A Dean’s Letter to The Rejected

Stop Worrying and Just Start Growing

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College application time is here again. The following is a letter I wrote to the younger brother of a friend, who was recently rejected from his dream school. Names were changed.

Hi John,

Sophie mentioned to me your recent experiences with college admissions. I had a very strange education myself (including some, at the time, very heartbreaking rejection letters). Ironically, now I run a small college and actually do the admissions for incoming students. That means I’ve had the strange experience of being on both sides of the process.

I dropped out of high school in 9th grade. Everyone told me that my life was basically over. I was a failure, making a terrible mistake, and would likely turn into some sort of desperate, illiterate, drug addict in due course. As I signed my formal exit from school, I remember the guidance counselor making some quip about “signing away my future” and recommending that I go get a GED. Needless to say, it made college admission a challenge.

I ended up playing a lot of jazz and fell in love with the idea of going to the Manhattan School of Music. I taped a picture of the school above my bed so I could see it every morning and night to remind me of my goal. I practiced like mad, applied, and auditioned. As it turns out, their ideal applicant isn’t a high school drop out from rural Maryland with no recommendations from established musicians and no money to pay tuition. Shocking, right?

I got my rejection letter … and was completely crushed.

But not as crushed as I was when I got a second rejection letter from my second choice school!

I had no more purpose. And worse, I was the failure everyone told me I would be. I retreated for a month or two into a den of self-loathing. Then something happened.

I started asking why it was that I spent so much time worrying about an acceptance letter, the judgement of a guidance counselor, etc. I took stock of my actual life. Since dropping out, I had started a business, taught about 35 music students, traveled, saved lots of money, read tons of books, worked a few jobs, hung out with lots of interesting adults rather than angsty teenagers — all in all, life was good. And, more importantly, I was still learning and progressing despite what any college or authority figure was telling me.

For me, it was a pivotal moment. I felt lighter and happier. I considered not going to college, but decided instead to enroll at a small college which was decent and affordable for a year. After that I ended up at NYU, where I graduated with a 3.98 GPA … much to the dismay of the college administration when they discovered (in my final semester) that I never had a high school diploma. Once I got a bona fide online high school diploma, so that they would allow me to graduate, I earned the dubious honor of being a college graduate before I was a high school graduate. The final course I had to take was “Introduction to Bowling”.

It all seemed so absurd. But all is well that ends well. I worked on a bunch of fun stuff during and after school, which eventually gave me the opportunity to help an awesome group of students build an experimental new college in Guatemala, where I met your sister.

It has been a real eye-opener for a flunky like me. Admissions decisions are deeply arbitrary. We try to dress it up with checklists and other random scoring tools, but it really is subjective. And it’s not a good gauge of anyone’s competence. Schools rely on test scores because they give an illusion of objectivity and, mostly, because they make the extremely difficult task of understanding a person in all their complexity into a mindless but simple bureaucratic process of sorting paperwork. Reality is the first casualty.

Worse still, a lot of times schools are wondering “Can this person pay?” (they have to make money too, you know) or “Is this student related to a potential donor or famous person?” Mommy and Daddy will call the school and lobby admissions to get their kid in. The university system is not a meritocracy.

One of the first things I did here was to remove the minimum grade requirements for admission (students don’t even have to send in a high school transcript). Why? Because, aside from my own experience, it’s a really bad indicator of who will do well in the program. ‘Bad students’ can thrive in other environments. In the long run, it’s an even worse indicator of who will lead an interesting and creative life.

Here’s a secret few people will tell you:

About 3 years after graduation, no one cares where you went to college.

Your degree is good for opening a first door. You’ll meet richer and better-connected people at an Ivy League than at an average state school.

But if you’re 25 and still talking about your undergraduate degree and alma mater like it gives you value … it’s time to get a life. Besides, you can open tons of great first doors anytime — especially if you don’t let yourself get too distracted by school.

A few years out of college and the only thing anyone cares about is: What have you done? What have you made? Who do you know? Why are you interesting?

But it’s much harder to build things, earn the respect of great people, and become interesting than it is to get a diploma. That’s why people cling to their credential so desperately. It’s also why they make people feel bad when they don’t have one. It’s a way of escaping the self-development and responsibility that life demands of all of us. People rely on their status instead of their substance. How lame is that?

Whatever you decide with college, your best bet will always be to meet great people, learn valuable skills, become self-confident and disciplined, and cultivate the unique traits that make you an invaluable part of other people’s lives.

These things can be achieved anywhere and anytime, so long as you find the grit and focus to do them. A good college will give you these things, but the vast majority don’t.

From what Sophie tells me, you already do lots of awesome stuff. If you want to be a programmer, just keep programming. If you’d like to travel, there’s tons of low-cost options out there. The admission letters and stickers and gold stars and badges and stuff are fine — we all have to play that game sometimes. But the people who excel are those that recognize that their core mission in life isn’t defined by those things.

On the practical side, lots of schools have transfer programs so you could end up where you want to go even if you don’t start there. Or you could work for a year and enter college with more experience than your friends. Or you could learn another language, brush up on your math, get to know a new country, read 100 books in a year — whatever.

Any of these things will push you towards becoming the awesome person that you are meant to be.

You don’t need college to do them — plus they’ll enhance your college experience if you do end up going. The point is, you don’t need anyone’s permission to do cool things, to learn, or to see the value that you have as a person. College will always be there. So don’t worry about it. Ironically, doing cool things on your own and without the support of school is also a great way to get into a good school.

Just live your life boldly and deliberately, and you’ll find all the opportunities you could ever want.

-Zach