How to Handle A College Rejection

I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 24 of 100.

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Last Friday, tensions were high.

This was at the wonderful high school where I work as a writing / journalism teacher, on the last day of writing class before winter break, in the apex of the season of college admissions / rejection letters. Some of my students get into the colleges they want to get into, and others do not. In 2018, this happens on a web portal in the middle of the school day, around scads of classmates and teachers. My high school peers and I were graced with the amnesty of paper envelopes that arrived in the mail, which at least allowed the reader to cry alone in her closet if she needed to. This live-app-updating culture is cruel. Nothing can be sacred; nothing can be private.

Reactions to a college rejection range from tight smiles and sentences like, “It’s fine, I’m not surprised, I didn’t really even want to go there that much anyway,” to out and out crying tantrums that have to be relocated to the bathroom. The whole class community is hyperaware of this emotional minefield.

I absolutely love my job, and I cannot imagine loving a job more. I love the school, and I love my boss (those are good and unusual things), and more than anything, I freaking love these kids. “Kids” isn’t even the right word, because they’re mostly all eighteen now, which means they’re fledgling adults — a uniquely difficult human role. Fledgling birds may have to climb on perilous branches, but they sure as hell don’t have to hit refresh on a college admissions website all day long.

When I was eighteen, I felt like nothing I could do would satisfy my parents. I felt like nothing I could do would satisfy my teachers. I felt like nothing I could do would be enough. And that is a Big Feeling, and it turns out, it is a hard one to shake.

My students are better than I was, and before you protest, know that this is objectively true. They are better because, in general and out loud, they love and support each other more than I ever loved and supported my peers (or maybe anyone). They clap for each other all the time; they give standing ovations during the student showcases, no matter how nerdy or out-there or off-tune the performance might be. When they show up to my class, we do emotional check-ins (“How are you feeling on a scale from 1 - 10 and why?”), and the students are both funny and vulnerable; they listen when it isn’t their turn to speak; they reach out and touch someone’s shoulder if that person is starting to cry.

So I love coming to school because it makes me hopeful. Surely, what this world needs is more vulnerability; a deeper capacity for listening. These students have that. This makes it easier for me to get out of bed every day with a fundamental belief that the hard work of showing up in the world matters, and it will pay off.

But nevertheless, Friday was a hard day. I decided we could have a circle — this is a restorative justice technique that I swear by — to talk about feelings for the second half of class. It was an opt-in circle — no one was required to sit in it — but almost everyone opted in. The circle lasted for the rest of the day. The students passed a talking piece (I know, whatever, but it works) and discussed their feelings about college and the future. We all promised that what was said in the circle would stay in the circle, so I am coming to you now with no specifics. I will say that when I left school, I was shaken, and I was sad. I have been carrying it with me since then. There were so many things I wished I could say to my students — and I think, more, there were so many things I wished I could say to myself when I was getting rejected from college. Rejection really sucks. Like I said: it is a lot to put on the shoulders of a fledgling.

So I wrote this letter, just in case I ever have the chance to say what I really wish I’d said on Friday.


Dear Students,

You are enough.

You have to believe me. I know you don’t think I know you very well, but I do. I see you doing thirty things at one time, trying to please your friends and your family and your teachers. You have encyclopedic knowledge of YouTube celebrities and you also take Physics. You say “I love you” to your pets, and to random straggly dogs on the street; you hold your friends’ hands when they’re having a bad day; you try scary things (like dancing in public, or eating green ketchup) all the dang time. I know you, and you are enough.

And even if I didn’t know you all that well, I would still be confident in telling you that you are enough. I DO know that, generally speaking, you don’t wake up every morning trying to make other people suffer. You get out of bed, and, at least some of the time, your intention is to be gentle and kind. I can tell that this is true in tiny moments, like when you hold the door open for someone, or ask someone else how they’re feeling. That’s enough. 

There are a lot of reasons people will try to make you feel like you aren’t enough, and some of those reasons are crazy (like anything written in a glossy magazine), but others are complicated. It’s probable that your parents sacrificed a lot for you. Your teachers work to find opportunities for you. Adults want you to succeed because we know that resources are unfortunately scarce, and because we love you, we want you to be comfortable, happy, and healthy. Resources are especially scarce if you’re a person of color, or a woman, or a queer person, or a trans person, or a person with physical differences, or anyone who doesn’t fit into the dominant social strata. That ISN’T FAIR. You’re eighteen, so you already know that this is true, and that it isn’t fair. Your parents are trying their hardest, and they want you to be ok — and sometimes people want that so much that they end up being hurtful. Also, separately, your parents believe, deep inside them — where you are their baby, where they have the softest instinctual understanding that self-acceptance is the ultimate safety — that you are enough. Just as you are. You are enough.

Here’s the thing about college: so much of it is SO ARBITRARY. Colleges have checklists and algorithms and rules they’re supposed to follow. You’re more likely to get in somewhere, maybe, if you know someone who works there. Or maybe you’ll get in if the person reading your application happens to agree with your strong opinions about cross country skiing that you detailed in your essay. As much as colleges will try to convince you otherwise, the college application process is actually not about you at all. It’s about numbers and quotas; history and last names; biases and the need to keep powerful institutions powerful. You are not the problem. You are enough.

Ultimately, colleges are institutions. This is really too bad, because it means that the cards are unfairly stacked, and that unfortunately, the cards matter. I know that’s confusing, so here’s an example. Consider a hypothetical college. In order to continue to run, the college needs money. The college gets some of that money from tuition, and it gets a lot more of it from donors and alumni. Statistically speaking, the donors and alumni are likely rich, white, and male, and they want their values upheld if they’re going to keep giving money to the institution. The more money the college has, the more sparkly the college can look to other investors, donors, and potential students. If the college looks sparkly, it will attract more powerful students. Note that it does not necessarily attract BETTER students. Students who are able to perform according to a set of Westernized standards put into place over hundreds of years at the discretion of mostly rich, mostly white, mostly male communities are more likely to graduate from college and make more money, which means they have the potential to become alumni who can give the college more money — and money, of course, is what the college wants. It has nothing to do with what you ARE; it is about what you AREN’T. You, inherently, are enough.

When I say “Westernized standards” I mean, who’s to say that the Greek philosopher Aristotle is more important or intelligent than the Muslim philosopher Averroes? One is required reading in American academic institutions, and one is not. History is written by the victors. That does not make the invisible histories less true, less valid, or less important. But powerful institutions rely on the status quo never changing. In order to hold on to their power (and they want, desperately, to hold on to their power) institutions have to continue to bestow privileges to people who look like them, think like them, and will protect them as they age. As admissions committees make decisions, they are usually thinking about themselves. For the deciders, it’s not about you. You, I assure you, are enough.

So maybe you are thinking, “Then what’s the point? I don’t want to be a part of these institutions. I don’t want to sacrifice who I am to reinforce the status quo.” To that I say, at least initially, “Good for you.” But the trouble is — and here’s what I mean when I say “the cards matter” — that you will need a job someday, and to get a job that will pay you a fair living wage, you really do need a bachelor’s degree. This is the world we live in, and, once again, it is absolutely NOT FAIR. In the Western world, money is attached directly to worth. People who don’t have access to money also don’t have access to food or shelter, but more importantly, their self-worth plummets. Study after study shows that poverty is deeply demoralizing. It’s true: we are so sick as a country that we assign value to people based on what they have, and not who they are. Please, let me continue to assure you: who you are is enough.

There is exactly one thing I know FOR SURE. That’s right: just one. The thing I know, definitely, is that hurt begets hurt. People who are hurt hurt other people. The people who are most effective at making others feel small are the ones who have felt smallest themselves — whether or not it was justified. They are the people who have looked powerlessness in the face and felt terror. Fear is the most painful feeling, you know. It hurts in a rooted and animal place. Abusers — abusers of other people, of power, of money, of ideas, you name it — are always hurting, and their pain is big and ugly and filled with fear. Please don’t misunderstand: this does not excuse abusive behavior. It is to warn you and to remind you. You, who are good, WHO ARE ENOUGH, exactly as you are, are a threat to the terrified powerful few. If you believe that you are enough, there’s nothing to take from you. If there’s nothing to take from you, then really, how can anyone have power over you? If you are enough, then you are enough. And you are enough.

I’ve told you that a lot now. I keep saying it because I know you still don’t believe it. I get it: this is a hard thing to believe. These colleges say you’re not enough; the people around you say you’re not enough; everything you consume on every media platform in the country insists again and again that you are not enough. Why should you believe me? I am a small voice in a crush of noise. And so I know that asking you to believe that you are enough is a lot.

So what I wish for you is for you to do the most impossible thing. What I wish is that when you feel the hurt that you will inevitably feel, that you don’t shrink into fear, but rise into love. Love is kind. It holds the door, it listens when other people talk, it doesn’t read the comments. Love is the voice that is saying, “I am enough.” You are enough. I know this, because I love you.

With All My Heart,

Sophie Lucido Johnson