Sure the Kids Will Survive Getting a Thin Envelope at College Admission Time. But Can the Parents Stand the Rejection?

It’s that time of the year when teenage (and parental) angst can
hit the roof.  Will he/she get acceptance from the college of choice? 

Today’s WSJournal
on the titans, moguls and newsmakers who were rejected by
the college of their choice made a very serious blunder.  A very serious
mistake.  The article pivoted on the experiences of the kid who gets
the rejection.  Clearly, Sue Shellenbarger of the Journal does
not understand that the high school senior is not the only one with
admission angst.  Often, it’s the parents.  And that’s not true only of
the helicopter parents of today’s Gen-Yers.  

I’ve been around the barn on that issue with plenty of parents–as
well as with myself and my own daughters, now in their forties.  It’s
not a completely fun period for parents, even those of us with the psych
background to understand the not-so-healthy-stuff going on in our own
heads.  We parents have a lot invested in our progeny, want them to have
the best, and many of us are willing to do whatever necessary to make
that possible.  As a result, though the entire process was exciting, I
found it filled with tension.

My own experiences as a parent may be revelatory.  Though tempered by
time, I still have strong and fond memories of my daughters’ college
decision, selection and acceptance processes.

The eldest, who graduated from high school in 1962, had a sterling
grade point average and resume.  Her high school advisor had told us
that she deserved to go to one of the top schools.  Prior to that
conversation, I had never thought in those terms.   

My daughter and I spent several days going through college catalogs
at the local university until she (we?) decided that the U of Chicago
was the place for
her.  Just the pictures of that school were a heady experience for this
blue-collar dad.  Inevitably, we went to see the famed institution and
to check out Northwestern.  Of course, we were enthralled by the
“Chicago gothic and ivy.”  But we were unbelievably awed by the faculty,
the school’s resources and its history.  My daughter was at the
admissions meeting with another 50 or so potential students for about 30
minutes, walked over to me and said, “OK, Dad.  This is where I’m going
to go.  We can go home now.”  I wanted to take her to Northwestern but
she let me know in no uncertain terms that she was duly disinterested,
so we just went straight home.  A couple months later the thick envelope
was in the mail.  It never crossed our minds that anything other than
acceptance would be her experience, that is, until two colleagues of
mine admitted that their kids had been rejected. 

Of course, she loved Chicago and the only occasional negative was the
work load.  As the student web at Chicago says, “The most
academically rigorous college in America.”  I suspect that’s true.

Although she had two backup colleges that were offering full
scholarships, that went nowhere.  I went into hock, but it was one of
the four or five best investments I’ve ever made.

By the time our middler was thinking college, I had left my faculty
position and was consulting.  My income put an end to fears of monstrous
college expenses.  That second daughter, not the academic
superstar, settled  on Boston University with Ripon and U MN for
backups.  I sent her to Boston where she met a “crazy” buddy of
mine, the associate minister at Memorial Church, Harvard, who
willingly squired her around BU with his wife, a BU student.  I was very
happy with her choice of the College of Basic Studies at BU because I’d
always thought that she had some academic catch-up work to do.  She’d
had some physical problems, gotten behind academically, and needed those
first two years in CBS.  I wasn’t certain whether it was her doing or
my buddy’s playfulness, but when she got off the plane from Boston she
had an army camouflage jacket and hat with an unlit cigar in her mouth. 
My wife and I doubled over with laughter.  When I asked whether she’d
be smoking that stogie, she responded with, “I don’t think so.”  She
didn’t smoke it.

When she failed to get admitted on early decision, but was put on the
wait list, I found it more painful than she.  I was crushed.  I
remember her chiding me:  “Oh dad, give it up.  I’ll survive, so you can
too.  Let’s look at the backups.”  As I think about it now, my feelings
were childish, and my daughter was more mature about the rejection than
I.  But I was quite certain she would be missing out on a unique
opportunity, not easily duplicated elsewhere. I remember being in the
doldrums for a week or more.   

So, we got everything going for Ripon, an easy admittance for her. 
But a month later, we had a celebration when she was admitted to
BU.  CBS was a phenomenally superb place for her.  As an academic, I
believe that she was able to catch up with her academic losses from high

But our youngest was perhaps the most unique.  She was . . . well,
you know.  Midwestern, motherhood, apple pie, cheerleader, academic
brain, motor mouth and a willowy blonde beauty to top it all off. (After
college she modeled in Europe until I suggested rather firmly that
modeling was a disease, not a vocation.  She came home after a year,
went back to a graduate professional school and has a fine job as a
professional now.)  Yeah, and with all her personality goes a problem
that I hadn’t been able to help her resolve.  She had a strong sense of
entitlement that I knew could be problematic.  My concern about that
issue went deep into my gut, causing me to struggle emotionally with its
meaning and resolution. I was too aware that those entitlement
expectations were at least partly my own failure as a parent. 
Thankfully, her experience as a mother, a professional, and life, have
enabled her to succeed at managing an overweening sense of entitlement.

But finding the right college for her was difficult.  Not Chicago,
because she didn’t want to compete with her sister.  Besides, Chicago
was “nerd city.”  Not Northwestern, because “the students look like the
buildings.  All the same.”  And not Swarthmore, because it “didn’t feel
right,” (that’s a valid decision for a teenager). 

While in the Philadelphia area, she went to the admissions office at
Penn to talk to their staff.  Curious about a four hour session in
admissions, she told me that after talking to her, seeing her grades and
SAT scores, they started helping her fill out an admissions application
right then and there.  She brought the financial aid material home to
me, and then sent back her already completed personal profile. 
Surprised by admission’s response to her, I called my buddy at Harvard
wanting to know what was going on.  He responded with a lot of laughter,
described my daughter with a great deal of accuracy just to confirm
that his memory was on target.  I’ll never forget my shock at his
response (this was in 1967).  “My daughter,” he said with much
laughter, “was a classic Midwestern WASP.  Penn would be absolutely
delighted to add her to their ethnic mix.”

Although her admission to Penn was nearly guaranteed, she wanted a
trip to New York City to look at Columbia University’s Barnard College. 
Without saying anything about the issue, I had long since decided that
Barnard might be the best place, not only for her education, but also
for her to have to deal with those entitlement issues that were beyond
me.  I was quite certain that New York confrontations would either make
or break her, and I was quite willing to gamble on it making her.  All
of the Erwin females are tough, tough women.

By the time she was accepted at Barnard, I was both fatigued and
happy for her.  Needless to say, she had to confront the entitlement
“stuff” almost immediately, but she did so with both pain and eventual

I’m very aware in writing this that the possible rejection of our
children was of far more concern than any rejection I’ve ever had in
business or all of my life since their birth.  I had much more riding on
that experience, though some of it was psychologically inappropriate. 
I’m also aware that, once again, truth may be stranger and more
interesting than fiction.

In the Journal article, Shellenbarger interviewed others who
received college rejections, including Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, John
Schlifske of Northwestern Mutual, the Nobelist Harold Varmus, and
Meredith Vieira of the Today Show.

I found the advice of Lee Bolling, President of Columbia University,
who was rejected by Harvard, to be among the most thoughtful.  Don’t
let rejections control your life.  To allow other people’s assessment
of you to determine your own self-assessment is a very big mistake.  The
question really is, who  at the end of the day is going to make the
determination about what your talents are, and what your interests are? 
That has to be you.
  That’s very true for us parents as well as
for our kids.

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