A Letter to High School Seniors: Don’t Accept College Rejections

Dear High School Seniors,

Over the past few weeks, many of you have received letters from the colleges to which you applied in the fall and winter.

Some of you are delighted with the outcome, having gotten into your top choice(s). Congratulations. This post is not for you.

Some of you are content, having gotten into a couple of schools that were high on your list. Wonderful. This post is not for you.

Some of you – all too many – are despairing because you received multiple rejections; got on wait lists that are unlikely to turn into acceptances; didn’t receive the financial aid you required; and realized that you actually have no interest in going to the affordable safety school that accepted you. This post is for you.

Many of you, who worked so hard and expected to get into an elite college with the kind of endowment that would ensure you could affordably attend with good financial aid, wonder why you even bothered to take all those AP courses; to study so diligently in classes that sometimes bored you to tears; to prep for the SATs; and to follow all the rules laid out for you during four years of high school.

Here’s my message to you: Don’t surrender your potential. Don’t accept the rejections. It’s time to forge your own path.

Here’s a question for you: Ever find yourself lured by brand-name clothes and shoes, believing these were somehow better? That they said something about you? That they would make you feel more accepted? At some point I hope you realized that none of that was true, and that labels can never define you.

If you’re feeling despondent because you didn’t get into a college with an elite “brand” name, then remember this: a college label can’t ever define you either. In fact, the name of your college does not matter in any significant way.

I’m not going to pretend that having a degree from Harvard or Berkeley on your resumé won’t open doors. It will. But it only opens doors; it doesn’t guarantee you’ll get beyond the reception area. Trust me.

I went to two Ivy League universities, undergraduate and graduate. I have plenty of friends and acquaintances who graduated from these places who haven’t been great successes in life, either in the traditional ways that we measure success or in the real ways, like life satisfaction, happiness, and personal achievement. I also have plenty of friends who went to colleges no one’s ever heard of who are tremendously successful in both traditional and real ways.

What matters isn’t the name of the college you attend, but a combination of these things:

  • Your attitude about and passion for learning. If you think you wasted your time in high school, don’t waste any more of it. Learn because you love to learn, and because learning is your greatest path toward finding your life’s work and purpose.
  • How good a fit the college is for you personally. If you don’t want to go to the safety school that accepted you, then you didn’t find that good fit with every school to which you applied. It’s not too late (see below).
  • How hard you work. If you worked really hard in high school, that’s great, because you have the discipline to work hard throughout your life, and this is what will largely determine your success. That hard work was not wasted. It was preparation.
  • How good your teachers are and how interested you are in what they have to teach you. There are myriad ways to learn from others: through traditional college courses, apprenticeships, internships, work, volunteerism, activism. Find those teachers and mentors who stretch your mind and open your heart and learn from them.
  • How deeply you avail yourself of the myriad opportunities available to you. From experiential learning, research, internships, travel abroad, volunteer work, and civic and community engagement and service, you will create opportunities for yourself by taking advantage of all your options.
  • How you ultimately come to answer these three questions, which will enable you to forge your unique and important path in life:

1. What issues do you most care about?
2. What are you good at?
3. What do you love to do?

As you explore the answers to these three questions, you’ll find the place where the answers meet. That is when you will discover your life’s great work and become successful in all the ways you hope. I invite you to watch this short TEDx talk, “How to Be a Solutionary,” as it may help you on this journey.

Whatever you do, don’t despair.

If you do not want to go to the college(s) that accepted you, take a gap year and explore the answers to the three questions above by involving yourself in work, volunteerism, and opportunities that will enable you to figure out your next steps. Look again at colleges and find the right fit this time, without blindly pursuing the brand names.

Believe me when I tell you the world needs you, but it needs the you who forges your own path, thinks critically and creatively, and doesn’t let others usurp your power or define your dreams or your future.

Good luck,




Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.


Image courtesy of Joelk75 via Creative Commons.


Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra5 years ago

Thank you Zoe, for Sharing this!

Marie W.
Marie W5 years ago

Our for profit education system is a loss anyway.

Jami P.
Jami P5 years ago

Education, trade schools, are your cutting edge something noone can ever take from you. They help prepare us for well rounded life, financially, socially, emmotionally. I was given 3 choices..In state, In state, In state..(3 Universities in my state) Had a 1977 Yellow Schwin, ate the meal plan way. Did the Dorm life!! SO SO worth it because only 1 in 5 make it. I did. Getting in is easier than staying in!! Start with the Community Colleges for Liberal Studies and start prepping for your major much less costly today.

Sharon R.
Sharon R5 years ago

In an age when a lot of those who graduate from college don't find jobs, it makes sense to consider alternatives. I sat on plane once beside a recruiter for a major car dealership who needed candidates for mechanic students for the company. It sounded like a great deal. I remember the mechanics wages began about $100,000 per year. There are other job vocations, too, including religious vocations, that are begging for new blood. Some of these will pay for educational studies, if one is sincerely interested.

On a slightly different note--For graduate students, there are programs for doctors in training that will pay one's tuition in exchange for the doctor working in poor areas after graduation. There are wonderful programs also for teachers which allow one to work with students as one earns one's teaching degree.

Mike and Mrs Ja B.
Janis B5 years ago

It used to be the time when only the top 2% of academics went to university, it seems that anyone however clever or not gets to some type of college level. All that means is there is no longer real esteem in going and degrees are worthless. Alan L. has it right!

Charli S.
Charlotte S5 years ago

I think a lot of kids should think about not going to college. So many are forced to go and then are saddled with debt that is hard to pay off. Many non college fields pay as much if not more such as plumbers and electricians.

It's a shame that we view kids as failures if they don't go to college. And what happens when EVERYONE has a college degree? Will that be the minim standard at McDonald's?

Lone Wolf
Lone W5 years ago

If you are serious about going to college, you have to learn to take the good with the bad. Rejections do not mean that you are not good enough, they generally mean that you are not the type of student they are looking for, which begs the question about whether that is the best college for you. However, if you are convinced that it is indeed the college that you want, ask and look around for programs that help you become more attractive to that college. Many colleges see this has a sign of commitment and hard work. Yes, it probably means that you will lose a few weeks of your vacation, but if this is hat you are looking for, then the cost is worth it.

Another thing, is that perhaps you did not sell yourself well enough, so ask for help in preparing your assays and other submission documents. Also, include any and all accomplishments and interests. Remember also that for one college the fact that you were a tuba player who worked at an animal shelter means nothing, while for another this makes a desirable recruit.

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se5 years ago


Danuta Watola
Danuta W5 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Connie O.
Connie O5 years ago

thank you