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College Rejection Letters Don't Equal Failure In Life

We're nearing the time of year when high school students will race to their mailboxes in hopes of finding acceptance letters from the colleges of their dreams.

For a fair number of them, the return trip will be filled with grief and tears as they deal with the pain of rejection. In some instances, it will be the first major setback of their still young lives.

But it's important for young people, and their parents, to keep those rejections in perspective. That's the take-away message in a Wall Street Journal piece by my old boss Sue Shellenbarger.

She talks with icons of American success — billionaire Warren Buffett, "Today" show host Meredith Vieira and Nobel laureate in medicine Harold Varmus, all of whom were rejected by Harvard. (Based on this article, you might come away concluding that being rejected by that school is a prerequisite for super success.)

Anyway, the article establishes that not only does life go on after such a rejection but that it can be glorious.

A snippet:

"The truth is, everything that has happened in my life...that I thought was a crushing event at the time, has turned out for the better," Mr. Buffett says. With the exception of health problems, he says, setbacks teach "lessons that carry you along. You learn that a temporary defeat is not a permanent one. In the end, it can be an opportunity."

Mr. Buffett regards his rejection at age 19 by Harvard Business School as a pivotal episode in his life. Looking back, he says Harvard wouldn't have been a good fit. But at the time, he "had this feeling of dread" after being rejected in an admissions interview in Chicago, and a fear of disappointing his father.

As it turned out, his father responded with "only this unconditional unconditional belief in me," Mr. Buffett says. Exploring other options, he realized that two investing experts he admired, Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, were teaching at Columbia's graduate business school. He dashed off a late application, where by a stroke of luck it was fielded and accepted by Mr. Dodd. From these mentors, Mr. Buffett says he learned core principles that guided his investing. The Harvard rejection also benefited his alma mater; the family gave more than $12 million to Columbia in 2008 through the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, based on tax filings.

The lesson of negatives becoming positives has proved true repeatedly, Mr. Buffett says. He was terrified of public speaking—so much so that when he was young he sometimes threw up before giving an address. So he enrolled in a Dale Carnegie public speaking course and says the skills he learned there enabled him to woo his future wife, Susan Thompson, a "champion debater," he says. "I even proposed to my wife during the course," he says. "If I had been only a mediocre speaker I might not have taken it."

The article makes an important point, so much so that college admissions officers might want to get reprint rights so they can send out copies with rejection letters to buck up those who didn't make the cut. Just a thought.

It also reinforces what college admissions officers, especially at the most selective schools, often say. They know that most rejected applicants will go on to have excellent college experiences elsewhere and successful work lives. So admissions officials don't lose a lot of sleep over such rejections and neither should rejected applicants.

It's important to be reminded of this, especially this year with applications for college admission at record levels this year at many institutions.

There will be more tears this year than past years. But rejection by a college admissions official doesn't equal failure in life. Unless you let it.