Jason Ma: How to handle college admission rejections

Jason Ma, CEO and Chief Mentor, ThreeEQ

By Jason Ma, CEO and Chief Mentor, ThreeEQ

The current college admissions season is coming to a close, and the decisions started arriving for Class of 2027 freshman applicants.

Congratulations to those who have been admitted! This article provides some words of comfort or wisdom for all the applicants who experience their share of college acceptances and denials when regular decisions come out from around mid-March to early April.

Being rejected by desired colleges to which you, as a high school senior or a college transfer applicant, have applied is indeed an emotional issue. It hurts! Especially if you are used to success, a rejection can feel like ultimate failure and that your life is over before it’s even begun.

You might as well apply to McDonald’s for a front counter’s job. But the reality is… it’s not true! Take a deep breath. Take another.

In Young Leaders 3.0: Stories, Insights, and Tips for Next-Generation Achievers (my book, published in December 2014), the 23 featured 17-to-24-year-old high achievers tell their heartfelt stories. They hail from the eight Ivy League universities (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale), Babson, Bowdoin, Colgate, Georgetown, Georgia Tech, MIT, Northwestern, Oxford, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UChicago, and USC. But their stories go beyond just standardized test scores, GPAs, and résumés. They show a more human, multifaceted, inside look at their personal growth, successes, and failures, along with lessons learned and proven strategies for you to get ahead in life.

The contributors did a fabulous job in sharing their experiences about their family values, high school activities, achievements, college applications and admissions, transition into college, college life, summer activities, internships, leadership development, career planning, definitions of success, and managing failure.

This includes their reflections on college admissions acceptances and rejections, including what they made of the denials—as part of their paths, both rugged and smooth, towards success.

In Young Leaders 3.0, Kimberly Han told her story as the “Filmmaker Dreaming of the Oscars.” A then senior at the University of Chicago, Kimberly was pursuing a double major in Cinema and Media Studies and International Studies. She pivoted from being a tech geek in high school to being a movie geek in college.

#$#%^@ and “THANK GOD!” moments

In her chapter, Kimberly reflected (with some humor!):

“I remember mistyping exactly three times trying to enter the password for MIT’s application decision portal. My hands had been trembling uncontrollably. When I finally entered it correctly and the page had loaded, it was the damnedest moment in my life. I experienced simultaneous rage and relief.

With thoughts of “#$#%^@, darn you!” and “THANK GOD,” I ended the day comically bipolar. I had been heavily involved in technology in high school, and this was a game-changing moment in which I finally realized that I had never loved or even been good at math or science.

At the same time, it was impossible to neglect the fact that I had been rejected. Of course, MIT is a top-notch, world-renowned university (in fact, my own brother is an alumnus). It’s just that my inner voice asked, ‘Who are you to reject me? Me? Who do you think you are?’

Yes, I was angry and dejected. All of the things that I’d done and learned in high school seemed to have been refuted. My efforts had failed. But somehow it was also then I recognized it’s not that I wasn’t good enough for the school, but rather that I had simply been looking down the wrong path. I had been stubborn, chasing after something I neither liked nor was necessarily good at, and I had willingly cast myself in a certain mold to get accepted into a college for its reputation.

All in all, I have no regrets and am grateful for all of the things that made me who I am now. I am happy that I became agile in illustrating computer graphics, that I got to participate in the national robotics competition, and that I fought for the place of women in technology. Lucky enough, I ended up at the University of Chicago, and I now know that I will someday become one of the world’s greatest filmmakers.

I have learned that even a disappointment can turn out to be the best thing to happen in life, and I am thrilled about the path that I now follow. Though it took some time into college to finally discover my true passion, now I have the rest of my life to enjoy and pursue my dream.”

After graduating UChicago in 2015 and her roles at several firms, including NBCUniversal Media, Kimberly is pursuing her dreams indeed as a passionate filmmaker. Check out Kimberly’s latest work.

It’s NOT personal

Relax and consider that every year, top colleges reject thousands and thousands of perfectly qualified applicants. The truth is, they cannot take every high achiever and the admit rate to Ivy League and elite colleges keep dropping (common now at single-digit percentages). It’s a buyer’s market. It’s supply and demand. Second, they may already have, for example, enough highly competitive East and South Asian American students and they need more Native, African, or Hispanic American students especially from some regions to meet their own criteria for diversity as part of a “well-rounded” class for that year.

Yes, the soft word “diversity” is a nice way for most upper-tier colleges to subtly communicate their need to seek out admits that do result in their definition of a well-rounded class, which, on average, may see incremental changes but does not deviate drastically from the year before. So, do not take it personally. To gain a more insightful, actionable perspective on how these things work, view my High Schoolers page.

Blessing in disguise

College denials may just be that proverbial blessing-in-disguise for some. Consider Sabrina Ma, the “Kindness Kid from Silicon Valley” in Young Leaders 3.0. She was the youngest member of the book’s contributor team. She is my elder daughter. A 17-year-old freshman then at Georgetown University, Sabrina reflected on her handling of college rejections:

“Try not to take admissions rejections personally as I did. Admissions decisions can be a mysterious crapshoot. For example, I was rejected by Columbia (Early Decision), waitlisted at Harvard, and accepted at Dartmouth. Human beings are complex, multifaceted entities who simply cannot be described in 500 words or less. Acceptances or rejections—in regards to college admissions and life as a whole—should not and do not define you or your self-worth. Just try your absolute best and be yourself. If colleges can’t see how awesome you are, they don’t deserve you anyway.”

As her father, I quietly took in Sabrina’s pain as well when her then-top choice, Columbia University in dynamic NYC, denied her admission. Sabrina had applied to a range of private and public universities and received her share of acceptances and rejections. But those dark clouds had unexpected silver linings. How did she arrive at her own college decision?

“Deciding where to spend the next four years of my life was a difficult struggle between name brand and fit. I was slightly skeptical about Georgetown, for it was a smidge less ‘prestigious’ than some of the Ivy League schools to which I was accepted.

However, all my false assumptions vanished when I stepped onto campus. As a West Coast native and suburban girl, I yearned for a metropolitan, East Coast experience. I could see that living in Washington, DC, the nation’s political hub and a corporate cluster, would be a fantastic experience because of opportunities to seize invaluable internships and to build key relationships.

I loved Georgetown’s Jesuit values—in particular, their deep adherence to service and advocacy of ‘men and women for others.’ These values were clearly reflected in the students I met. I also loved the campus culture and adored the alumni, faculty, and administrators whom I met.

Finally, Georgetown’s wealth of student organizations, including Girls Who Code and Startup Hoyas, and its brand-new Social Innovation and Impact Center (just erected a few months ago), left me in awe of the resources related to my passions, all within hand’s reach.”

Sabrina subsequently commented on social media: “You know your school is the one when the only vandalism you ever see is uplifting messages. I am very happy at Georgetown!”

Count your blessings

All the important things in life are still there. Your parents still love you. You still have friends, your health, your home, your interests, your future. Nothing really important has changed. Don’t let one setback sour your future.

“One of my teammates’ favorite philosophers, Boethius, said, ‘No man is miserable unless he thinks he is.’ It’s all in your belief system and attitude—and that is something you have the power to change!”

As a Georgetown freshman then, Sabrina also shared ways in which her college experience thus far had caused her to change her perspective on her academic career, her dreams and aspirations, and her life:

“Now in college, I can safely say that my post-high school experience has been exhilarating. I have experienced my share of failures, rejections, breakdowns, inferiority complexes, and long caffeine-fueled nights. Yet, at the end of the day, I always fall asleep happy.

Through my extracurriculars, social groups, and classes, I have met friends and mentors whom I do not deserve. With content, I look back on memories like discussing the ‘meaning of life’ with my theology professor, running to the Washington Monument at midnight, and haphazardly searching up financial jargon on Investopedia during Georgetown’s Venture Capitalist Investment Competition.

Although I still have ‘what-am-I-doing-with-my-life’ moments often, college has tested my limits in the best way possible, and I am excited to continue growing academically, socially, and spiritually.”

While attending Georgetown, Sabrina pivoted from majoring in business to computer science, despite Georgetown not being well-known in CS education. Fast forward to today, Sabrina Ma was recently promoted to being a senior software engineer at Google, where she has worked since graduating Georgetown in 2018.

I am inspired to see Sabrina, my younger daughter Lydia (who graduated Penn/Wharton last year and works at Salesforce Slack), and scores of my (former) students/mentees have become happy, compassionate human beings and skilful, rising young leaders. In Sabrina and Lydia’s case, they both have longer-term technology leadership aspirations.

You always have options

You never know. You might turn out to be miserable at College X, your initial top choice, but College Z, your 3rd choice, might actually be the greatest place for you. Current and future college applicants, please do visit the colleges that admit you, if possible. Look more closely at the academic curricula, the distribution requirements, the student clubs and organizations, the types of (off-campus) internship opportunities, the vibe. Consider the climate; you will be living there for four years. Absolutely, talk to people—current students, alumni, faculty, administrators.

And, for those of you who may want to transfer or advance to graduate work, it’s the last college that matters. That’s usually the one you mention when people ask what college you attended. So, motivated freshmen and rising sophomores in community or “less prestigious” colleges, don’t despair. Work hard and smarter moving forward—or try transferring later—with trusted, third-party, high-quality guidance.

At this moment, freshmen and transfer applicants, you are children of fate. It’s out of your hands. So, make the best decisions you can with the information you have at the time. That’s all any of us can do. Best of luck!

This article is based on Jason Ma’s original Forbes article ‘How to Handle College Admissions Rejections‘ published in 2014, and is updated and edited for relevance today. To view Jason’s articles and recorded talks, and to learn about his work as award-winning Chief Mentor of Next-Gen Leaders (from Gen Z high schoolers to Gen X CEOs), please go to ThreeEQ.com.

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