Denied: How to Handle the Rejection Letter

 “Hey , have you heard back from Stanford yet, honey?”

Your nervous eyes dart to the rejection letter sprawled painfully open on your desk, your ego lying gasping.  You hope your mom and your goldfish didn’t notice the letter or the gasping or your nervous eyes.  The color drains from your face.  You wonder which is worse:  being rejected or telling your mom – and friends and teachers and goldfish – that you were rejected.

And furthermore…   now what?

In my quarter century of counseling students at a large Iowa high school, I have seen this much, much more often than invitations to a party celebrating acceptance to Stanford, or Harvard, or Notre Dame.  So first, welcome to the rest of us, the great many of whom didn’t have an academic record good enough to even consider application to Stanford.  You’re good at math (or you likely would not be applying to Stanford), so you know with a six percent acceptance rate many more get the same letter you got than the happy one.  I know, doesn’t feel better yet, does it?  You wanted to be one of the few, the proud, the Igotins.

Well, first (or wait, is that second?), rejection is not supposed to feel good.  It is okay to grieve over the rejection.  It means it mattered to you.  But the grief cannot stall out your pursuit of excellence.  In fact, make it the opposite.

Life is full of serendipity.  Just talk to any successful person, and you’ll hear stories of it from virtually every one of them.  Many of the students who were denied admission to Hard-To-Get-Into-University found their experiences at their eventual choice could not have been matched by HTGIU.  They found lives, they found friends, they found dreams, and yes, they even found jobs after completing degrees at their own schools.  Remember, only a third of Americans over 25 have earned even bachelor’s degrees, so whether your degree comes from HTGIU or the university an hour away, it will be quite an accomplishment.   Soak that in.

Still don’t feel better?

Well, think of this: When we are rejected, it hurts.  That’s universal unless you didn’t want to be accepted in the first place (And don’t tell friends that… they know it’s a defense mechanism).  But what happens next is what separates the successful from the not.  Many artists and authors tell of multiple rejections.  JK Rowling was turned away by twelve publishers when she queried an odd little story about a boy wizard.  (Reflect for a moment on this:  Twelve people whose job it is to recognize marketable books missed on the greatest-selling series in history.  Suddenly, the admission counselor who signed your letter doesn’t seem so daunting now, huh?) 

And JK’s certainly not alone.  Google “famous failures” and you’ll be clicking until you get Carpal Tunnel.   Many of those artists and authors keep those rejection letters.  Not because they enjoy self-punishment, but for motivation.  Now, scrapbooking your rejection letter is up to you, but the point is this:  Don’t collapse from the pressure of “no.”  Grow from it.  Commit to creating an experience at your school which renders moot the rejection letter. 

Still not there?

            Okay, let’s try this:  Over my years I have worked frequently with boys and girls who feel rejected after a break up.  (Wait… wasn’t this about college?  Hang on, this is going somewhere.)   One suggestion I make which seems to impact these young people is “live your life so your ex regrets his or her rejection of you.”  Those who choose this usually discover that they are better off anyway without the schmo who dumped them.

            You’re smart.  You get it, right?  (Sheesh, humble writer, you’re writing to students who applied to Harvard or Stanford or others of such ilk.)  Achieve at such a level that HTGIU will feel like they missed one, that they erred in rejecting your application.  The world is full of people who have accomplished amazing things upon earning degrees from the not-so HTGIU.   So the next time you think of that rejection, the next time you read those words of the letter on your desk, let these three words resonate in your soul:  “I’ll show you.”

            “Is that your letter from Stanford there, honey?” she asks with every intentioned bone in her body a good one.  She so wants to hug you.

            “Yeah, mom, it is,” you say flatly.

            You see the hesitation in her face before she rushes over and scans it quickly.  “I’m sorry,” she pushes out past her lips.  Her eyes are as flat as yours were when you read it.

            “Don’t be,” you say, and you let the words soothe you and her.  “I’ll be okay.”  And you know you will.  Your mom sees clean to your soul and she knows you will too. 

            Mom hugs you anyway.   More impressed with you now than she would have been had you been accepted.

            Let the rejection letter be fuel.  Let it be food.  Let it be fire.  And if I try to fit one more metaphor in here, my college English professor would reprimand me. 

            Oh, that would be my professor at state university, by the way. 


Don Arends is a high school counselor in Newton, Iowa, where he has served students for 24 years after teaching English for nine.   He works closely with the school’s highest-achieving students as the AP, PSAT, and ACT test coordinator.  He has witnessed first-hand the pressure students feel to be admitted to their first choice of college and has witnessed fist-hand the amazing things that can happen when those students wind up attending their fourth, fifth, or eleventy-seventh choice.  To a free-lance artist, two words from Bob Ross come to mind:  “happy accident.”