Why Not Apply to Harvard? If You Don’t Get Rejected Sometimes, Maybe it Means You Aren’t Trying Hard Enough…

At a family dinner I sat across from my husband’s cousin. Everyone was in high spirits, eating enormous plates of pasta and retelling familiar yarns in loud voices with lots of backslapping and beer guzzling.

But Cousin Stephanie looked thoughtful. She just started her junior year and was wondering about colleges.

“So what are you thinking?” I ask.

“Maybe dentistry,” she says. “Or international relations or psychology or business or journalism. Maybe journalism. I’m really not sure.”

“Wow,” I say, impressed that she’s already looking ahead to a major. “But I meant what colleges are you thinking of applying to?”

She tells me her list of schools, all places in Boston and New York.

“I really like Boston.”

“Harvard’s in Boston.”

“I could never get into Harvard.”

With two kids in elementary school and one just starting middle school, college feels a long way off for us but James and I talk about it anyway.

I attended a major research university and he went to a small Great Books school. We both loved college and we’ve both started brainwashing the kids that our alma mater is the best school out there and the only one they should consider.

Still, I worry that our kids might not have the same choices we had.

I know colleges and universities have gotten more competitive.

I know that you’re supposed to have perfect grades and perfect test scores and a thousand extra curricular activities to get into an Ivy League school.

I know that many of the people admitted in the past might not get in today.

But I don’t think that means a 17-year-old young woman with her whole future ahead of her should decide she isn’t good enough before she even tries.

Maybe she could get into Harvard.

“But I don’t have straight A’s,” Stephanie says, looking down.

In my high school the kids who got straight A’s were grade-obsessed and good at brown nosing.

But they were often not the most thoughtful, engaged, or smartest kids in the class.

“Maybe that doesn’t matter,” I venture. “You have so many other things going for you. Maybe something in your application will resonate with someone on the committee.”

We are both quiet for a moment.

“You can’t get accepted if you don’t apply,” I say finally.

Of course, you can’t get rejected either.

Who wants to be rejected?

But I say it to Stephanie over the penne that has grown cold on both our plates anyway—that she should apply to Harvard, damn it, that it’s worth reaching for the sky even if the clouds have no handles and you end up in a freefall, that you have to fail in order to succeed, not that I’m saying she’ll fail or anything.

I tell her something that I know sounds crazy, something that I want my own children to learn too: it’s good to get rejected.

If you try and fail at least you’ve tried.

At least you’re awake, at least you’re trying to make something of your life, rejection or no rejection.

It’s so much easier not to try. To stay in the same place you’ve always been in. To be comfortable … and mediocre.

“You should apply to Harvard, if you want to go there,” I urge after trying to explain all of this to her.

I’m not just talking to her. I’m talking to myself and to James and to my own children.

I don’t want them to think they aren’t good enough, to be afraid to try because they may not succeed, to take rejection as definitive proof that they aren’t smart enough or pretty enough or cool enough.

I want them to go places.

I want my kids to be brave enough to get rejected from Harvard.

Stephanie’s eyes are wide but hesitant, as if a door has opened before her but she isn’t sure if she’ll step through.

“Maybe I will,” she says.

I can barely think about how the baby will turn one in November, let alone envision these three urchins being old enough to go to college!

I can barely think about how the baby will turn one in November, let alone envision these three urchins being old enough to go to college!

Do you think as parents we should teach our children that it’s okay to be rejected or do you think it’s better to try to spare them from disappointment? If your kids are small, are you wondering where they’ll go to college or is that something you don’t want to think about until they’re older?


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44 thoughts on “Why Not Apply to Harvard? If You Don’t Get Rejected Sometimes, Maybe it Means You Aren’t Trying Hard Enough…”

  1. I agree. It’s OK to try and fail (or at least, not succeed fully). I’m in a situation now where I could be a rock star at something or I could fail spectacularly. And, you know what? I’m OK either way. Or, at least I think I am.

    I’m the first person in my family to go to college, so I had no guidance and no sense that something could NOT be done. So I applied to top schools in my state, including several honors programs, and I got in everywhere I applied. It’s probably a good thing because it never even dawned on me otherwise.

  2. I do think parents need to teach children how to deal with rejection, but I’d start with little lessons, rather than a major rejection like Harvard. It is so incredibly hard to get into that college. I think it is fine for your Cousin Stephanie to try, but she needs to also include less challenging schools. Boston has many. I think it is good that she is thinking of what she wants to study and then looking to find the right place to study that subject and prepare herself for grad school in that subject. The Harvard experience is not always ideal, either. It is hard to be studying with the very top of every senior class in the nation. One of my daughters went to Harvard as an undergrad, and the other went to Brown. What a difference! At Harvard, you could even feel the competitive edge in the dormitory.
    .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..An Unexpected Consequence of Divorce =-.

  3. There’s so much pressure on kids to get into college; more than when we were their age. I agree that kids should learn that they need to step outside their comfort zone at times. I’ve always stressed to my own kids that they’ll never know unless they TRY. I also think that some kids can take chances and put themselves out there a lot easier than some other kids can. It’s simply in their personalities. But I never say never, and that comes with age and with experience…although I try to pound it into my kids’ heads all the time.
    .-= Sheryl´s last blog ..The Habit One in Three Adults Admits To =-.

  4. Stephanie has a good point. Not only do all those application fees add up, but writing all those essays can be really grueling for already stressed out high school students (and I was that nerd who actually liked writing!).

    On the other hand, my brother went to Harvard and in retrospect, I wish I’d applied. I went to a good school (Boston University) where I got a merit scholarship and could really excel, but it’s not as well respected because it’s a big school and many students kind of coasted through. I’m a little curious how different my life might be different if I’d gone to a place like Harvard. Full disclosure: I did get into the “Harvard of the West,” but I didn’t go because I didn’t want to go through life with people thinking I was an elitist – nor did I want to spend four years buried in my books. Not sure if either concern was legit, but it makes me curious now in retrospect.

  5. As a writer, you have to be able to take rejection, it’s built into the job. I’ve had a hard time developing a thicker skin and a “why not try?” attitude–so I definitely would say we should cultivate that in our children. Reach for the stars all the time, and you won’t get caught up waiting and depending on one result. There’ll be plenty of stars raining down on you.

  6. For one thing, just the process of applying–of really thinking about what you’ve done and what you have to offer, over and above grades–is a terrific learning experience.

    The other thing is, we can’t always guess what some of these “better” schools are actually looking for. My son was very surprised to be offered a full fellowship to grad school in Northwestern, since he graduated from a state school, but in the end it was probably due to some of his unusual but very creative extracurricular activities & experience.

    One of my favorite bits of dialogue from CHARIOTS OF FIRE, when Harold Abrahams, who’s just lost the first major race of his career, gets in a pouty tiff with his girlfriend, Sybil:

    Harold: “If I can’t win, I won’t run.”

    Sybil: “If you don’t run, you can’t win.”

    “If I can’t win
    .-= Debra Murphy´s last blog ..First National

  7. I’d say definitely, go for it. But also, make sure your kids realize that college acceptance — especially at a school like Harvard — is imperfect. You might be a perfectly wonderful kid who will one day make a big contribution to the world, but that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get into Harvard. Still, you learn from striving for things.

    P.S. Thanks for writing about such a delicate issue so well.
    .-= Ruth Pennebaker´s last blog ..A Letter to My Two Favorite Oncologists =-.

  8. I totally wish that, while a high school student with so-so grades but big dreams, somebody–anybody!–had encouraged me to reach for big dreams. I plan on encouraging my kids to enter contests they never think they’ll win, and try sports and other activities they wonder if they’re “good enough” at. I think persistence and being able to handle rejection is one of life’s #1 most important lessons.

    That said, when my kids are applying for college I’m going to make it clear that a school like Harvard isn’t just extremely difficult to get into but also very expensive :) There’s no way we could cover that kind of tuition, so they’d have to really understand the debt load that would very likely be part of the deal! I know that’s beside the point, though.

  9. A great column–and she’ll probably feel better about herself if she applies, too. Filling out Harvard’s application will help her fill out her other applications, and maybe help her focus on what she wants out of college. Another gentle reminder: Not so long ago, women couldn’t apply to Harvard even when they wanted to. It was for men, only.

  10. Forgot to add to Meagan,

    Many of the Ivies, including Harvard, have such well-funded endowments that if a student can gain admittance, they’ll help figure out assistance for the student to attend. This is part of the reason many parents pressure their kids to achieve

  11. My family was poor. I could only apply to one school because that’s all we had the money we had for application fees. I had to think long and hard about what school I wanted to apply to, and make damned sure it was one that would give me a scholarship, because without a scholarship, I couldn’t afford to go. I had always wanted to go to Princeton, but I wasn’t sure I could get in, and I knew I’d never get a scholarship, so I went to Georgia Tech instead. A few years later, I applied to Harvard for grad school, ironically, and was rejected. You know, I’m not at all offended by that.

    I think it’s good to at least try. Then you never go through life wondering “What if?” Rejection is a part of life. We all get rejected at some point. Think about it. You can’t find a job or even attempt a love life without dealing with lots of rejection along the way. It’s better to know how to deal with it, how to pick up and move on from there.

    To state the obvious, you miss all the shots you don’t take, and only some of the shots you do take. It’s better to take chances, even if it doesn’t work out right away. (Plus, with things like this, if you don’t get in for undergrad, there’s always another chance in grad school… if you like the graduate programs that school offers. Rejection is not always permanent!)

  12. I have lots of feelings on this topic. Harvard is a unique place that carries an additional burden of expectation on undergraduates. All of my friends who went their for undergrad were completely miserable, but I couldn’t help but notice how differently my friends from other top tier schools like Yale and Stanford spoke about their undergrad experience. They seemed so much happier. I spent postgraduate time at Harvard and my husband taught there, and we both felt that, sadly, carrying the burden to excel at Harvard takes the fun out of being there for many people.

    I just had a nephew go through the application process and only get accepted to his safety schools. He excelled academically and his family had high expectations for him, too. When he was forced to matriculate at his safety school, he almost refused to go because he felt is was lesser than he deserved. His negative feelings about a pretty good school in Boston have really tarnished his first days so far as a freshman. I wonder what kind of messaging he could have gotten that would have made him far less focused on the best, highly competitive, competitive, not selective mentality we are so prone to thinking.

    Honestly, I will discourage my child to apply to Harvard, even if she seems qualified, and encourage her to find a place that offers a happier experience to learn.

  13. Annie, I have read that as well and it’s encouraging. But by “figure out assistance” does that mean they’ll give out more aid in the form of scholarships and grants…or are we talking loans? If it’s the latter I feel it’s only fair to give my kids a true sense of how much that student debt can add up to, especially at a prestigious school, and how very long it can take to get out from under its weight.

    I also believe a quality education can be had nearly anywhere, but the school has to be a good match for the student.

  14. It’s so true, Amai, that “you can’t find a job or even attempt a love life without dealing with lots of rejection along the way.”

    I used to be morbidly sensitive about rejection, believing that a rejection was a reflection on my entire self worth.

    I once stayed in bed for the entire weekend after the French exchange student with the phoenix tattoo on his biceps kissed me at a party and then ignored me the next day, and the day after that. My poor father couldn

  15. You are so right about this being a delicate balance, Annie. I think it’s important to be careful NOT to push kids too hard. I will definitely watch Race to Nowhere. Thank you for that suggestion.

  16. I would also like to add that my husband didn’t have the grades to get into a top tier school right out of high school. He went to a small liberal arts college for two years, made the grades, and was able to transfer into the school he’d originally wanted to attend as a junior.
    .-= Heather´s last blog ..Assisting Your Little Navigator =-.

  17. I agree one hundred percent with your advice to your kids. Some times they find it easier to come up with reasons about why they should not try instead of plunging in. The old salesman mantra of “Every no leads you closer to a yes” is a great way to approach challenges.

  18. I agree with those who say that not getting into Harvard is not a message that you’re not “good enough.” It’s very hard to get into, especially now, for reasons that an applicant should not take to heart. Also, there are chances after college to go and get a degree there (and you’d work more closely with the professors there as a grad student than as an undergraduate). I went to a liberal-arts college where I feel like I got some fantastic mentoring from a few professors, and then went to Harvard for my Ph.D. where, again, I had some wonderful learning experiences but also did a lot of teaching because graduate students do so much of the teaching there. Just another thought. There are many ways, and many times, in life to reinvent yourself. The great take-home message from this post though is that we should always encourage our children to aim high and not be afraid of failure or mistakes. My favorite book on this topic is “Mindset,” where the author talks about how the most successful people get that way because they have a “growth mindset” (as opposed to a “fixed mindset”) and look at setbacks as an opportunity, not a reason to quit. I love that mindset.
    .-= Christine @ Origami Mommy´s last blog ..Escape =-.

  19. It appears that both Princeton and Harvard have instituted “no loan” policies for low income and middle class students. Other schools with large endowments are now under pressure to do the same! It bodes well for the future although better still would be free public higher education which just might fly if coupled with a two year mandatory service year, (not necessarily military) but I digress… Here is a link to the December Times article on the subject: http://tinyurl.com/2fgsq73

    Best luck to your up-and-comer(s)!
    .-= Annie´s last blog ..Coffee- Tea- and Me- Sugar =-.

  20. I think it’s kind of funny that Harvard is considered the epitome of education. But I agree, if someone wants to go there, they should certainly try and of course I agree with your whole message about rejection being important and striving being essential. I have to say though that the message in our house is that the best plan is go to a state school (so much cheaper) for undergrad and then get your graduate degree someplace with a big name if that’s what you want.

  21. Beautiful post, Jennifer! I think it’s important for all of us to aim for our desires and risk failure, because, yes, otherwise you are sleeping at the wheel.

    On the subject of Harvard, however, well, I have mixed feelings. Not only is it a more competitive school now for applicants, but also for professors. The drawback of many Ivy League schools these days is that professors are so pushed to publish that their classes are often taught by TAs, which, in turn, can short-change students. Just a thought. I still think this girl should APPLY!!! Go for it!

  22. Yes to Robin and Brette – if someone wants to go there (meaning Harvard or any of the Ivies), then by all means, push them for it. But I knew the minute I did my campus tour of Princeton that their rigorous academic standards coupled with my crippling need to please would be a BAD combination for the next four years.

    I was pressured to apply (early decision!!) regardless, and THANKFULLY I was rejected so I could excel at my dream school, Bucknell. I don’t regret not having an Ivy education and feel much more well-balanced for NOT taking that route.
    .-= [email protected] Food. Stories.´s last blog ..GUEST POST- Love- Italian-style at Il Vigneto =-.

  23. [email protected] Food. Stories. says:

    I think we absolutely should teach our kids that they have to fail to succeed. I personally have such a hard time not being “perfect” and learning new things, I hate that feeling of failing or not being good enough, and it’s taken me so many years to get somewhat OK with knowing that I need to fumble to learn and get better. I hope I can make my kids feel more OK with that, and take it less seriously when they fail. I try to praise my 2 year old for trying things, even things he can’t do…because that’s how he will learn to do them. Last night he tried to open about 15 pistachio’s…and then, he did it! It really is the reaching further that matters…and if we can teach that to our kids, I think it will be so helpful.
    .-= Katy´s last blog ..Pregnancy Dreaming =-.

  24. I love this post and think it applies not only to school but to life in general. My son is 5 and started musical theatre about a year ago. He was moved up from “kinder” to “the big kids theatre” recently. His pick of characters for the upcoming play were the three main ones. Since he’s far younger than the other kids, I knew this was unrealistic, but didn’t want to tell him that. Instead, I prepared him. I told him a lot of the kids would want those parts so he had a choice: pick one or two lead roles and a smaller one(s), or pick only the lead roles with the knowledge he might not get them due to high demand. He picked the lead roles and when he didn’t get one he was fine with it. He’s happy with the role he has and as he performs more, he will eventually get a lead. Rejection is part of reaching for the stars!!
    .-= Sherri´s last blog ..heather wrote a new blog post- How to Stop the Aging Process =-.

  25. I am a firm believer in the value of the experience, regardless of the outcome so I push my kids to try everything. My daughter will compete in her first horse show this weekend and I have almost no thought about how she will compare with the competition. I just think she is ready for the experience and she is so excited to be involved.

    On a slightly different note, I already dream out loud about where I can see them going to college. I hated that when I was a girl I never heard, “You are so good at such in such. I could really see you being a ….” I was expected to go to college, but no one ever dreamed with me about all the possibilities. Now I tell my artsy girl that I could see her at the Rhode Island School of Design and my budding scientist and animal lover that she could go to Colorado State vet school like her uncle. I think it is fun to dream together. Someday maybe they’ll be blogging about their mom who labeled them too much and put too much pressure on them, but to me, for now, it feels right.

  26. It is a dicey situation. In our house, it seems like we’ve been having the “college talk” with my my 15yo SD for about 20 years. We’ve gone from “I don’t see any reason to go to college if I just want to be a stable hand” to “I want to go to Princeton!!!!!” (yes, complete with all five exclamation points). It has taken a lot of careful work to readjust the expectations – we’ve repeated “if you don’t allow yourself to have this experience/learn this information/do this now, you may be unintentionally closing doors for yourself” many times.

    However, now that she’s on a college path, I tend to think that whether or not she makes it to Princeton, should she decide to apply, is something between her and the applications committee. We’ve done the work of helping her to develop expectations for herself that will
    .-= Lauren´s last blog .. =-.

  27. Okay, must have hit Enter prematurely.

    What I wanted to say was that we’re continuing to help her develop expectations for herself that are realistic and yet flexible enough that she wants to push her own boundaries. I hope that she is learning to see challenges as exciting, as goals to accomplish and revel in. However, once she gets to be 18 and is looking for places to apply, we will continue to encourage and support her decisions. Should one of them yield disappointment, we will still be supportive and proud of her. Even as she learns about disappointment and set-backs from the real world, we’ll still be her safe haven, and hopefully that will give her the confidence she needs to continue pushing her own boundaries.
    .-= Lauren´s last blog .. =-.

  28. Rejection in all its forms is a part of life. I don’t think that anyone, anywhere will escape from having someone say “no”–whether that’s a parent (“no, you can’t stay up until 10pm” or “no, you can’t wear that to school”), a teacher (“no, you can’t sharpen your pencil while I’m talking), a girl or boy we have a crush on, and so on. Some rejections are more painful than others, like not getting a date to Homecoming or not getting into the college we want. So, yes, parents *definitely* need to teach their children how to handle rejections of all kinds.

    But along with the practicality of dealing with rejection, I also think that parents need to teach children to embrace dreams, even some that may even seem quixotical at first, and then make a practical plan to achieve them. Your ten-year-old girl says she wants to be a place kicker for the Green Bay Packers when she grows up? Wonderful. Then help her figure out what steps she’d need to take in order to be in the right place for her dream to come true (e.g. participating in Little League football and/or soccer, daily practice of kicking skills, trying out for her high school team, etc). Children need to have a balance of the dreams and logic–to see that yes, you can achieve what your heart desires…but there is also a “price to be paid” and a path that needs to be forged to get there. Desire + Action = Achievement

    My parents were/are extremely practical people and they taught me to be the same way. The logical approach I take to life has served me well: I am where I am today because of many logical, calculated decisions. However, my parents were TOO logical and disuaded me from “dream[ing] impossible dreams”–even from dreaming at all. I learned to fear dreams and uncertain things instead of embracing them, allowing my heart to feel passionately about something. I wish my parents had said it was okay to want something that I felt passionate about but that wasn’t necessarily completely “logical.”
    .-= Maddy´s last blog ..Ode to a Honeycrisp Apple =-.

  29. Just reading this post and comments and watching the trailer to Race to Nowhere brings tears to my eyes. My 15 year old daughter told me 2 years ago she wanted to go to Yale, Harvard or Stanford and be a doctor. I realize what a huge stretch this is, not only for her to get accepted, but for me to pay for it. But I told her if that’s what she wants to do, I’ll completely support and encourage her and if she can get in, I’ll figure out a way to pay for it. She’s had consistent straight As and currently a 4.5 GPA and she’s figuring out what else she needs to do to make it happen. It’s her dream, not mine, but it’s great to watch her be so motivated to take on this challenge, and I love and honor her for it.

    At the same time, I’m worried about the price she is paying for it. She spends 4-6 hours or more a day doing homework from the honors classes and I feel that is an insane amount of time. She still does the fun things she loves – figure skating and gymnastics and hangs out with friends and is really quite happy, but it bothers me that in her high school it’s all about the grades as opposed to what they are learning about life and how to think creatively. Fortunately, before high school she was in a charter school that prioritized love of learning and creativity (very little homework) so she has that background to sustain her. But I am concerned about all the kids who are stressed and tired and striving at the expense of their health and wellness. They need time to just be kids. It seems the school system is creating a whole generation of burned out work-a-holics. I’ve talked with the principal and some of the teachers and they all say, this is the way it is when you have kids on this type of educational track with honors and AP classes and I should just accept this. But I don’t see how endless amounts of homework is preparing kids for anything. What are they really learning?

    I realize she may not get into the school she wants and I do believe that rejection and contrast is healthy and part of living life to the fullest. That’s why it’s so important to instill healthy self-esteem at a young age so that kids can deal with rejection in a healthy way.

  30. We live in such an achievement oriented society that many people are terrified to fail. We need to teach our young people, particularly young women, that failing dose not make you a failure rather it is a natural and indeed critical part of learning.

  31. I am going to see Race to Nowhere tonight!

    There’s a study someone did awhile back that compared people who went to Harvard and people who got into Harvard but didn’t go. Both groups were the same in measures of income and happiness.

    On the achievement piece, Alfie Kohn wrote a great article recently (http://www.alfiekohn.org/miscellaneous/spoiling.htm) which posited that IF today’s children are indeed more self-centered than previous generations, it is not because of “spoiling”, but because every facet of their lives has been taken over by competition and pressure to excel.

    It also seems like the family in the original article is putting the cart before the horse: if the girl doesn’t know what she wants to do, how does she know that college (let alone an expensive college) is necessary? It seems most kids would be better served by spending less time killing themselves getting perfect grades and prepping for college entrance tests and more time figuring out what they actually want to do with their lives BEFORE dropping $100,000.

  32. I would venture to say that this is a perfect example of where the process is as spectacularly important as the end result, whether that end result is Harvard or elsewhere (or something entirely different). The process is where you learn about yourself–especially if you’re paying attention!
    .-= Meredith´s last blog ..The Journal Diaries- Kim Hooper =-.

  33. Definitely kids should be supported try–and the lessons of failure are good ones. I must admit at the mention of Harvard, my mind went right to dollar signs–my daughter is starting to talk about college and the idea of having to pay for an ivy league school scares–no, terrifies me. Granted there are scholarships, student aid. With my daughter, I try to emphasize pursuing her passions versus a particular university.

    Just to throw another tidbit into this great discussion there was a recent article about how employers in some cases are favoring grads from state schools. Here’s a look http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704358904575477643369663352.html.
    .-= Kristen´s last blog ..Getting Kids to Try New Foods at Restaurants =-.

  34. I’m with Melanie H on this one. Isn’t goodness of fit more important than shooting for the stars? (And who’s judging what the “stars” are anyway?)

    Harvard has a great reputation, of course, it’s also probably not the right school for my kid.

    I’ve heard from people who attended prestigious schools who didn’t have the greatest time — and others who started in community colleges and then transferred and still speak fondly of their first years at school.

    I find the whole system here overwhelming and complicated. And I’m going to have to get a sense of it — ’cause looking at colleges will be here before I know it.

    As for the concept of teaching kids about failure and disappointment: It’s a part of life, so I think it just comes up naturally, and you help them deal with it along the way.
    .-= sarah henry´s last blog ..Berkeley Bites- Aaron Betesh- Blue Heron Farms =-.

  35. I think the author left something important out of her article: Cost. What if she does get into Harvard and it’s too costly for her family and herself to pay for?

  36. I also noticed that the author (who appears to have very young children herself) seems to assume that her niece simply won’t be accepted into Harvard and is going from that point. What if her niece does get accepted… and then can’t afford to go, as I mentioned above? Will the author pitch in for tuition?

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