The school that got away

Getting a college rejection letter isn't the end of the world. In fact, it puts you in some pretty notable company

March 30, 2006|By DAN THANG DANG AND JONATHAN PITTS | DAN THANG DANG AND JONATHAN PITTS,SUN REPORTERS

WBAL radio talk-show host Chip Franklin has no qualms talking about his deep-rooted hatred of the University of Virginia.

The bitterness took possession of him back in the 1970s when Franklin, then a high school senior in Northern Virginia, applied to the Charlottesville college that Thomas Jefferson built. After months of hoping for a celebratory nod from his dream school, Franklin didn't receive just one thin letter of rejection in the mail.

U.Va. proceeded to send him four more envelopes filled with the same wretched refusal for admission.

"The first couple of times, my hopes were up - you know, maybe they changed their mind," Franklin says. "The fourth time, I said, `This is cruel!' My mom and dad called down there to see what was going on. The letters finally stopped.

"It wasn't enough they rejected me once," Franklin says. "They had to do it five times! I always say, `Gee, you think they meant it?' ... I hate U.Va. as much as I hate the Yankees."

Rejection never feels good, whether it pertains to love, job hunting or the first step toward your future. As fat and thin envelopes continue finding their way into home mailboxes of high school seniors this month and next, the blissful start of spring turns out to be one of the most nerve-wracking times of the year for millions of college hopefuls across the country.

Some lucky few will gain admission to every school to which they apply. Many others will be less fortunate.

The odds of a college slap-down have grown greater over the years as students apply to more schools - an average of 15 to 20 nowadays compared to just three or four schools years ago - to increase their chances. But that surge in applications has, in turn, forced top-tier schools to become even more selective, which means the likelihood of more letters of denial and notifications of wait-list purgatory.

College rejection is often the first real taste of failure for a young person, admissions experts say. Not that it matters how stale the slight or how prestigious the school, the memory of a higher-ed snub never quite fades, like a painful wound to the soul.

The real test, former rejectees say, is not how you respond immediately to the bad news, but how you choose to deal with life after the sob-fest.

"I try to tell the kids I work with that there is no one perfect school for anyone," says Shirley Levin, an education consultant and president of College Bound Inc. in Rockville who offers career and college counseling for high school students and adults. "You can have an equally good experience at any school. Admissions is a very unscientific process of game playing, unfathomable priorities and unpredictable decision-making. You send in the best application, get the best recommendations, contact the admissions office and do everything you can to get in. After that, you have to say, `I will put myself in the hands of fate. I have done everything I can do.'

"With that said, getting rejected does not mean your life is over," Levin says. "That's life. If you don't learn how to deal with disappointment in life, you are not going to do very well. You have to learn to move on and try again."

Rejected celebrities

And even though what doesn't kill you might hurt like the dickens, it can also make you stronger - or in some cases, more wildly successful. Steven Spielberg was rejected by the film schools at UCLA and the University of Southern California. Olympic gold medal speed skater Joey Cheek was turned down by Harvard University last fall and plans on trying again. Harvard took a pass on former sportscaster and now MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann, too. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell was rejected by Princeton University.

Famous or not, the lesson that should be learned from college rejection, Levin says, is that "It's not a death sentence."

No, not necessarily.

But it surely feels that way at the time.

Greg Forbes Siegman, a Chicago philanthropist, banked on going to an Ivy League college or Stanford University after graduating from a suburban Chicago high school. His confidence was reasonable. Who could possibly deny a three-sport athlete, editor of the school paper, editor-in-chief of the literary magazine, member of the student government and 4.0 grade point average scholar?

To Siegman's great shock, every school he applied to rejected him.

"My first reaction was to think there had to be some kind of mistake," says the 33-year-old Siegman. "Once reality began to set in, my second reaction was that I wanted to find the nearest bridge and jump."

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