The Vassar 76: On Rejection and Other Life Lessons

5 years ago

On December 9th at noon, my son knew the college of his dreams would be sending an email notifying him of his acceptance or rejection. He didn’t want to find out in front of his classmates so he waited until 2:20 pm when school was over. He went to the library, hid amongst the stacks, and checked his iPhone. It took all of his self-control to not scream for joy when he read: Congratulations!

Then, he did something I only just learned about. He took a screen shot of the acceptance letter, “just in case.” He knew there is always a chance a computer glitch may have sent him the wrong letter. What if it was a mistake? Even though he was a strong candidate, the percentages weren’t with him. In many of the top schools, only 10-15% of applicants are accepted; even the most superlative can be rejected. He wanted to be sure.

That kind of switch and bait probably didn’t occur to most of the 76 students who were recently accepted and then summarily rejected by Vassar College. A computer glitch, just the kind my own son worried about, sent 122 early decision candidates letters of acceptance. For 46 of them, the news was accurate; they had been accepted. For the remaining students, the computer system, in fact the entire system, had failed.


It is one thing to apply to the college of your dreams and to be rejected. Students expect this; it’s inherent in the college application process. But it is a whole different thing to have your dream fulfilled and then hours later have it revoked. To be told, sorry, you really aren’t good enough. Mea culpa.

Vassar’s handling of the situation has been deplorable. Within hours of sending out the acceptance letters, they sent a follow up email saying there had been an “error.”

An email?


In fact, it took days for the college to realize they should actually take the time to call the students individually and to make the appropriate reparations. Yet another failure in the long line of missteps. It makes me wonder if have we lost all sense of human dignity when we can’t take the time to personally acknowledge our mistakes.

But it is the public nature of the humiliation I find the most disturbing. The blogosphere is atwitter with commentary about why these 76 students were not accepted. The outraged uncle of Ciani Holdmen-Williams, one of the 76, provided details on his nephew’s application including his GPA (3.6) and his myriad extra-curricular activities (bible camp and art awards). The response has been chilling.

“A 3.6 is not an amazing GPA. The problem with this applicant is that his application is nothing more than just being good neighbor in Texas. He taught at Sunday school, he taught at bible camp, and won local competitions... He's a very mediocre applicant.”

Another wrote:

“Well, as a Vassar student, I like to think that we are accepted for being 'great.' I was actively involved in ten extracurricular activities, had amazing test scores, leadership positions, National Merit, was a member of three honor societies, and a state writing champion, and I still felt that Vassar was a bit of a reach for me. A 3.6 GPA and helping out at Sunday school just isn't going to cut it. Where are his leadership positions? Honor Societies? Part of being a 'fit' at Vassar is being an exceptional student, and a 3.6 really isn't.”

Similar commentaries, vilifying the students and their records of achievement, can be found all over the web. We know nothing of who the 76 are as individuals or of their circumstances. Nor should we. But we will. You can be sure People Magazine or some variation on the theme will get ahold of them and convince them of the rightness of going public. And sadly, some of these students likely will.

And we will watch or read their interviews and as we do we will deconstruct their character, their activities, their academic records. Why? Because we are all looking for that metric to ensure our own children get the golden ticket of admission into an elite college.

A GPA of 3.6 not good enough? More tutoring. Bible school too pedestrian? Off to India with you. In the race to nowhere, we parents of high school students sit in our chariots and flick our whips all in an effort to ensure Johnny is the “best candidate” he can be.

And the result? Accepted students are at risk for becoming more smug, more self-important, and more convinced they are the “cream of the crop” as those who have commented above show. This sense of entitlement and elitism is one of the many reasons we are seeing a greater divide between the haves and have nots. Those 76 worked hard, hard enough to believe they just might have a shot at one of the top schools in the country, a country where hard work used to matter.

Some of the 76 have already lashed out. One wrote:

“So for those of you who think my fellow rejectees and I are "unqualified", I find your attitude presumptuous. Surely you cannot think that someone who has spent the last four years taking numerous AP classes and devoting hours on end to studying, extracurriculars, and SATs is "unqualified" for a rigorous working environment.”

Another wrote:

“We don't know anything about the real world and about how this really isn't a big deal because we haven't lived that long yet. Right now, at this point in our lives, when we've all spent YEARS (no, not an exaggeration) preparing for this, working on this and towards this, and putting a lot of time, effort, and emotional investment into the application process, to be accepted to our top choice school and then denied really does hurt.”

Some are calling for Vassar to accept the 76. “They can’t be all that bad,” wrote one commentator. But acceptance now is beyond the point. The insult is public and this is the real problem. It will stay with these children well into their adulthood.

When I asked my son what he would have done if something like that had happened to him. He said he would have been devastated and then eventually he would have moved on.

“There are other schools out there,” he said. “These candidates are likely going to find one that is right for them. I know I wouldn’t want to be at a place that didn’t want me.”

One of the 76 concurred. He wrote, “I will do better elsewhere.”

I couldn’t agree more with the commentator who wrote:

“To the students not accepted, my heart does go out to you. Rejection in any form is painful. It will happen more than once in life. Each time you will be challenged to take the next step or leap towards your future. Finding that you have the power to do so is one of the most important life lessons learned.”

It is hard at seventeen (or twenty-seven or forty-seven) to face failure, but this is how character is built. My hope for each of the 76 is they grow stronger from this experience and can one day look back at this and know they did do better, elsewhere.

Gloria Steinem once said, "The first problem for all of us, women and men, is not to learn but to unlearn." I am working on unlearning each and every day. How about you? Lisen

Photo Credit: idblog.

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