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The Old College Try (and the All-American Rejects)

It's college acceptance letter time. Back when I was in high school -- some time around the Civil War -- students who hoped to go to college applied to two or three schools. At least, those in my crowd did. I applied to three (Maryland, Carnegie-Mellon and Yale), got into two (Maryland and Carnegie-Mellon) and could only afford to go to one (Maryland).

These days, you're not considered fully human if you apply to fewer than six colleges. Ten or 12 is not uncommon. I guess that increases your odds of being accepted somewhere, but, man, what a pain. Even with this thing called "the common app" (for "application"), that's still a lot of filling out of forms and sending off of application fees.

Another difference between now and 30 years ago: You can immortalize the exact moment of your acceptance and post it somewhere where everyone can see it. Here's a girl who had her sister tape her opening her letter from Wheaton College:

Here's a girl who found out she's going to Texas A&M:

I think most of that video is in Vietnamese, but the glee doesn't need translation.

For a lot of high school seniors around here -- in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, for example -- it isn't a question of whether you're going to college, but where exactly your parents are going to be sending that $40,000 check every year. I'm know there's still plenty of tension and angst over these last few days as letters (and e-mails) arrive, but I think there's something really moving when the stakes are a little higher than whether it's Oberlin or Wesleyan.

Here's a girl accepted into something called the Disney College Program:

I don't even know what the Disney College Program is, but she is so genuinely excited about it that I can't help but be happy for her.

There are a few rejection videos on YouTube, too. They're a little more staged. They typically don't capture the actual moment of rejection. Perhaps it's just too personal. One video I saw is a kid bitterly burning his rejection letters from Stanford, Tufts, Duke and the other universities that had carefully reviewed his application materials but regretted that they were unable to offer him a place in their freshman class. One rejection video is titled simply "Eat It Fordham."

I remember being disappointed that I didn't get into Yale but not really that surprised. I like my life now, a life that's largely built upon what I experienced at the University of Maryland. And mainly what I experienced there was a dark-haired, loud-mouthed theater major. I'd never have met her if I hadn't received a thin envelope from New Haven and a thick envelope from College Park.

If you're a senior who got into the college of your choice, congratulations. If you didn't, your life's not over. In fact, it's just beginning.

And please share in the Comments below what was going through your head as you tremblingly opened that letter, whether it was last week or 30 years ago.

By John Kelly  |  March 30, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
 
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Comments

Things have really changed. When I applied for college (in 1975) I applied to only two schools. I was accepted to Valparaiso in November but had to wait until Easter to hear from Georgetown (my first choice, and I was accepted).

Posted by: mensa58 | March 30, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

I got a thin letter from W&M back in 2003. I wasn't surprised, since I was applying from out of state and didn't think my chances were good. But then I opened it and it turned out to be a scholarship award instead... Unfortunately there wasn't a YouTube back in those days (man i am old) so I couldn't record my joy for posterity. But I spent 4.5 happy years at W&M and now am a productive taxpaying resident of Virginia. Looking back I'm not sure I would have been happy at the other places I applied to (lots of family pressure from alums of other institutions) so the acceptance was really fortunate for me. Alma Mater Hail :)

Posted by: lilybelle2 | March 30, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

I guess I had a similar experience you, John: I had a stellar resume in high school (National Merit Scholarship winner, among other accolades) and I was really smug about the whole thing. I applied early decision to Yale and I ignored the essay suggestions in the applications and wrote what I thought was a strong personal statement of resilience in the face of adversity. Of course, it said nothing about being excited about going to the school to which I was applying. Suffice it say, I ended up being rejected by Yale and Harvard and wait listed by Columbia and the University of Chicago. I was very depressed, but a cousin of mine got me an interview with the dean of admissions at the U of C and he told me that my application would ordinarily have been accepted in a heartbeat, except my essay didn't give them the impression I was very interested in attending their school. I wrote a very nice letter and was soon accepted off the waiting list and, like you, met my future wife (also in theater, imagine that!) in Cobb Hall, September 24th, 2001. What I learned was that, while some schools only look at your SATs and grades and awards, the most selective don't want to give an acceptance to someone unless they are pretty sure s/he will attend. My advice to application essay writers: above all else, make sure you say that you've dreamed of going to [INSERT SCHOOL NAME HERE] since your childhood.

Posted by: Southwester | March 30, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Per Disney College:

http://www.wdwcollegeprogram.com/sap/its/mimes/zh_wdwcp/students/students.html

I'm not sure exactly what it is, but if you know that you want to go into the Hospitality and Tourism or Public Relations industries, I'm thinking that would not be a bad launching off spot, as weird as it sounds.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | March 30, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Great column today. My daughter wants to be the first one to the mail every day for the past week or so. She doesn't want anyone to touch it until she sees it. It is quite a nervous time.

Posted by: nottenst | March 30, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

I only applied one place, and as they had a rolling admissions policy at UNC-Charlotte, I got my acceptance letter the first week of December. My plan was to do two years there and then transfer to UNC-Chapel Hill, but I ended up getting two degrees at UNCC. Of course, this was 38 years ago.

Posted by: slyness | March 30, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

My daughter applied early decision to Stanford. This meant that a great deal of application form angst took place early in the fall, and a dark gloomy emotional thunderhead hung over the entire Christmas season that year. But right after Yule the fat envelope came! And (she really is smart) a vast quantity of aggravation was saved in not filling out tons of -other- application forms. Alas, I am told that ED is now gone, so everybody has to seethe in the same stewpot from now on.

Posted by: bclough2 | March 30, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

20 years ago I applied to 5 schools: two of the Rutgers colleges (I lived in NJ and that was where at least half my high school graduating class ended up), Drew University (a small liberal-arts college in Madison, NJ), the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton. I got into all but Princeton and ended up going to Drew, mostly because my mother couldn't afford to pay anything and their financial aid package (a full scholarship) was the best of the lot. Early on I had a few twinges of regret about turning down UPenn since it's an Ivy League school, but if I hadn't gone to Drew I would never have met my husband, who was a classmate, so I'm very glad I chose the way I did.

Interestingly, I never actually got a rejection letter from Princeton. Although I assumed that I was rejected because I never heard back after my interview there, I had to call them to find out for sure. By that point I had already gotten pretty excited about going to Drew, so I wasn't heartbroken, but I was still a bit annoyed at the total lack of response. Either it got lost in the mail or they're so self-important they don't need to bother sending out rejections -- I never figured out which it was.

Posted by: tmmm | March 30, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

I went through this last year with my daughter. My advice is if you live in the Washington, DC area, the best thing you can do for your intelligent & smart child is head to the hills for their Junior & Senior HS year and let them finish school in some small town. You DON'T want to be smart and compete with kids in Fairfax, Montgomery County or anywhere else in this area. It's a very anxious time for the kids and the parents too.

Posted by: fourbufs | March 30, 2009 6:43 PM | Report abuse

This is a great column and blog today. I applied to college sometime shortly after dirt was invented, so I dont really recall the process...but my kids, they are a bit more recent. The application process for us a bit more complicated given that our son was a recruited athlete at 7 schools and we applied to nine in total. After getting WL at his first choice (an Ivy that pressed him to apply early, he was their #2 academic recruit for his sport) he was accepted at all he applied to and ended up selecting a top D3 school.

He was crushed when his first choice wait-listed him, feeling that they had sold him a full bill of goods. In the end it was a good lesson to have learned and also let him know it was not the place for him after all. Better to find out early.

Despite having been accepted at all three VA state schools he applied to (W&M, UVA, VTECH) he chose an out of state D3 school and very very happy with his academics, his sport, and his environment....

Message to kids: there are a lot of places out there that can be and are a great fit for you, its not just about one school....life is a long time....roll with the changes....

Posted by: bushmills | March 30, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

This is a comment of encouragement from a mom who went through this with her daughter one year ago this month. She really, REALLY wanted to go to Rice. There were tears when she was rejected, and then more tears when rejected or wait listed from all but her "safety" schools. She chose Georgia Tech which we had not even visited, made a lightning trip to visit and liked it.
She then, surprise! changed her major from business to the College of Architecture. They have a new Dean this year, who was formerly at.......Rice. She is happy, it is cheaper, and everything is great, one year later. Take heart; these things really do work out!!!

Posted by: bhrgarden | March 30, 2009 7:25 PM | Report abuse

How times change! In the mid-fifties, it was possible to choose a college. Acceptance was a given if you could pay for it. My college costs (room and board, 2 semesters) amounted to $1100, and that sum was further reduced by a scholarship. Of course my Dad was earning only $7000 a year.

Posted by: OldLady1 | March 30, 2009 10:32 PM | Report abuse

I missed the envelope moment completely. I applied early decision to a small liberal arts college. The news came in December, I think, but somehow the acceptance envelope came to my house (where no one was home to see it) on the same day that a copy was sent to my high school guidance counselor. (He was a nice enough guy, but we weren't particularly close, and I didn't even know that he would be notified separately.) He, of course, assumed that I already knew, so he came to the lunchroom to find me, and asked, "Is there something you want to tell me?" Of course, I had no idea what he was talking about. So instead of the great envelope moment, I had a very confusing exchange in a crowded cafeteria. (It's OK, though -- I got the customary envelope experience when I applied to grad schools.)

Posted by: Janine1 | March 31, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

I applied to Maryland (class of '07) only at the last minute, after deciding that going to college was the only sensible thing to do. I was very nonchalant about the whole thing. By the time decisions rolled around, thought, I was thinking, holy ---- I hope I get accepted, because I hadn't bothered to apply anywhere else....

Posted by: mustid | March 31, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

One son this year. One son last year. Both applying at the apex of applicant numbers compounded by the increase in applications per applicant. Fun times! Two entirely different college search experiences. The firstborn, being a typical firstborn, did a lot of thoughtful research on his own. Compiled a list of architecture schools and a list of liberal arts schools that interested him. Used summer before senior year to take a couple of "Discovering Architecture" programs at two different colleges. Meanwhile we squeezed in college visits here and there. Very open-minded, but he fell in love with UVA and Vanderbilt. Learned a bit about landscape architecture at his summer programs and decided on a whim to look at that program at Penn State b/c it has a well-respected LArch program. We were both blown away by everything about the program, facilities and faculty. He heard on Dec. 3rd that he had been accepted to the program, so was spared having to do other applications. Also applied to Penn State's Schreyer Honors College and received his acceptance to that on Mar. 3rd. He has had a fabulous 1st year, but sometimes we laugh, b/c originally he had no desire to look at schools w/over 12.000 students. Keeping an open mind is key.
Second son was almost neglected b/c of focus on 1st son. Fortunately he is a good student and good multi-sport athlete, so some schools came looking for him. Recruited athlete was a completely different experience, but we researched and spoke with others who went before us and got some good advice. He sent letters and athletic bios to coaches at every school that interested him and included his spring & summer sports schedule. Ultimately it came down to 4 schools (two of which had made a point to check him out after having received his letter, so that was definitely a worthwhile exercise.) Combination of D-1 and D-3 schools. After weighing pros and cons of each, Amherst was the best fit. He was sure, so he applied Early Decision. Acceptance letter came in the dreaded thin #10 envelope on Dec. 13th, which makes the heart skip a beat.

Posted by: Sile | April 6, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

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