First Rejections.

By: Jen Shoop

*Image via.

Last week, Mr. Magpie and I were talking to a woman whose daughter was in the midst of receiving college acceptance and rejection letters.  

“Life lessons coming in fast and hard,” observed my husband.  The mother nodded:

“Exactly.  This is the first time in her life she’s been rejected.  And I told her, ‘But it’s done, and you’re still standing.  It’s over, and you’re still here, and you’re fine.’”

What was your first rejection?  What did you learn from it?

College application was also my first rejection.  (Or, perhaps, my first major rejection.  My first year of high school was ungainly as all get-out, and I felt like a gawky outsider for most of it.  I didn’t field any outright rebuffs, but I was nursing wounds of a slighter, and possibly more insidious, silhouette: the ‘why didn’t I get invited?’ and ‘I wish I could be friends with those girls’ type.  It’s probably unfair to label those non-interactions as “rejections,” but that’s what they felt like.)

When I histrionically collapsed into tears after a rejection letter from Princeton University, I wasn’t thinking anything remotely like: “this is my first rejection, and I’m still standing, and I’m still here.”  I was thinking: “My life is over; my identity as an academic is forfeited; Princeton’s admissions teams has outed me as the intellectual charlatan I am.”  I was not one of those four-pronged students, with great grades, a varsity sport, a sterling community service record, and an off-the-wall hobby.  I was Jen with a 4.3 GPA and a string of AP 5 scores under her belt.  I was valedictorian of my class, and – that was all.  Until the letter arrived in the mail, I’d thought, ‘And that’s OK.  Academics are my bailiwick.’  So my outright rejection from a school I had publicly stated I wanted to attend dismantled my sense of self.  Adding salt to the wound: two of my close friends had gotten into Princeton, and three others were Ivy-bound.  I had to white-knuckle my way through celebrating the arrival of their thickly padded acceptance envelopes.  I tried, fastidiously, to avoid jealousy and instead riot against the injustice of Princeton admissions, but it was hard.  I found myself tiptoeing around an unbecoming calculus: was it because they had family connections?  Had at least one or two extracurriculars?  Were smarter than I was?

Comparison is the thief of joy. It left me sour when I could have been celebrating my own acceptances (multiple!), and I had the wherewithal to see this, but was not particularly elegant about extricating myself from its brawny grip. Still, my awareness that the paths my friends had started down would not be my own, and that there was nothing I could do about that but go my own way was a precursor to the bigger learning that my first major rejection offered me:

When one door closes, another opens, and it is the one you’re meant to walk through.

UVA was the best possible experience for me at that time. I met and started dating the love of my life. I was in a special scholars program that made me feel recognized for my intellectual abilities. I came into my own socially. I made a ring of best friends who have proved to be “lifers” — we reconvened in Atlanta this past fall, and we all keep in good touch with one another. I worked hard, and I had so much fun. Virginia laminated me, shaped me, enriched me, and I emerged a happier, better-rounded woman. Would these things have happened at Princeton? I have no idea, and we’re entering Schrodinger’s Cat territory by engaging with the question. The point is: I went to UVA and found the experience roundly fulfilling, and I knew with a kind of bone-deep certainty that this was where I was meant to be.

It took a full semester enrolled at UVA for me to begin to see this. Meaning: I was licking my wounds for nearly a year.

One thing I find auspicious about the generation of children we are raising now is that they will be armed with a fuller vocabulary when encountering these routine, coming-of-age emotional maelstroms. I know my family said all the most nurturing and generous things to me when I was flailing against the Princeton letter, but we did not talk about rejection and failure in the abstract. I did not have a grasp on the topography of life lesson-making. I knew only: “I feel really bad, and I don’t know how to get out of this, and life is over.” I’m sure teens today feel those same emotions on a visceral level, but they probably also hear things like: “This is the first of many rejections in your life. And you’re fine, and you’re still standing.” So much of modern parenting seems to be about “giving kids the tools” and “coaching them through emotions” and I am hopeful that my own daughter can encounter her own first major rejection without holding a funeral for a full year.

What are your thoughts, friends? What were the major lessons from your own first rejection?


*Caveat to today’s musing: I recognize my privilege in being able to attend college and have my pick of the options in front of me. I know these conversations are triggering to those who had different experiences and constraints, or for whom college was not an option.

+On pursuing English as a major.

+What would you study if you could go back to school tomorrow?

+One of the best classes I took at UVA.

Shopping Break.

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+Look better on your Zoom calls! (An Alix Earle rec, so you know it’s good.)

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+Chic striped shirtdresses from H&M — mini and midi.

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25 thoughts on “First Rejections.

  1. I just read the comments, and I seem to have had a different reaction/takeaway to this! Mine is to the parenting lesson in it al (whether about college or anything)l. I find it interesting in your posts that you seem so gracious and grateful for the way your parents and family raised you, which is wonderful. However, here you note that you hope the next generation is being raised with more conversation around these feelings and more coping skills. I agree, as a mom of three. I do then find myself having a reaction of anger towards my own parents, for their failings to give me the things I strive to give my children.I was raised in a way where hard things were never talked about, feelings were brushed under the rug and minimized if they were at all negative, and just generally emotional security was not prioritized or understood. I know it was the time, and they did (for the most part, I think) the best they could. But I can’t help feeling disappointed at my parents for how their parenting in these ways failed me. Is that unfair?! Do you ever have these thoughts?

    1. Hi Elisabeth! I don’t personally have those thoughts, but I do know friends who have struggled with exactly what you’re describing. Some of them have gone to therapy because of it. It feels like the major themes that emerge are around really looking at and repairing whatever we felt was mishandled so that we don’t pass those elements on to our children.

      I think we have made a lot of strides forward in general in my lifetime in terms of normalizing the full gamut of emotions, and having open conversations about how to navigate them. I love that we do this in our home, with our children. (One of my favorite books is “Grumpy Monkey,” which more or less says: It’s OK to have had a bad day / to be grumpy for no obvious reason / to not want to immediately dance yourself out of that headspace. Interesting to compare that to “Alexander and the No Good Very Bad Day,” which we read a lot when I was a child, and which dealt with similar themes, but in a more…lampoonish? way? As in, “Ah, Alexander is just being a grouch today about the silliest things.” There’s a tinge of condescension to it, don’t you think?) Anyhow, I have a lot of empathy for previous generations, who were told/taught to suppress what they felt, to push it out of the way, to grin and bear it. It must have been so, so difficult! A lot of white-knuckling. But! Having that context doesn’t absolve people for behaving certain ways, or mean that you didn’t get hurt because of it. Both can be true.

      I’m rambling here, but just — sending you some love, I see you!!


  2. I too had a crushing college rejection and the pain still lingers. We myopic humans love to set our minds on single paths when in truth, there are so many different iterations of life available to us if only we are willing to open our eyes to the possibilities.

  3. The night that I was waiting to hear from my top school via email, I was at a friend’s house. When I think about getting rejected from that school, I think of the friend who hosted me at her house the night that I was nervously waiting for the email and who made my favorite dish for us to enjoy for dinner. She wasn’t going through the college admissions process herself, but she was still invested in a positive outcome for me. I feel so lucky to have experienced such selfless caring and thoughtfulness in a friendship at such a pivotal moment in my life. I didn’t feel great when I saw the rejection, but I also knew that life would continue with many good things coming my way, and that I already had such amazing things in my life (that friend, that dinner, etc.).

    1. I love the way she offered you a soft landing that night, and how her generosity redirected the narrative. So powerful!!


  4. Jen,

    This post resonates almost too closely for me. I too was valedictorian with Ivy League aspirations (and a high school resume that is exhausting to even read these days). I wound up at a school that I still think wasn’t the right fit for me more than a decade post graduation but have learned so much about myself in that time. My early-decision rejection was so brutal my mom saw my tears, drove me to Target with her credit card and we did some retail therapy. After an incredibly rough first semester at college, I was in deep depression and began working with mental health professionals. My mom is the reason I didn’t drop out right then and there. The pressure and expectations that were set were beyond unrealistic that the disappointment was exponentially worse and irrational than it should have been.

    I don’t know where I am going with these thoughts but wanted to say I hear you. I was you. I am working on being a better me every day and figuring out ways to minimize regret and anger at past situations I cannot change.

    Thank you for your honesty. My heart feels a little lighter knowing that someone I admire had such a similar experience.

    1. Amen to the comment: “My heart feels a little lighter knowing that someone I admire had such a similar experience.” I feel this way routinely whenever I check my comments section! Aha, I am not alone!! So powerful.

      I’m so sorry for your experience, though, and that — though you learned a LOT from the experience — where you landed was still not the right place for you. Experience is a cruel teacher…


      1. I should follow up and say that I adore school and have since gotten a post-bac and am in the middle of my MBA while working full time and attempting to potentially start a bit of a side business. That’s a mouthful.

        All this to say that even when the initial path fails and you aren’t happy with the secondary path you take, there can be bright spots. I am incredibly confident in knowing what I like/don’t like and what I want/don’t want out of life and share these thoughts without abandon. I think I am finally finding my voice, just a little later than the ‘real world’ expected me to do so.

        Looking back (and at the state of the world now), I don’t think many, if any, 18 year olds are really capable of making a decision about college that is so incredibly expensive and can make a huge impact on life trajectory. I wish more people were willing and able to take a gap year to do some work, some travel, and some volunteering to better grasp what the real world is, what privileges they have, and what they want to get out of an education, along with what type of person they want to be. I think our society’s formula of K-12, College, Job isn’t necessarily the best path for everyone and alternatives aren’t given enough credit. Also, decision making skills are not instilled early enough for such significant decisions.

        Another rambling comment from me to say thank you for posting this and for always taking time to respond to each blog comment. It means more than you know!

        1. I love this: ” I am incredibly confident in knowing what I like/don’t like and what I want/don’t want out of life and share these thoughts without abandon. I think I am finally finding my voice, just a little later than the ‘real world’ expected me to do so.” Wow – inspiring!

          Thanks for sharing!! xx

  5. Jen, I worked in admissions for six years and have worked in college counseling for close to nine now–this is so beautifully written. I’ll be sharing it with some of the families I am working with this year!

    1. Hi Abigail! Thanks so much for writing in – I’m thrilled to hear this! Hopefully my hard-earned rejections lessons can soften the blow for others. Experience is a cruel but efficient teacher…!


  6. As a college senior, I went to NYC for an interview at Price Waterhouse coopers for “Bucknell interview day.” Basically, 5 Bucknellians all being interviewed by Bucknell alum who worked there. It was awful. I was not a typical Bucknellian, I was a scholarship athlete, so all the conversation topics (Greek life, studying abroad) left me feeling ostracized. Plus I just bombed the interview. But, a nice, more typical Bucknell boy had driven me into the city. On the drive back to Pennsylvania, like 15 minutes into the 3 hour drive, he got a phone call and a job offer!!! So I had to spend nearly 3 hours in a car alone with him being nice and congratulatory while realizing the truth: I didn’t get the job, had no job, it was spring of my senior year, I was screwed, etc! That night back in my dorm I got the official rejection and was devastated.

    It goes without saying I would have hated working at PWC and honestly ended up in a much better fit for me at a company in Madison, Wisconsin, a place where I made so many friends and I am so glad I lived and will always be dear to me.

    1. Joyce! That three hour ride just feels like cruel and unusual punishment. Yikes! I was sweating for you, decades after the incident and removed from it! I’m so glad landed where you were meant to, though :). What’s meant for you will not miss you…!


  7. Man what a blessing in disguise most rejections are when all the dust settles!

    My first rejection came from getting wait-listed at my top choice med school. I thought I had it all- the grades, the volunteering, the Hopkins research, the athletic accolades, the exam scores. I was their first wait list which was gut wrenching….on tenterhooks for months waiting for someone to drop, but no one did. I went to my second choice feeling defeated (such cringe- I can’t believe I once deigned to go to my second choice, I’m embarrassed for myself)- but in the end it was such an absolute blessing. The community I found in that school, the only thing I can say is that they were meant for me. I found my husband there. I took risks I might have been too scared to take at a bigger institution. I absolutely flourished there.

    Now when I think of that rejection, and especially as I observe the stress and strain of my cousins going on college tours and making themselves ill at the stress of applications, it all feels like such a humongous trick by higher ed. The idea that any specific institution has *the magic thing* one needs to succeed. When really the magic is in us all. It’s a unique alchemy of person and place and experience that can yield incredible results as long as you show up ready to work for it.
    I’m so glad that I (and these commenters…and probably so many readers) found the right place, at the right time, and the right attitude.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Jenny — truly, the universality of facing a rejection experience takes the sting out of it a bit, don’t you think? Like I didn’t know then, but probably half of my high school class experienced it. We all just kept the emotions closeted!

      I love this insight: “When really the magic is in us all” — yes! I also strongly believe that people bloom where they’re planted, you know?


    2. Jenny, your second paragraph .. louder for the people in the back!! I could not agree with you more. It’s wonderful to have this type of insight after encountering, and surmounting, rejection. I wish I’d had a friend say this to me when I was deferred from my top choice university … and I am keeping your words with me for future tough situations!


  8. wow, could not relate more. i similarly had my type-A, academic-excelling heart set on extremely exclusive colleges (although, more of the east-coast-tiny-elitist-liberal-arts-school variety) and applied to my big state university as an ultimate-ultimate safety. i was wait-listed at my dream school, accepted and rejected from a variety of the remaining handful, and my state school option offered me a spot in the honors program + a 10-student, incredibly unique major-specific track and mentorship within that honors program + and a partial scholarship. i ended up at the state school, and similarly, established an amazing core friend group, met my husband in the later years on campus, and ended up unknowingly exposed to my dream career path that exists today. perhaps most importantly, i emerged debt-free, which is an incredible gift – one that i had zero appreciation for, and limited understanding of the impact, at the time. i wouldn’t trade my experience for anything, but i too remember feeling the high-stakes, all-consuming obsession with college admissions decisions, as though the entire culmination of k-12 toiling was bestowed a pass/fail by elite admissions committees.

    now, thinking about my own daughter, there’s a part of me that wonders if the college application process (or even the traditional model of college itself?) will exist in the same form in 18 years, when it’s her turn. given the virtual learning expansion, optional standardized testing submissions, AI influence in academic settings, expanding cost of college, focus on STEM and self-taught fields, it will be interesting to see how higher education exists and transforms (or doesn’t!) over the coming decades.

    1. SO fascinating that we had such parallel tracks here, and came to commensurate conclusions! I feel so lucky for so many reasons that I ended up where I did…just another reminder that “what’s meant for you will not miss you.”

      I share your thoughts on the future of higher ed and will be curious to see where things are. The experiments of MOOCs and free, online courseware (ITunesU, Coursera, etc) from a decade ago did not exactly fail but revealed to us how powerful the in-person or at least cohort-based models are, with realtime feedback, and commitments, and credentials. It tempered my views on the future of higher ed, e.g., I’d previously thought colleges as we knew them were on the brink of disappearing, but now I think they will continue to exist, with different modes or offerings as time goes on. The cost remains a major problem for many reasons — philosophical, pragmatic, macro-economic…


      1. had to share… i relate deeply to many of your posts and don’t always have the chance to comment, but the kinship of shared experiences and adolescent emotions is a sort of relational alchemy (to steal another commenter’s lovely word choice) in and of itself.

        i tend to agree with your thoughts re: higher ed, too. these institutions have existed for centuries, so transformation, not entire elimination, is likely the future. will be interesting to see!

  9. My first major rejection was when I didn’t get the fellowship at UCLA. They went with a Ph.D candidate. I still only have my MA. I was so heartbroken and upset. I thought it was my ticket back W. My 2nd and 3rd rejections were for positions I applied for, tickets I saw as my out and back to living on the East Coast. My other rejections were other positions. I somehow tied my identity to each of these and even in my current position I was rejected 3 times by own alma mater before landing my current position which suits me well. I didn’t understand at the time why Georgetown or Syracuse or Fordham didn’t work out or the other positions at my current employer. But I am seeing how Philosophy and English and my MA in Bioethics have paved the way for me in the work I do. And maybe I have come full-circle. And i am very thankful to have landed back in academia, my special place ❤️ I too acknowledge my privilege because I am grateful I could go to school where I want and to go straight to grad school and have a year of Americorps earning little to nothing. Am very thankful for all that I have esp this blog which continues to bring me JOY!!

    1. Hi Michelle! Thanks so much for sharing — and it’s so fascinating to think about the fact that you were rejected 3x before getting the position you wanted. Wow! Persistence pays off. I’m so glad everything has worked out for you!! Cheering you on!! Thanks for reading!


  10. Parents prepare!
    College entrance acceptances are THE WORST! As parents we sign our kids up for good schools from pre-order through high school where admittance is highly competitive. We finally get through that and the college admissions process begins. And believe me this is a whole new ballgame. You have different in state acceptance quotas, alumni and most notably major donors (building size donors) to contend against. I personally found this process way more difficult and quite unfair. As a parent it is also very difficult to explain to a 17 year old.
    Our child had his heart set on a very prestigious university but was denied acceptance out of high school. He went a year to another university and was lucky enough to get one of the ten transfer positions available to his dream school. We were thrilled when he finished top of his class in aerospace engineering from this school that had not even accepted him as a freshman! He refused to give up on his dream.
    Just a totally unjust process! So glad its in our rear view mirror!

    1. UGH! I am dreading it. This is the same tone the mother I referenced in this post had, too — “I am not having fun,” she said. Yuck!


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