Learning to love the small envelope: on getting rejected from your dream school

April 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

You’ve worked hard, really hard. You did extra hours of homework, you picked up the flute in addition to piano, you started playing tennis (on top of basketball), you took AP Chemistry, you gave up Saturdays for endless SAT prep, you deprived yourself of sleep so you could memorize hundreds of Latin roots: you did everything you could short of bringing peace to the Middle East, and still. It still wasn’t good enough for your dream school.

College admissions decisions are coming back, happiness communicated, literally, in a manner of inches. Disappointment spreads like a toxin as students confront the horrifying regular-sized envelope. After, perhaps, some momentary denial (“Maybe the enrollment paperwork is coming later!”), the envelope is torn open and the fullness of the rejection sets in. Teachers and parents try to console, offering empathy based in similar experiences, but no medicinal words unswell the sting. Like a breakup, it just sucks.

However, this doesn’t mean we are left powerless, left to curse admissions officials and trash the shirts and trinkets emblazoned with the monogram of our childhood Eden. While no words can reverse the decision, they can offer a framework for keeping our wits together and for avoiding apocalyptic gloom. (Remember: the denial letter is not a diagnosis of terminal illness.) Turning to ancient wisdom becomes especially important, and almost a necessity, for teachers and students anchored in Catholic, Jesuit education. Those of us who live and move within perspectives of discernment turn to faith for meaning, for perspective on the springs and winters of our lives. To be a person of faith means nothing less than that. And it is in our faith that we can find some hope beyond the heartbreak. What follows are some reflections for learning to love the small envelope.


Life before adulthood trains us to believe that life proceeds along a nice little chain of cause and effect. So long as we engage in certain practices, certain benefits are — or should — follow. I do my homework, I study for the exam, I participate in class . . . I get an “A.” I show up early to practice, hit the weights, and listen to the coach . . . and then I get to start the playoff game.

Most of the time, this pattern of cause and effect holds. But sometimes it does not. We see this more as we get older, when we discover that waking up early and staying late is not always enough, that we can do everything we’re supposed to, including more than we’re supposed to, and what we expected does not happen. This can begin with college admissions, but envelopes of disappointment arrive in other ways. We can eat well and exercise and still contract disease. We can save and invest wisely and still find ourselves frantic for money. We can fix our eyes on the road and still end up with a broken arm because of another driver.

Learning that difficult truth often begins with college decisions. Though rejection sends teachers and students rushing for answers, often there is no satisfying explanation. Sometimes there is a clear reason (bad grades, an “F” from freshman year), but usually there is not. But this greeting from the unexpected can be a threshold moment in the life of faith. It can be a hidden invitation to consider a version of the future that may teem with more delight and excitement than we thought possible, a version of the future far more suited to our truest self.

When we say, “What happened? This doesn’t make sense!” we echo what many of our ancestors in faith endured as they encountered God. The news that Mary was to give birth to Jesus, the savior of the world, shocked her. She likely had a timeline in mind about marriage, children, and the variegated pleasures of family life. Gabriel’s arrival had the effect of a rejection letter: it altered expectations, her plans, and probably made her feel insecure and unprepared. Bewildered and fearful, Mary asked, “How can this be?” What she was saying was: How did this happen? I didn’t plan for this!

The life of St. Ignatius of Loyola offers another instructive example. Not long after his injury and conversion, St. Ignatius departed for Jerusalem. He had determined to remain there for a long time, visiting holy places and, in his words, “helping souls.” Ignatius, it is important to recall, longed to be there and felt truly called to be there. But at the time, it was an unstable place, and the Franciscans in charge of the Christian holy sites told him to leave. Ignatius was so stubborn that he was almost excommunicated. Eventually, he obeyed the Church officials and left.

He must have thought a lot like Mary at the Annunciation, and a lot like our students do when colleges deny them. On the ship back to Spain, he probably dwelled in insecurity and self-doubt, mesmerized that his long prayed-about plans had gone awry. He probably told himself, “This was not what I had in mind. I thought God wanted me in Jerusalem. Now what?” Of course, we know what the “now what” turned into: one of the greatest and most influential spiritual journeys in the history of Christianity. Four hundred and fifty years of Jesuit history later, the world is still blessed with the fruits of Ignatius’s rejection.

Like Mary and Ignatius, therefore, the pain of rejection letters can be like the agonies of labor. They hurt, but a birth is on the way. A better path, a new mission, lies just beyond the horizon. Mary’s role was not to live conventionally. She was called to be the mother of Christ and, in virtue of that, the mother of humanity. St. Ignatius’s role was not to hang out in the Holy Land. He was called to do something far more dramatic and world-altering. But both Mary and Ignatius first had to undergo a kind of rejection, a rupture in expectations that left them fearful and confused.

So, too, can it be with college admissions decisions. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying that God will suddenly make the future obvious. It’s never as simple as that. Opening ourselves to discernment does not give us powers of fortune-telling. In fact, it is usually just the opposite: we retreat into the beauty of mystery. Confusion still follows even when following God’s will. But somehow it is a confusion for which we are grateful, and gradually, like a work of art, the little touches of faith on our part merge into an extraordinary human picture that brings a happiness we could never have mapped, that we could never have guaranteed through stock market-like projections.

Going to the University of San Diego instead of Stanford may not seem momentous, but, if done with the right openness, it can be one small step toward freedom in faith. The freedom to let our lives be God’s project, not our own. To students who are frustrated, I tell you: I understand exactly what you’re going through, as do your parents and teachers. But use this time to listen more intensely than you ever have, to be more aware to where grace and life may lie. It worked for Mary, it worked for Ignatius and, I promise, it will work for you.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

Related post(s):

Grace and Senioritis


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§ 2 Responses to Learning to love the small envelope: on getting rejected from your dream school

  • Val says:

    This is a first-world problem.

    I have long lived on the margins of society. Four-year out of high school was laughable. Any college out of high school was laughable.

    I laughed, tested out of high school at sixteen and went to the local community college. WENT BACK to my former high school as a college student (ages 18-20) and ran an after-school tutoring program for (mostly) at-risk youth for two years (a population with whom I have a lot of street cred). An Honors Student, very involved on campus, I was forced to drop out in 2000 one English class and 1/2 unit of P.E. short of an A.A. Finished that degree with a couple evening and weekend classes. Finished all my transfer requirements one class at a time. Working and intermittantly unemployed through all of this, I finally applied to my first-choice school (which happens to be a Jesuit university) in Fall 2012 for Spring 2013 transfer. Got in on my first shot, jumped through all hoops, generous financial aid package, registered for classes…then found out I couldn’t qualify for private loans without a cosigner for the “living expenses” piece…then was in a horrible car accident three days after Christmas. They want me, I want them, lenders don’t want me because I don’t have enough open trade lines because I was living within my means. Game over (without a cosigner), maybe game over for years.

    Not everyone is blessed enough to have the opportunity for a Jesuit high school education. Not everyone — regardless of intelligence — has access even to resources to fund higher education…maybe not even a four-year, but even a two-year or vocational program. I do office work, it’s what I can do well. What is true in my sector is true in a lot of sectors of the economy — after 2008 the mid-range jobs (decent pay with experience but not a degree) went away. Those jobs aren’t coming back. What is left is entry-level and executive level. Executive level require a four-year degree (doesn’t matter what or from where) to make what used to be possible without it. College and university matter, and they matter a lot, but I spend all day every day around very poor people — some amazingly smart — who never had that chance. First-choice rejection blues is a first-world problem.

    I like your Biblical examples — can I throw Joseph (Jacob’s son) in there too? There is that old saying “life is what happens when you were busy making other plans” — that’s very true. My former student government advisor advised me back in 2000 to be singularly focused on getting through school. If I had done that, I would have missed out on a lot of very enriching ministry experiences, missed out on developing relationships with treasured friends, wholly missed the path to my vocation. By no means do I advocate anything akin to fatalism, but don’t discount providence. God has the long view of things. I like the Isak Dinesen quotation: “God made the world round so we would never be able to see too far down tbe road.” You don’t know what you don’t know, but you can lose a lot of joy and blessings in what IS by wishing on what might’ve been.

    I would also strongly recommend against any scenario where you watch your life go up in a puff of airbag dust.

    I have written that life is only worth living if you can find God in all things. That’s no platitude, sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes it takes years to see enough of the long view to know what God is doing. Still, I believe it, and that it’s no mere platitude.

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