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Mothering › Child Articles › Why Not Apply to Harvard? If You Don't Get Rejected Sometimes, Maybe it Means You Aren't Trying Hard Enough...

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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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


Comments (44)

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.
"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." SO well said. The college administration process is completely arbitrary. It all depends on the kind of day the admissions staff have had when they read your application, what tugs at their personal heartstrings, who dumped coffee on their laptop that day. I was admitted to Cal and a few other great universities, but rejected from most of the second-tier schools I applied to. It's so completely random. She needs to apply because sometimes it's all about [your application] being in the right place at the right time. .-= Stephanie - Wasabimon´s last blog ..Modernist Cuisine – The Upcoming Book and A Tour of the Labs =-.
Although, I should mention that application fees do add up. ;) Maybe pay for her app as a birthday gift? .-= Stephanie - Wasabimon´s last blog ..Modernist Cuisine – The Upcoming Book and A Tour of the Labs =-.
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 =-.
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 =-.
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.
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.
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 “Theology of the Body” Congress =-.
It is true about the application fees, but as long as she isn't applying to every university in a multi-state area, I say go for it! .-= Melanie´s last blog ..Piggie in the Middle =-.
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 =-.
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.
It’s a delicate balance between encouraging kids to risk failure and preserving the sense of self-worth that too many rejection letters can whittle away. I have heard it said that the Ivies can fill their entire freshman classes with 4.0 valedictorians who list dozens of extracurriculars, but they don’t. They look for students who distinguish themselves, who present a good case in their application that they *will be* among the leaders of tomorrow. That said, this week, there was another teen suicide in a neighboring school district on the same evening I saw the Washington DC premier of ‘Race to Nowhere.’ Before we start pushing our kids to reach for the stars, we should all see this film and think very carefully about the costs of achievement. Thanks for the piece, provocative! ‘Race to Nowhere’ trailer: http://www.racetonowhere.com/node/4494
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.
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—they want them to have opportunity and for many folks in this economy, money is tight! .-= Annie´s last blog ..Coffee- Tea- and Me- Sugar =-.
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!)
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.
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.
Holy cow, I should proof read these things before posting. LOL
"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." I agree with this statement. However, I don't think not being able to get into Harvard means someone isn't "good enough." There are millions of brilliant and amazing young (and old) women in the world who are good enough without having gone to Harvard or some other Ivy League school. You also have to be realistic. Wealthy parents pay image consultants starting in the ninth grade to get their kid into Harvard. If the kid is an average student from an average high school in middle America, Harvard doesn't want her and it doesn't make sense to tell her to pony up the application cash for an exercise in futility. It seems to me to be more of a great opportunity to talk about privilege and opportunity in this country, and whether or not an undergraduate education in an institution known for grade inflation is really worth it. .-= Heather´s last blog ..Assisting Your Little Navigator =-.
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’t figure out what was going on. “Are you sick?” he kept asking. “Does something hurt you?” But when you’re a teenager and you’ve just been jilted and your parents are divorced and your mother (who wouldn’t understand anyway) is out of town and father’s standing at your bedside with an anxious look on his face, you don’t know what to say. You don’t know how to explain that your whole soul hurts and you feel like you swallowed your own heart. If someone had tried to tell me then that it’s good to get rejected I probably would have thrown-up (I was so lovesick I felt like throwing up anyway). Rejection still hurts. I don't think anybody likes to be rejection. I know I don't! But it doesn't smart like it used to when I was a teenager and young adult. I'm so glad that I now understand there is nothing wrong with getting rejected, and that a rejection is not a comment on our entire self-worth.
Mothering › Child Articles › Why Not Apply to Harvard? If You Don't Get Rejected Sometimes, Maybe it Means You Aren't Trying Hard Enough...