Rejected from Princeton; what now?

All I ever wanted was to get into Princeton but they rejected me!

Everything happens for a reason, says our elder. You’ll find the college that’s right for you.


Dear EWC

Hello there, wise ones! I have a problem, I’m 18 and have worked super extra hard to get into Princeton University since I was nine if you can believe it. Everything I’ve ever done academically was to go to Princeton and almost killed myself every school year worrying about it. Well, I got my letter back and they rejected me! I’m so devastated, I’ve been crying for the past two days, I can’t believe it! after all the hard work I had to do! What should I do now? I dedicated my whole life to this school. What should I do?


Willow replies

My name is Elder Willow and I’m a volunteer with the Elder Wisdom Circle. Your letter struck a chord with me because my son went through a similar experience eight years ago. Let’s see if I can help.

It’s so difficult when you have your heart set on a goal and it doesn’t work out. Sometimes, when we have long-time dreams invested in something, like going to a particular college, it can feel overwhelming if things happen differently.  It sounds like that’s what you’re going through now. I’m sorry that happened to you. I’d like to share some of my own experiences with you and hopefully lend some perspective.

But let me ask some questions first. I know you are disappointed to not have been accepted at Princeton, your dream school, but your letter doesn’t tell me why it’s been your dream since age nine. Is it because of its reputation and the prestige you feel it has? Is it due to your parents’ expectations?  Is it because it’s a top university by many measures? Is it because of the curriculum or the academic challenge? Did you fall in love with the campus? Or are you in love with the idea of Princeton, which might be giving you an idealized view of what it would actually be like to go there? 

While students often pursue schools for all of those reasons and more, in my experience none of these on their own are great reasons to choose a university. Rather, you choose a university because it is the best fit for you – your personality, your interests, what you hope to study. You owe it to yourself and your future to choose the best overall match for you, and that match must be a school that feels comfortable, has a good reputation in the subjects you want to study, and has the curriculum, level of difficulty, activities, sports, extracurriculars, etc. that are important to you. A tour of campuses will give you a sense of whether the campus “feels right” and whether you will be happy there. Admittedly that’s tough thanks to Covid, but many schools now have virtual tours you can take if in-person tours aren’t an option. There are going to be pros and cons to pretty much any school you consider, including your “dream school”. Nothing is perfect; the trick is to choose the school that is the best overall match, and that has nothing to do with prestige or a “big name”. Princeton is certainly a top university by some criteria, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily the #1 best option for you.

When I was in college, one of my best friends was a girl whose mother worked for one of the college deans. The university was a top school on many people’s lists and my friend dreamed of studying there because of the prestige. She was thrilled to be accepted. Before long, though, she realized she had chosen the school for all the wrong reasons. While the campus was similar to Princeton’s and was quite beautiful, the environment was all wrong for her. She felt alienated from other students socially. There were few activities on campus that attracted her. She chose a major based on what was available since the school didn’t provide what really interested her, and she soon found she was in over her head academically. The “fit” wasn’t right and although she eventually graduated, it was not a good experience and she ended up with a degree in a field that she wasn’t interested in. She never worked a single day in that field.

When my son was going through the college application process eight years ago, he had his heart set on a particular top university just like you. He was accepted at several of his other options – all wonderful schools – but waited eagerly to hear from his first choice. When he was not accepted, it was heartbreaking. That rejection forced him to reconsider his other options, and after touring them again and focusing on where he felt the most comfortable, he opted for his #2 choice. It was another excellent university, just not the one he’d originally longed to attend.

How did it all work out? He graduated from that school in 2017 with a highly-respected degree and with priceless experiences – playing varsity and club sports, working as a resident assistant helping younger students, developing previously unknown interests and having internship and research experiences that could never have happened anywhere else. He went on to earn his masters at the same university, graduating in 2018 and leveraging his college contacts and experiences into a job that’s a great fit. He is happy and professionally fulfilled, working at his dream job, and can’t imagine his present life without that university in it. He is now working with several graduates of the “dream university” that rejected him years ago. Recently, he commented to me on how happy he was that he hadn’t ended up going there. From talking to the co-workers that did go there about their experiences, he realizes now that he would never have been happy. In retrospect he ended up in the place that was right for him, although he certainly didn’t see it that way at the time.

I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason. Consider that the “dream school” may not be right for you. All your hard work to get to this point isn’t wasted; it has prepared you for success in college wherever that happens to be. Unfortunately, rejection happens. It’s part of life and it happens to everyone. It just means you were meant to look for better options. You have your whole future ahead and so many options other than this one school! I would urge you to follow up with the other universities you applied to and really think about where you would fit in best. 

Let’s put this in perspective; perhaps that will help. A quick Google search tells me that Princeton received nearly 33,000 applications and accepted just 6.1% of everyone who applied this year. That means about 30,000 very well-qualified students did not get in. It doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard. You did. You did everything you could. I know it’s hard not to take it personally, but those numbers are very difficult to overcome.

So where does that leave you? You have so many other opportunities. My advice to you is to not focus on just one school; rather, focus on finding the best fit. I assume you’ve applied to other schools, and maybe one of those could be right for you, maybe not. If not, then consider applying to different schools that offer the curriculum you want and which feel right. There are many places for good, hard-working students like you.

It’s easy to see how you might believe going to what society says is a “top” college is the only acceptable measure of success. That’s simply not true. If it were, there would only be a handful of colleges in the country because it would be a waste of time and money to go anywhere else. 

Here’s something I’ve learned over many decades of life:  People are successful because they work hard, like you have. It isn’t the school listed on their diploma that makes them a success, although it can open some doors to opportunity. It’s what you do with that opportunity or with your education that matters. There are plenty of failures that have come out of the most elite schools. Sometimes students are overwhelmed academically and fail. Some students may feel “entitled” to success without working for it, or perhaps they simply aren’t ready for the challenges of the real world. And some of the world’s most successful people never went to college at all. Success is a function of hard work, vision and yes, a bit of luck. Your ability to succeed in life, whatever your definition of success is, depends on you, not your college name.

I hope my thoughts have helped give you some perspective on this situation. There are many different colleges and a place for everyone. You have options, and things will work out as they are supposed to. I urge you to keep an open mind, hold your head high and don’t settle for anything less than the place that is the best possible match for you. I wish you the very best with your search; I will be thinking of you. I hope you’ll write back and let me know how it all works out. Thank you for writing to the EWC. Good luck!

Article #: 471545

Category: School

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