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.
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?
Tags: acceptance, applying to college, Boston, challenging yourself, Great Books schools, Harvard, Harvard University, junior year of high school, rejection, research university, teaching children to challenge themselves, teaching children to deal with rejection