Rejected from Harvard? It’s not about you

By Maureen Downey

The standard college rejection letter announces: “While you are a qualified applicant, we regret to inform you that we are unable to offer you admission.”

However, the rejected student often reads a subtext into the letter: “You are not good enough. You are not getting into this amazing college that would have changed your life.”

Allison Singh, 37, understands that reaction. That is how she felt when Princeton rejected her 20 years ago. She nursed her wounds until she realized that she ultimately benefited from the loss.

So, when a high school friend asked her to help her boss’ daughter deal with a rejection by her dream college, Singh composed a long email that began: “I was crushed when I wasn’t accepted to my first-choice college. I felt like a failure and was angry that all of my hard work hadn’t been enough for admission.”

But Singh ended the email with: “But slowly, I gave my school and my classmates a chance, and gave myself a break … I came out of college with a better sense of myself, a true appreciation for learning, good friendships, happy memories and even my future husband.”

That email led Singh to write the new book, “Getting Over Not Getting In.” She wrote the book for students who did everything right, achieved at high levels and still met with rejection.

The slim volume reassures students that rejections are owed to many reasons, almost all of which have nothing to do with the applicants.

Singh points out that many of the top schools reserve a large percentage of their spots for students with “hooks,” the legacies, underrepresented minorities, children of donors and star athletes.

Based on her research, those students can account for up to 60 percent or 70 percent of an incoming class, leaving only a third of the seats for regular applicants.

And because so many of those special category admissions may fall below the academic requirements, Singh says, the applicants from the regular pool often have to offer the highest of credentials to balance out the low scores.

In a telephone interview from her home in New York, Singh said, “There isn’t enough talk about rejection at the start of the college application process. I couldn’t find any books on college rejection. After being rejected, students feel they’re second-rate. They go off to college very jaded.”

Counselors and parents often reassure students that their top grades and near-perfect SATs meet the criteria of Harvard or Yale. But what they don’t say is that the odds are still against them.

Some of the Ivies reject 93 out of every 100 applicants, even though many of them had perfect math or English SAT scores.

“We set kids up for failure when we don’t give them an explanation for why they will probably not get into Harvard or these other brand name schools,” Singh said. “We owe it to them to say, ‘You did a fantastic job and you are going to be a success. But you are probably not going to get in.’’’

This intense focus on a handful of elite schools turns them into luxury brands that everyone wants, Singh said.

“By perpetuating this notion that there are three or five really good schools, students focus on getting into these schools instead on figuring what they want to do with their life and what skills they need to do it.”

While Princeton rejected her, Dartmouth did not, so Singh has the benefit of an Ivy League degree. And she has a law degree from Georgetown.

But her own experiences and her research for her book have convinced her that we have oversold the value of an Ivy League degree.

She can tick off an impressive list of accomplished people who attended state universities or never finished college.

But what about those surveys that suggest Ivy League degrees offer an edge in the job market?

“It might open doors,” she said. “But even if the name opens the door, it is a revolving door and you have to prove yourself. Many employers are suspicious of these graduates of elite schools because they feel they often have an entitlement complex. They want to always be challenged. So they don’t want to do the lower level work, the grunt work that comes when you start a job.”

For students unhappily bound for their second-choice colleges in the fall, Singh advises, “You could be missing out on great learning opportunities and forming relationships if you always have your eyes set on someplace else.”

6 comments Add your comment

too little time

May 23rd, 2012
10:57 am

The last three terms of president have been filled with Harvard Grads. This administration is mostly made up of academia. I am underwhelmed with the results of the last 12 years.


May 22nd, 2012
10:15 pm

My son is going to Harvard this fall. He will study science. Just hope he will be a scientist.:)

Hillbilly D

May 22nd, 2012
9:38 pm

Just remember, Harvard and Yale and Princeton, etc are the schools that produced all of the Wall Street bankers and financiers and a lot of the members of Congress.

Some call them “the best and the brightest”. Whether are not the “brightest” is correct is open to debate but the “best” part; not hardly.


May 22nd, 2012
4:37 pm

I went to the University of Louisville for both my BS and MBA. I think a got a great education. I didn’t go bankrupt doing so. You get out of college what you put into it. A bad work ethic, slacking off in acquiring a knowledge base and forgoing basic professional work skills will do you in the end, even if you have a degree from one of the ivy league schools.

Just remember, Harvard and Yale and Princeton, etc are the schools that produced all of the Wall Street bankers and financiers and a lot of the members of Congress. That in an of itself, should tell you something.

Road Scholar

May 22nd, 2012
3:28 pm

Hey Jimmy, isn’t it interesting if you have any % of black in your direct ancestry, that you are considered black, but if the % is American Indian, by your view , you are white?


May 22nd, 2012
3:15 pm

Just put that you are 1/32nd Cherokee. It worked for getting Elizabeth Warren a job at Harvard and helped launch her political career…. Just like Obama’s previous claim that he was born in Kenya helped sell his biography… Until he wanted to run for President and suddenly that claim went away.