—way back in your own very beginnings—you were sold a bill of goods about the relationship between money and success, fame and authenticity, legitimacy and adulation?"
posted by hush at 12:24 AM on May 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Stanford rejected my undergrad application and it sucked but the world did not end. I did well at the pretty good school I ended up attending, worked for a couple of years and I'm finishing up my first year in an M.A. programme at Stanford now. Life is long, you've got time and none of this will matter in the long-term.
posted by superquail at 1:27 AM on May 16, 2014

I transferred to Cornell as an undergrad for the same reasons you and Lutoslawski gave. People told me that this would be my "golden ticket" to success. I was amped. Well, my experience was like that of a couple of the other posters. Having a degree from Cornell has not really helped me in my career thus far. In fact, I am still underemployed and am unable to get into the field I received a degree in. Now I graduated in 2008, so the recession has played an enormous role in that. But also my field is highly glutted, so to get a job in my field, it's all about who you know and not about hard work and perseverance.

So now I'm going to have to come up with a creative way to overcome the rejection in the job market in order to succeed. It sounds like your situation is an opportunity for you to get creative about coming up with a "Plan B", so to speak, so that you can be successful even though your "Plan A" didn't come to fruition. Believe it or not, as time passes, you will be able to look back on this and say "Wow, I'm glad I didn't end up going to Stanford!" I know, hard to believe right now.

Lastly, I just wanted to say that my hard work and perseverance (and a lotta luck) got me into Cornell and will lead to my future success. Wherever/whatever that is. And I believe that ultimately your hard work and perseverance will be the foundation on which your success will be built. Best to you.
posted by strelitzia at 9:24 AM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hey, I was just feeling something like this two days ago. I've been packing now that the semester here's over, and I just thought to myself, how did I end up being here and not in a really beautiful school in Pennsylvania where I would have loved to be? Instead, I'm a rising sophomore at a college where I dare say about a quarter of the students didn't consider this their first choice, despite the college's selectivity.

It's taken me more than a year to grapple with the reality of being here. What helps me, personally, that I try to keep in mind that what's going to get me into grad school or internships or a great job after college isn't the school but what I do. Also, my school's really small - fish, pond - and you get the same effect where you're an above average student in a decent school.

I still have days and weeks where I really fret about being 'trapped' here for various reasons, but hey, it's life. This is all part of your story. You are still the same driven individual with dreams and ideas who decided to take a chance on Stanford. Now you have this one experience written into your story, and that's cool. As others have said before this, failure hurts, but it's great.

MeMail me if you want to commiserate about college admissions or whatever. You're still you, not your school, and you always have been and will be. Take care of yourself!
posted by undue influence at 9:30 AM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'll just tell my story because I think it will help you deal with this.

I'm in academia, so pedigree matters here more than anywhere else.

I can also honestly say that I guess that there are few people on the planet who have been rejected from as many colleges as I have. I believe the number (which has stopped climbing!) is around 30? So I got really good at dealing with rejection. When you're dealing with it, it seems like it rejection is a personal judgment on you. But its not. Its a very random process. I've been rejected from presenting at conferences (which are easy to get into), only to have the same article accepted for publication by the same organization (which is much much harder to do). The PhD program that accepted me rejected me from their master's program last year.

And ultimately, now that I'm in my dream, Ivy League, fully funded, top 5 PhD program, its not what makes me happy, and its not what life is about. I was happy before I was accepted, and am happy now, and the rejections were hard, but really: its nothing compared to the really important shit in life.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:27 PM on May 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

I did my undergrad at Stanford, I'm doing my master's at Stanford, and I know a half-dozen of the 100-ish transfer students in the entire school. Some of them are happy, some of them are not even close to happy. Stanford, in particular, has a phenomenon so common it has a name, where people pretend riotously to be happy and are struggling on the inside. I hear more of it on the inside, so assume that people who talk up Stanford are fibbing to you a moderate bit.

One thing I always note to people who end up talking about Stanford's prestige and stuff is that a plurality of my professors actually didn't go to Stanford or Harvard or anything like that, they just made significant contributions to the field. Prestige doesn't matter after only a little bit.

I would say that the name does matter to hedge fund types and investment banking types. I cannot say that they are very good people. You should discount their judgment.
posted by curuinor at 10:45 PM on May 18, 2014

You have heard some great advice. I turned down Stanford law and medical because I did not have the money. It broke my heart but turns out that the law school I attended was small and affordable...and interestingly enough, I found that they used the same books as Stanford. I have had a very successful career at both law school and after based on hard work not where I received my education.
posted by OhSusannah at 3:54 PM on May 19, 2014

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