Overcoming Rejection: A Survivor’s Guide to US Universities

Walt Disney, JK Rowling, Thomas Edison, Jack Ma, Albert Einstein….what do these celebrated figures have in common? Would you say they each possessed a brilliant mind, or lived to achieve unparalleled success in life? While this may be true, more surprisingly, before achieving status as historical and cultural icons, each one experienced devastating rejection.

Disney, Rowling, and Edison were all fired from their jobs and criticized for their ideas, as were other luminaries like Anna Wintour (fired from Harper’s Bazaar), Madonna (fired from Dunkin Donuts), Oprah (fired from a local Baltimore news station), and Steve Jobs (fired from his own company). Not only was JK Rowling fired, but when she later had multiple books rejected from various publishers, they offered her consolatory advice like suggesting she attend writing school. The list of famous failures goes on: Stephen King’s first critically acclaimed novel Carrie was rejected thirty times before being published; Abraham Lincoln lost several runs for public office before becoming president of the United States; Steven Spielberg was rejected from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film, and Television three times, and did not complete his BA from another university until 2002; Albert Einstein was expelled from compulsory school and denied admission to university before going on to become Albert Einstein.

Rejection, setbacks, and disappointment are integral and necessary components of the human experience. While not all of us will become famous authors, inventors, and celebrities, it is certain that we will experience multiple rejections at unexpected times. Rejection takes many forms, and can affect us in a variety of ways, but it is how we respond to these unfortunate circumstances that defines who we are – not the circumstances themselves. Professional and personal rejection are common encounters in any given person’s lifetime, but perhaps the most jarring rejection is the first one we experience, and for many, that is a rejection letter from university.

It is essential to understand that no one is immune to rejection. There are always students who seem to “have it all” – perfect scores on the college entrance exams, like the SAT, and SAT II’s, and substantial extracurricular activities – that are nonetheless consistently rejected from Ivy League schools. However, these students are able to recover from the perceived loss of an Ivy League acceptance, and live happy, engaged, fulfilling and successful lives. Ultimately, a university can only provide you with a set of opportunities; it is up to you to make the most of your experience as an undergraduate student.

So how does one recover from such a blow to the ego like a university rejection? The first step is understanding what factors play into a university acceptance. Diversity, personality, and character are equally important to a university as are academic profile. University admissions is a matchmaking process, and should be viewed as a search for compatibility between the school and the applicant.

With this in mind, the university admissions process can be likened to a search for a romantic partner -an appropriate comparison, when you consider how painful both forms of rejection can be. Here is a summary of award-winning author Alain de Botton’s advice on romantic rejection:


  1. Don’t minimize the pain. Indulge in it until you get bored.
  2. Believe rejection when it happens. Accept it so you can move on.
  3. Recognize that we are predisposed to thinking highly of people that don’t want us. By default of being in the position of power, they seem more perfect than they are.
  4. Put yourself in the place of the rejector. Think back to when you rejected someone. You weren’t necessarily repulsed by that person, nor did you think lowly of them –  in fact, you probably didn’t give them a second thought. Take this into consideration and don’t be so critical of yourself.


Often times the best way to get over a broken heart is simply to find a new object of your affection. The same approach can be applied to rejection from your top school. Revisit your other university acceptance letters, and perform your due diligence; you should find many attractive qualities in one of these other schools – after all, you applied to these universities for a reason. Also know that you can study at this school for a year, and then attempt to transfer to your dream school during the next admissions cycle after you have improved your grades and profile.

Another option is applying to more universities in the same admissions cycle who offer rolling admissions. Schools with rolling admissions receive and review applications throughout the year (although some do have a deadline in the spring or summer).

If you find yourself stuck on your dream school, there are other options, for example reapplying after a gap year. This is only advisable if that gap year is filled with a worthwhile pursuit that will improve your profile. Some profile-building activities include full time employment, founding an organization, or carrying out a demanding internship or another professionally-oriented initiative like an international service corps.

Alternatively, you can keep your dream school in the back of your mind for graduate studies. You have a better chance of admission to a top graduate school if you stand out among your peers at the undergraduate level. High achieving students from less selective undergraduate programs will always secure acceptances to more selective graduate programs than average students from more selective institutions. For example, Harvard MBA students hail from 264 undergraduate institutions – not just from the Ivy League.

If you take away anything from this article, it should be that the path to success is fraught with failure, but in these moments of failure are lessons that better prepare us for future challenges. Use this opportunity to develop the emotional tools necessary to deal with the extreme highs and lows of life. In the words of the famed inventor of the telephone (and failed inventor of the airplane) “When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

Alexandra Newlon is an Educational Consultant at Hale Education Group and a graduate of McGill University and Washington University in St.Louis.

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