“No” today vs. “No” forever

The summer before my senior year of college, I was one of five students hired to run the summer orientation programs for incoming freshmen. Part of that job involved interviewing more than 350 applicants to fill fewer than 100 positions as summer volunteers to help run the program. That meant saying no to more than twice the number of people we would say yes to.

Each of us started by dividing the applications from those we’d personally interviewed into three piles—clear yes’s, clear no’s, and those who needed further discussion.

Between the five of us, our clear yes piles totaled 170 people. Almost twice the number we had space for.

We wouldn’t even have the chance to debate those who we thought needed further discussion. We had to debate which 70 of those clear yes’s—all great candidates who made overwhelmingly positive impressions on those of us who’d interviewed them—would be turned away.

We sat together on a Saturday and made impassioned cases for our own picks before putting each individual decision to a group vote. Seven hours later, we had our hundred picks. 100 great candidates were in, but 70 people who clearly deserved to be there were out.

And two days later, all of the applicants received their decisions.

Those 70 great people we turned away did absolutely nothing wrong. They were exactly the kinds of students who could make great contributions to our staff and to our program’s mission. Many of them were our friends. A few had applied specifically because we encouraged them to. And now we had to face them on campus, knowing they had every right to feel a little hurt and confused as to why they weren’t hired.

I loved being a summer orientation coordinator. But I hated the next few weeks of disappointed faces and incredulous inquiries about why we said no.

If you plan on applying to highly selective colleges that turn away far more applicants than they admit, the selection process will look a lot like what we faced hiring our staff all those summers ago.

You might have done everything expected of you in high school. You might have taken the most challenging classes, earned top grades and test scores, and thrived in your activities. You might have glowing letters of recommendation from teachers and counselors. You may even have been encouraged to apply by your counselor or an admissions representative that you’ve had the chance to communicate with.

But eventually, the mathematical reality will set in. What makes a college highly selective is that there are far too many applicants who deserve to be admitted, and not nearly enough spaces to accommodate them. Every admissions officer I’ve ever met who worked at one of those schools remembers just how much it hurt to argue passionately in favor of an applicant who so clearly belonged there, only to be voted down by the committee. Knowing that a student who deserved to be admitted would soon be receiving a denial is a reality in that world, but it never gets any easier for the people making the decisions, not to mention for the applicants who receive the bad news.

Rather than try to worry your way to a decision that you can influence but never actually control, you can respond to this reality in a healthy way.

First, please accept the fact that no matter how much you’ve achieved in high school, you simply cannot apply to a list comprised only of schools who turn away the majority of their applicants. You deserve better than to cross your fingers and hope to beat the odds. You deserve to have many great colleges from which to choose. If you’ve done the work and you’re willing to broaden your definition of a great college beyond those that reside at the top of the arbitrary rankings list, there are plenty of them out there that will practically trip over themselves to admit you.

Second, you can come to terms with the fact that admissions at highly selective colleges is not a meritocracy where the highest numbers always win. The math simply doesn’t allow it. All you can do is put your best application foot forward, trust that admissions committees do their best to be fair and thorough (they really do), and remember that even if things don’t go your way, it doesn’t necessarily mean you weren’t qualified. It likely means that there just weren’t enough spaces to go around.

Finally, and most importantly, you can remind yourself that your track record of great work will always be appreciated and rewarded somewhere, no matter what any individual college’s decision may be.

None of those 70 people we turned away had any long-term damage done. Some may have been temporarily stung by the decision, but they were too smart, too successful, and too driven to let one no deter them. They all bounced back and found other organizations where they could put their talents to use. After a month or so had passed, they’d moved on. And we no longer had to dread running into people we’d disappointed.

A no today doesn’t mean no forever.