In households across America this time of year, there is a sense of expectation. And dread. Families await the arrival of that all-important letter, the one that will determine the kid's future. Everything depends on the admissions office at Harvard. Or Yale. Or some perfect little ivy-covered school in the New England woods that looks like a Currier and Ives engraving.
Getting into the right school is no longer just a matter of having top grades and filling out the application form, not any more. The applicant has got to wonder whether the accompanying essay struck the right balance between idealism and realism, confidence and humility, sufficient knowledge or sounding like a know-it-all, a healthy self-respect or just adolescent self-absorption….
Few waits are so wearing for kids or their parents, who have to be thinking: Why is all this going to cost so much?
Take comfort. It's not the end of the world if the kid doesn't make it in or, for that matter, the beginning of it if he does.
Somebody ought to compile a list of all the now famous people who were rejected by the college or university of their choice. Somebody has done just that, or at least started to. Namely, the Wall Street Journal. Not too long ago it ran a story about some of the country's more illustrious college rejects, beginning with Warren Buffett.
The future master investor was turned down by a couple of the best business schools in the country, including Harvard's. Which turned out to be Harvard's mistake. (It makes quite a few.)
Looking back, the financier out of Omaha, Neb., who never saw any reason to move out of his hometown, explained why being rejected can be a good thing. "The truth is, everything that has happened in my life … that I thought was a crushing event at the time has turned out for the better."
The rejection by Harvard certainly turned out well for Columbia University, which decided to accept a last-minute application from one Warren Buffett that year. In 2008 alone, he gave more than $12 million to Columbia through the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation.
For that matter, young Buffett was also turned down by the University of Chicago's business school, news that filled him with "this feeling of dread" and fear he'd deeply disappointed his father. Naturally his father responded with "only this unconditional belief in me." Isn't that what fathers are for?
Among the other famous names mentioned in this round-up of rejects were Meredith Vieira of the "Today" show (Harvard); John Schlifske, president of Northwestern Mutual (Yale); Tom Brokaw of NBC and middlebrow culture in general (Harvard again); and Ted Turner (Princeton and Harvard).
Then there's the Nobel laureate in medicine, Harold Varmus, now president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who was rejected by Harvard's medical school twice, on occasions a year apart. He still recalls a dean there who, in his interview, called him "inconstant and immature" and suggested he join the military. As if the military needed the inconstant and immature.
It's restorative, thinking of some of those whose futures were supposed to be forever blighted because they didn't get into, for over-rated example, Harvard. It's something to keep in mind, young people, when one of those thin rejection letters arrives in the mailbox from your first-choice college rather than the thick letter of acceptance you were looking for.
Thank you, Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal, for conducting this small survey of great rejects. A lot of families out there need this kind of perspective.
Next, let's have a select list of distinguished achievers who dropped out of the college of their choice, the way Bill Gates left Harvard in his junior year. (After scoring 1590 out of 1600 on his SATs.) As inspirations, they also serve who leave school.
Years ago, I saw a moving little film called "Ballad of a Soldier," a kind of Russian "Red Badge of Courage" about the adventures of a young soldier in the late unpleasantness with the Germans 1941-45. At one point, he's on a train headed home on leave with an older comrade who's lost his leg in battle. Rather than return to his fiancee maimed, the soldier has decided to stay on the train, maybe to the end of the line, which in Russia can be a long, long trans-Siberian way. "But where will you go?" our young hero asks him. The older soldier just shrugs. "Russia is a big country," he explains.
So is America. Opportunity still beckons out here. In places like Omaha, Neb., and Bentonville, Ark., home of a little company called Wal-Mart. Opportunity comes in all kinds of places and ways. Sometimes it comes in the form of a rejection.
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