Share Your Best College Rejection Letter

Have you been collecting and lamenting incoming college rejection letters? Share them with us and lessen the sting. Also, Sue Shellenbarger, columnist for the Wall Street Journal, has some advice on how to cope with being denied entry to your university of choice.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The poet tells us that April is the cruelest month, a line that rings especially true for the millions of high school seniors who receive rejection letters from their top colleges. Over the past few weeks, many fat and many more thin envelopes arrived in the mail - some confusing, some inadvertently cruel, at least to disappointed teenagers.

What is the most interesting rejection letter you've ever opened? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you could join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from her home in Portland, Oregon is Sue Shellenbarger, the work and family columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Her article, "Rejection: Some Colleges Do It Better Than Others," appeared in today's editions of the paper. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today, Sue.

Ms. SUE SHELLENBARGER (Columnist, The Wall Street Journal): Nice to join you, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: So after reading all those college rejections, which was the toughest one that you read?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: I think Stanford University and Bates College in Lewiston, Maine were up there, although this was certainly not a scientific survey, I have to emphasize. But some colleges are more direct and honest than others. And some of they say, you know, not all of our applicants were - met our standards. And I think they certainly - falls into that category.

Stanford lowered a very firm door against any appeals and that's their particular problem in California where many families think they can appeal these decisions. And Stanford wrote a fairly kind letter but made it very, very clear that appeals will simply not be accepted. And many students were crushed by that if they had their hopes set on Stanford.

CONAN: The - you mentioned Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, quote - and this is from your article today, quote, "The deans were obliged to select from among candidates who could clearly do sound work at Bates," leaving you strongly, I guess, with the impression that you could do not do strong work at Bates.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: But it's interesting, isn't it? That I think part of this -much of the story is in the people who receive the letter. Of course all the applicants at any college can't do the work, but - and the letter is fairly honest and direct. And the dean of admission there is - it takes great pains to write a respectful letter, agonizes over it, as do most of these deans, tries very hard to be clear, but, you know, again, respectful. It's very hard to phrase a letter that someone isn't going to take wrong because these students are at such a sensitive stage at their lives.

CONAN: Sure. And you mentioned the Stanford letter. Admission decisions are final and there's absolutely no appeal process. So, forget it is the message that's being sent to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: Well, that's right. And in speaking to admission dean, Rick Shaw, there, he says if he didn't do that he would be swamped with people who want to appeal. Even with that language in the letter he gets 200 or so appeals each year. And for the deans that's almost overwhelming sometimes.

CONAN: Yes. And people will not see things they don't want to see. Even if they mentioned seven times that no appeals will be accepted, people will still appeal.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: That's right. And Rick Shaw, too, has labored over that letter to make it, you know, as gentle as possible so students aren't despairing when they get it. But it's a really hard balancing act for these admissions folks to handle.

CONAN: What got you interested? There's been stories about people posting their rejection letters online and sort of whining about them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: Well, living in a world where - that's peopled by a lot of teenagers - I happen to have kids in this age bracket myself, lots of friends with children in this age bracket. And the month of April is a very tender time and when those rejections come in by cell phone, when the kids are at school and they're in despair, or when the letters arrive in the mail and you speak to the parents who are just despairing, it's hard to miss. The college admission game has become such a consuming topic for so many millions of families now, that it's pretty hard to miss it.

CONAN: And a lot of kids are applying to a lot more colleges than you or I may have.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: Well, yes, that's right. We have a record large graduating class in high school seniors this year. And based on what deans told me, I think that we're seeing probably a third more applications on average from each of these students, eight to 12 colleges compared with maybe five to seven in the past. So the number of applications is way up and so is the number of rejection letters. So it's become a bigger phenomenon.

CONAN: Here's an email from Irene in Buffalo, New York. Two months ago while at work, I received an acceptance e-mail into one of the top graduate programs I applied to. I jumped for joy, put on my two weeks notice, and said a few things to my boss about how sick I was of my job.

Fifteen minutes later, I received an email explaining the acceptance had been sent to the wrong person, and that I was in fact rejected.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: Oh, that's the worst of all possible outcomes. That happened on a larger scale at University of California, San Diego this year, where they accidentally sent an invitation to an admitted student's open house to some 29,000 rejected applicants. It's not a good time to make a mistake.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the line. What's the most interesting rejection you've ever received? 800-989-8255. We're talking about jobs, people. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Mary is with us from Denver.

MARY (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi.

MARY: Mine was actually a wait-listing letter from Stanford - so I thought it was interesting that you found that the one of the worst ones are direct ones -and it was for medical school. And I remember the opening line, word perfect, 25 years later. It started: This letter can't make you very happy, but it could have been worse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: What? They could have told you you had cancer?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARY: Well, what they said is, you know, we're wait-listing you, not rejecting you. Interestingly, the letter had one grammatical error and one misspelling -from a university…

CONAN: And…

MARY: I got accepted to Columbia University and went there for med school. And I thought about sending Stanford a letter back that said: This letter can't make you very happy, but it could've been worse. I could - you could've accepted me and I could be rejecting you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Mary, you've gone on to triumph after triumph, I'm sure - from strength to strength.

MARY: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Emily in Baton Rouge. When I received a rejection letter while applying to colleges five years ago, I received one filled with typos and misspelled words. It made me feel a lot better about not attending that particular college.

So people will find, you know, comfort wherever it may lie, even vengeance a little bit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's go to the other end of the spectrum. Are there any colleges that you found that did it well?

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: Certainly, yes. Harvard, Duke - both had outstanding letters that - actually…

CONAN: Oh, well, they have a lot of experience.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: They - that's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: They certainly have. And I - both of them, I think, provided something that the reader is looking for. And first, it's an assurance that you're going to do fine anyway. This is not a rejection of you as a human being. And second, kind of some help putting the rejection in perspective, taking the long view if you will.

Harvard, in particular, said past experience suggests a particular college a student attends isn't less - is less important than what the student does to develop strengths over the next four years.

Right away, it tells the reader, you're okay, you're going to be all right. And one of the - one young woman from Texas who got that letter said, you know, it made me feel proud for having even applied, and that's a real accomplishment.

CONAN: That is an accomplishment. But, yeah, you do get those that, you know, suggest that maybe you're better off checking out your local junior college or something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: Yes. Some of them make you feel pretty low. It's true.

CONAN: Let's talk with Anne(ph). Anne is calling us from the home of Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

ANNE (Caller): Yes. Hi, Neal. I'm a novelist. And when my agent was trying to sell my first novel, it went to one house and - where they kept it from about six weeks. And finally, the editor wrote to my agent and said, I'm sorry to have kept Anne's novel so long, but my secretary's dog got sick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANNE: I still have the letter.

CONAN: Have you ever done business with that particular house since?

ANNE: No.

CONAN: Ha.

ANNE: My secretary's dog - I loved it.

CONAN: It's almost like homework excuses.

ANNE: Isn't it?

CONAN: Yeah.

ANNE: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, I'm sure that they've lived to regret it.

ANNE: Of course they have. I love your program.

CONAN: Thank you, Anne. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

ANNE: Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Gabe in San Francisco. I was surprised to receive rejection notifications via e-mail from two law schools, UVA and Harvard.

When I filled out all of my application online and checked my admission status through most school's Web site, I still expected to receive an official response in physical form. Maybe I'm clinging to the thick envelope-thin envelop ritual from my undergrad experience. The wait-list notifications I received through email were less off-putting, perhaps because they were not final decisions.

The University of Virginia explained: I hope you excuse the informality of this communication, but I thought you might appreciate speed over formality. In addition, we're communicating via email almost exclusively now as part of our effort to reduce our consumption of paper.

Harvard Law School noted - denials of admissions are neither negative estimates of potential for the study of law nor absolute assessments of candidate's achievements.

Well, I guess they've been working on their verbiage there. That's not so great. Email is typical for graduate school but not for undergrad?

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: More of the undergrad schools are going to email as well or to log-in-to-our-Web-site-and-press-this-button-and-we'll-tell-you, which -there's some real transition going on there, and the schools are wrestling with whether that's a better or a worse way to deliver the news.

And sometimes the notification online can be especially abrupt. There's one big university, for example, that just flashes on the screen, denied…

CONAN: Oh.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: …denied.

CONAN: Oh.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: And - right, and really, really harsh. So I think that that's an evolving science, and hopefully they'll figure out a little, gentler way to convey the news. But it's definitely a transition going on there.

CONAN: Here's an email from John in Tucson. Several years ago, I applied for a graduate program in UCLA. I received only an email linking to a PDF rejection letter. Wow. Excellent. He continues, I have several friends that also received the same email - birds of a common feather.

A rejection letter that gets you to an email that sends you to a link to a PDF rejection letter, which is presumably a form letter that begins, dear sir or madam.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: That's very common. And somehow, the schools think of PDF, I think, is little gentler than the - some of them actually say we're not going to send you a paper letter because we know you don't want to see it. It'll just make you feel worse, in essence.

And so, you know, it's hard to say how people will take that. I do know that in the - among the high school crowd, many of the kids get together and open their emails en masse. There's comfort in numbers, and many of them were anticipating so many rejections this year that they shared that burden.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're talking with Sue Shellenbarger, the work and family columnist for the Wall Street Journal. And she's with us from her home in Oregon. What's the most interesting rejection letter you've ever gotten from a college or a university? 800-989-8255, email: talk@npr.org.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to Jeff(ph). Jeff calling from Cleveland.

JEFF (Caller): Hi there, Neal. I got - I didn't feel too bad after getting a rejection letter from Vanderbilt's graduate school. However, when I got a second rejection through email, I started to feel a little worse about myself, and then nearly cried after a duplicate rejection email from the same school.

But I'm, like, once again, felt a little bit better after I got a apology letter about the multiple rejections.

CONAN: Just in case you needed any more nails driven in your coffin.

JEFF: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, did you manage, finally, find some poor schlub of a school that was willing to take you?

JEFF: Sweet University of Vermont, thank you very much.

CONAN: Congratulations.

JEFF: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

JEFF: Bye-bye.

CONAN: There are some that you describe in your piece, Sue, as, well, Boston University is the most discouraging - this, of course, to students who had applied mentioning that their family had a long tradition of attending this particular institution of higher learning.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: And Boston University is not alone in this. Many universities and colleges make clear to the applicants that they've considered their family ties when they've looked over their applications, because many of them do give so-called legacies higher priority in admission.

But in the case, I found, there was a letter opened right up by saying, we looked very hard at your application. We know you have family ties and we still rejected you, to paraphrase. And the kid who got…

CONAN: Thanks for the new gym.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: Exactly. The kid who received this said that, well, that means we made it even easier for you and you still couldn't get in. And of course the university, you know, to its credit, you know, tries to be as sensitive as possible and believes that families want to know that those ties were considered. So, again, it's a delicate balancing act, but very tough to read when you're one of those privileged applicants.

CONAN: Let's go to Jennifer(ph). Jennifer with us from Farmington Hills in Michigan.

JENNIFER: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: How are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thanks.

JENNIFER: My case was similar to that. My father and his father were alumni of Notre Dame University. And when I applied, I didn't get a special letter talking about the family ties. I got a form letter.

My father received a letter, talking about how they were very sorry, they did their best to find positions for the family of alumni, and they hope that this would not impinge on his future gifts to the university.

CONAN: Boy, there's…

JENNIFER: (Unintelligible)…

CONAN: I got thrown out of a school once and got the fundraising letter the next week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Dear alumnus…

JENNIFER: They really don't like to jeopardize the funds.

CONAN: No, I guess not. They know who is writing the checks in that particular family.

JENNIFER: They did try to soften the blow for him, but mine was a form letter.

CONAN: Jennifer, we hope you've recovered.

JENNIFER: I have. My grandmother was hurt more by the rejection than I was. I had not anticipated being accepted. She was sure that after all of the years of donations that I would be accepted, but…

CONAN: Well, there's surprises for us all in life, and I guess that's a good thing. Thank you very much, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And let's see if we can go to one last caller. This is Lizzie(ph). Lizzie with us from Kittery in Maine.

LIZZIE (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi.

LIZZIE: I got a rejection letter in - I was applying to enter Colgate University in the fall of '99 and wound up halfway in Hamilton College. But Colgate sent me a letter that started with the word congratulations. And of course, I put the letter down in a room full of friends and ran, phone called my parents at work, called my grandparents, call half of everybody I knew.

My poor boyfriend at the time was the one who read the rest of the letter. And it said, congratulations, you've been part of the strongest applicant class that Colgate has had in many years. We're sorry we're unable to offer a position in the class of 2003.

CONAN: Whoa.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIZZIE: Called back the parents, called back the grandparents, called back everybody I knew, tail between my legs for quite sometime.

CONAN: All right, deans, if you're out there listening, write carefully.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Lizzie, thanks very much for the call. And as you've noted, you've gone on to live well in life, and I guess that's the best revenge.

LIZZIE: Hamilton wound up being the best thing that ever happened, so thanks Colgate.

CONAN: Okay. Lizzie, thank you very much for your time. And our thanks as well to Sue Shellenbarger, the work and family columnist for the Wall Street Journal, who joined us from her home in Portland, Oregon. Lovely to talk with you today.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: It's a pleasure. Thank you, Neal.

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