When I was a senior in high school, I dedicated the brightest portion of my bedroom wall to college rejection letters. With the exception of the stationary they’re printed on, they are all more or less identical. There is a formula. Begin with the news — don’t delay and don’t use euphemisms. Instead, use words like “unable” and “regret” to drive home the point. Leave no ambiguity. Make sweeping statements about the talent of the applicant pool and compliment your readers before reminding them that you are, in fact, rejecting them. Tell them to try again next time or, if that’s not an option, wish them good luck elsewhere. Mail merge. Sign. Seal. Each of the letters on my wall follows this rubric with its own panache. Each is at once unique and formulaic, something like Grandma’s chocolate chip cookie recipe.
Unlike chocolate chip cookies, though, rejection is universally unpleasant. Rejection plays suitor to vulnerability. Whether by application declined or election denied, all rejectees have considered the delicate balance between fear of rejection and hope for acceptance, sided with the latter and failed. Failure is disappointing. No letter can spin that positively.
These rejections are often intensely private. We try to hide them, we try to forget them and we definitely don’t try to share them. The reason is self-evident: to be rejected implies weakness or flaw. In a society where success is determined by our ability to sell ourselves to prospective employers, peers and love interests, sharing stories of rejection is adaptively unintelligent. It lessens our prospects of acceptance and, moreover, it favors the prospects of our competitors who may not be as willing to admit past failings.
And so, in our society, rejection is silent and acceptance is loud.
But this silence can be harmful. When we laud only the greatest accomplishments of our peers without also accepting their failures, we create false realities. We create metrics for social comparison that are based in speculation rather than actuality. It’s not that accomplishment doesn’t deserve recognition — acceptance is exciting and often worth celebrating. But we shouldn’t dwell on rejection, either. The healthiest communities allow their members to confront and share both successes and failures, and to rejoice in each unique acceptance as a worthy triumph over the rejections that may have accompanied it. This is what I wish for Yale.
So let me attempt to tear down the facade:
My name is Douglas Streat. I am a junior at Yale, one of 12 schools I applied to, though I was rejected from or waitlisted at five. In my time at Yale, I have been rejected from eight a cappella groups and joined one. I have been denied seven student jobs but I currently hold three. I have been rejected by eight people but gone on dates with four. I applied to one Master’s program, was accepted and have matriculated. I received three senior society interviews, and was turned away by all.
I’m not sure that publicizing rejection is meant to feel good. As far as I can tell from having written it here, it doesn’t. But it feels honest. It is healthy to remove the veil of privacy that accompanies the pain of rejection and force oneself to acknowledge successes and failures simultaneously rather than in isolation. In so doing, we create contrasts that promote robust metrics of self-evaluation rather than false pretenses for social comparison.
Of course, it’s easy to philosophize about rejection and harder to accept it in practicality. For most people, there must be time to grieve. This is true for me too. This semester alone, I’ve been rejected from several things I’ve desperately wanted. It hurts. But eventually, even the deepest of wounds can scar over time. I may not ever look back upon any of my rejections positively, but I will face each of them again. And when that time comes, however far into the future it may be, these memories will have their own place on my wall.
My life, like those of many Yale students, is built around a set of inherent privileges. I am lucky. Even spoiled. I have never experienced a real high-stakes rejection — one that threatened my livelihood or even my ability to live a safe and secure life — though I know many people who have. That said, I think the truth here is universal: Rejection should not be and is not a definitive determinant of worth. Action is. As one admissions dean from a school up in Boston wrote to me in his letter three years ago, “past experience suggests that the particular college a student attends is far less important than what the student does to develop his or her strengths and talents over the next four years.” Rejections are badges of strength and catalysts of talent, and they are made for the wall.
Douglas Streat is a junior in Morse College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .