Life does not end with a rejection letter from Duke

A teenager recently told me that he was worried that he might not win admission to the University of Georgia Honors Program. This from a kid with perfect scores on the SAT and a grade-point average well above 4.0.

Given all that, I told him, UGA President Michael Adams ought to deliver his invitation to the honors program in person.

But he’s not alone. This time of year, jittery high school seniors all over the country are putting the finishing touches on their college applications, and they’re worried. (I’ve been through it, and I’m relieved to be on the sidelines this year. With my two oldest children in college, my challenge has shifted to paying for school.)

Somehow, we’ve scared kids — even those in the top 1 percent — into thinking that their chances of getting into the right college equal those of winning the Powerball.

True, admission to the nation’s most selective colleges has never been harder. In 2009, Ivy League schools admitted 15 of every 100 high school seniors who applied.

But there are hundreds of good colleges that have attainable admissions criteria.

“Going to Harvard is not a happiness pill,” says Katie Malachuk, author of the new book, “You’re Accepted: Lose the Stress. Discover Yourself. Get into the College That’s Right for You.”

Unlike college guides that advise kids to load up on Advanced Placement courses or take four SAT II tests, Malachuk tackles the process from a spiritual viewpoint, writing a sort of Gandhi’s guide to college admissions.

While her book offers practical advice, she’s less interested in helping teens discover the perfect campus than in helping them use their college search as a path of self-discovery.

Of course, the nail-biting high achievers aiming for the Ivies might argue that Malachuk can afford to be serene; she already got her admittance letter from Harvard, graduating in 1996.
However, Malachuk emphasized in a recent interview that her path to Cambridge was far from direct or easy.

As a high school senior, Malachuk was crestfallen when Duke University, her first choice, rejected her. She chose to enroll at another prestigious school, Northwestern.

But she found herself increasingly depressed, isolated and dangerously thin from overexercising. (In retrospect, she says her unhappiness had less to do with the college than her own uncertainties and unrealistic expectations.)

In her sophomore year, a despairing Malachuk dropped out, went home to Maryland and took time to decide what she wanted. Her favorite course at college had been a seminar on women writers, which led her to volunteer with the National Organization for Women and to decide to major in women’s studies.

In her essay for her transfer application to Harvard, she opted to be candid and not sanitize her messy post-high school years, admitting, “I’d gone to a college I didn’t like, had a total meltdown, dropped out of college, and moved home.”

Her life has taken some unexpected turns since Harvard, underscoring the main point of her book: Some of the best moments come when people step off track to follow their hearts.
After graduation, Malachuk joined Teach for America and taught third grade in Oakland, Calif.

She went on to become the program’s director of admissions, getting a taste of what it was to read earnest applications and interview candidates.

She started law school, stopped, then pursued an MBA from Stanford. Given her academic track record, a friend joked, Malachuk was the ideal person to offer advice about getting into a college, but the last person to talk to students about staying.

Driven by fear that other people felt she had yet to grow up and get a real job, Malachuk took her MBA and went to work in Boston as a strategy consultant. Several months into the job, she found herself talking to her boss about whether her next project would be cost-cutting for a cosmetics company or a staffing redesign for a credit card firm.

That became her “Aha” epiphany, Malachuk says.

“The thought of actually doing the work made me want to run to the bathroom and weep into my sweater set,” she said. “I realized I could either spend my time trudging along as a consultant, or I could flow through my days as a writer and yoga teacher.”

Embracing her own advice to follow your bliss, Malachuk now teaches yoga in Manhattan and counsels prospective MBA students. She has also done a lot of pro bono college counseling with students and their parents.

“A lot of parents and kids are looking for permission to exhale, to realize that they do not need to be as worked up as they are,” she says. “They need to know that they can make this process something more than someone saying ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You cannot pin your life on what other people think of you.”

Malachuk acknowledges that it can be painful when teens are refused admission to Vanderbilt or Emory.

“I’m not going to lie; it’s a bummer,” she says. “But having faith means trusting that you can get through anything, and your story sure doesn’t end with your acceptance or rejection from college.

“I want to make kids understand,” she says, “that life is much bigger than this moment of whether or not they get into a certain college.”

20 comments Add your comment


December 29th, 2009
6:39 am

In this information age that we live in, it seems as though ’some’ parents are looking for an algorithm to help them determine whether their child will get into a particular college. I say this based on some of the questions I heard parents ask while doing college tours with my oldest. I heard very specific questions asked such as “If my child takes 5 AP classes and makes a 4 or higher on the exam, does that improve their chances of getting in?” I keep hearing a similar answer given that schools are looking for the ‘total’ person that is well rounded and not simply looking at academic accomplishments.

Perhaps I took a more pragmatic approach to the process. As Malachuk indicated above, life does not end with being accepted or rejected to a particular college. I hoped my child would find an environment in which they would ‘grow’ and be challenged while maintaining a balance with the social offerings. In hindsight, I don’t know of many people that have gone through and finished a particular college that said they wished they made a different choice.


December 29th, 2009
7:20 am

Suggesting to students that a 2400 and a 4.0 should be automatic means for entry to UGA’s Honors Program is only feeding the frenzy that you imply should be calmed. I am thankful that the Georgia Tech Honors Program does not care one lick about test scores. They are looking for people with unusual drive, a preference for inquiry-based learning, and interests in diverse topics.

Numbers really don’t tell you much. 6′3″, 225: Bebe Thomas (GT receiver in great shape) or a tall person 35 pounds overweight? Same thing applies to test scores and grades. You need to look beyond the numbers before declaring someone as ‘walking on water, no ripples.’


December 29th, 2009
9:01 am

She joined the NOW and now teaches yoga. Why I did read past the NOW membership? Let me guess…she’s a conservative, right?

What a waste of time, this article!

GA Teacher

December 29th, 2009
9:16 am

I have worked in three careers with teaching being the only government job. I can say truthfully that where you went to college only matters if you went to an elite school (the connections you make there are priceless). Otherwise, it really does not matter. I have seen small average college graduates get hired before prestigious ones because the grads from the small school had better internships or were able to shine at the average school. I have seen public u. grads with average grades and GPAs get hired over Ivy Leaguers because of better interviewing skills. I wish parents would realize that with a few exceptions for the top 1% of schools and the bottom of the barrel schools–It is what the young person does at school that counts, not the name of the school!

GA Teacher

December 29th, 2009
9:19 am

One more thing: for most people, the entire college career (GPA, activities, internships) becomes much less important after the first job. There are 22 year olds out there who actually think that having Georgia Southern versus Valdosta State degrees will matter when they are 40. For the most part, what you did between 22 and 40 is all that will matter to a prospective employer.

Matt the Brave

December 29th, 2009
9:41 am

Here’s what I say about this article. No teenager should just choose one college to go to. It’s the old adage, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’. I made the mistake of doing this when I first went to college. I thought the college that I wanted to go to was going to be great. Turned out to be a nightmare.

Teenagers are so focused in getting into one school that they get tunnel visioned into thinking that its the only one for them. I found out that there are a couple of things to know if you don’t get into the school you originally want to go to at first. The first major thing is that you can go to another college and then transfer into the school you want to go to. It sometimes is easier than getting in as a freshman. It also gives you a year to mature and most of the large colleges make you take freshman experience classes that you may not have to at smaller colleges (or else they are less-intensive). This also extends your potential network later for job hunting. The second thing is that if you are applying to a vast network of schools, then you will have a choice as to where and sort of shop around. It always helps to have choices.

It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get into the college that you want to go to. The important thing is that you go and that you do well when you are there.


December 29th, 2009
10:20 am

We are going through this process at my house. My oldest is graduating this year. We are focusing on smaller schools within a certain radius of our home. Why? Because I feel that he will be more successful starting out at a smaller college. After he takes that initial step into the college world, he can always transfer to a larger school. If he choses to stay at the small college, that will be fine with me.

The push to go to a large prestigious school has more to do with bragging rights than anything else. Parents love tell their friends that child #1 is at Duke and child #2 is a Harvard. It makes the parents look “good.” Wow, if your child is attending a prestigious school, you must be a great parent.

Veteran teacher, 2

December 29th, 2009
10:36 am

Amen, GA Teacher. What counts is what people DO with the opportunities. High school, AP or not AP, shich college? are all opportunites. Nothing is an entitlement. What counts is what is learned and applied later. GPA’s and test scores are not currency to get to the next step. Both GPA’s and test scores should represent learning and preparation. It is all about learning, and until society in general realizes that, we will continue to have discussions like this.

jim d

December 29th, 2009
11:02 am

Best to just keep all options open.

Mine took a path less traveled after recieving a nomination to one of the military academies but failed to get the apointment.
He had already been accepted at several other military schools and chose the one that didn’t offer him any incentives to come. Once there he earned those incentives and is being taught to be a leader. I look forward with great anticipation to his earning his ring and serving his country.

He made the choice that was right for him.

jim d

December 29th, 2009
11:03 am

Ms. Downey,

got one hung in the filters

Maureen Downey

December 29th, 2009
11:30 am

Jim d, You are out. I cannot fathom why your comment landed in the filter. There is nothing in it that warrants any delay. Sorry, Maureen

jim d

December 29th, 2009
11:32 am

MY Name–I suppose :)


December 29th, 2009
12:49 pm

What’s going to be fun is watching the tables turn on these private universities once the baby boomlet begins to recede…. that would start next year and accelerate each year from what I understand.

Gen X is a small generation that did not have many children. Many GenXers have been watching boomlet kids struggle mightily under tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. GenXers do not buy into the Keeping Up with the Joneses phenomenon to the degree that the boomers did. My prediction is that they will not be nearly as willing to pay $50K per year or encourage their kids to take on $50K per year in debt to pay for a degree that won’t necessarily translate into any more success than a cheaper state school degree.

Some also will have to admit kids who are every so slightly less than perfect.

It will be fun to watch the private colleges sweat.

DeKalb Conservative

December 29th, 2009
1:33 pm


I’m on the cusp of Gen X / Gen Y. I didn’t think that many Gen X parents would have college aged kids yet (by definition they’d have to be pregnant as teens for the most part for the math to work).

I think you’re argument is right, but flawed. I think there will be a subset that will say ‘enough is enough’ and will abandon the high price of education and the mass of debt it results in. Equally, I think the competition is only going to get worse for those willing to pay. As each generation goes by the idea of ‘first generation college students’ will go away. Each of the top tier and even second tier private and public schools only can expand there class sizes so much.

Legacy is going to be a creeping issue for these schools in the coming decade as first and even second generation college grads that are today annual donors will expect a little ROI as a ‘tie breaker’ for years of donations when their kids apply in the future.

For those reading this, think of the college you went to. Think of the admission requirements. If you had your stats today that you had then, would you get in? Probably not.

DeKalb Conservative

December 29th, 2009
1:40 pm

Unrelated note. I’ve been burned alot by interns / recent grads from UGA or GSU to the point as a potential employer I look more closely at these applicants and their social backgrounds via Google / Facebook for ques into potential work ethics than I do other schools.

Though its a small program, an undergrad business student out of Emory is like potential gold because of the small size of the program and the worth ethics they instill in their students. Perhaps unpredictability I’d also favor a Kennesaw State student with a great academic background and signs of ambition to get ahead in life.

Dan Rosenfield

December 30th, 2009
1:31 pm

Students, parents and educators can now visit to determine how tough it is to be admitted to individual colleges and what kind of grades and test scores each requires.

Jennifer Falk

December 31st, 2009
9:08 am

Dan Rosenfield – this is a great website! Do you have any idea why there are so few colleges listed ?

uberVU - social comments

January 3rd, 2010
10:55 am

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by AJCGetSchooled: In final stretch of college applying, teens need to realize that life doesn’t end with a rejection from Duke or UGA.…

Dina Fair

February 28th, 2010
1:45 am

This article is great conversation piece and the previous comments provided we think are very informative. There are so many good colleges, both public and private, students and there parents should not be discouraged by any one rejection and stay open to options. One key element of being successful in any endeavor is a person’s ability to efficiently recover and move on to solutions after experiencing problems or setbacks…and we all face them throughout our lifetime. It’s what you do and how you behave when things don’t go your way that makes the difference.

As an example, Berry College, one of best small private colleges in Georgia and the southeast (the school is adjacent to Rome about 65-70 miles northwest from Atlanta) is arguably one of the most unrecognized in some circles but certainly not by employers. Berry, reasonably priced when compared with other high-caliber private schools, while selective is a school that definitely looks past the numbers at the person and prepares students with a mindset and skill set proven time after time to be extremely effective in the work place regardless of one’s field of endeavor which includes:

* strong time management skills to balance rigorous academics/work with other interests;

* strong oral and written communication skills;

* goal-orientation and sharp focus;

* exceptional work ethic (Berry has a premier work-study program);

* positive attitude and strong interpersonal skills (you have to be able to work with all types even people who are your polar opposites);

* emphasis on treating people with dignity and respecting different viewpoints — standing up for what you believe while be willing to compromise and don’t sweat the small stuff…most of it will be small…focus on the big picture and concrete goals (ability to recognize the important from the petty…and leave your ego at the door…it’s hard to be successful if you cannot effectively work with others…one thing to be driven but ego can be a career-killer);

* ability to make evidence-based decisions (and common sense ones…you have to know in life and in work “when the juice is worth the squeeze” and not be paralyzed or vascillate on issues that lead nowhere;

We are representative of leaders and managers in various fields who are so impressed with what students from schools like Berry bring to the table: good communicators; technically competent in their fields; confident and ready to contribute but no ego…magnanimous approach; great moral and work ethics and enjoyable in the work place. Attitude is everything. Someone who has a positive attitude, great work ethic and is driven to improve and succeed is much more valuable to employers than someone who may have gone to a more prestigious school but is arrogant and feels entitled.

Dina Fair

February 28th, 2010
1:51 am

Please forgive a few typos in our previous message. So people don’t nit-pick, we do know the difference in “their” and “there” and hope the main points are of interest vs. composition while we are multi-tasking late at night. Best wishes to all parents and their students.