The Truth About Rejection by Elite Colleges

body outline representing rejection by elite collegesI think that the greatest unacknowledged truth in college admissions is that if you’re good enough to get into an Ivy League school then you are good enough to handle being rejected by them.

What am I talking about? Let’s start with the joke that in order to get into the elite universities, high school students need to have discovered the cure for cancer or, at the very least, won a Nobel Prize. (Actually, we now know that even a Nobel Prize isn’t good enough if you haven’t taken an American college admissions test. Just ask Malala Yousafzai.)

Well, think about it. If you already accomplished that much without the help of the most prestigious colleges, surely you’ll be able to continue to do so despite a rejection letter?

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Your chances of being successful are still pretty good

Don’t think people should make too much of a casual joke? How about some hard data instead? Research by Krueger and Dale shows that students who were actually accepted to the most elite colleges and went elsewhere were just as successful as those who did attend the “must get in” schools.

In fact, research shows that “the average SAT score at the most selective college students apply to turns out to be a better predictor of their earnings than the average SAT score at the college they attended.” (Really, I’m not arguing against test optional.)

The reality is that it is the elite students that make the elite universities, not the elite universities making elite students. The universities are actually pretty upfront about this. They want students who excelled in a high school situation where presumably the vast majority of students couldn’t match their achievements. Just check out the following from the admission pages of some universities.


We seek to identify students who will be the best educators of one another and their professors—individuals who will inspire those around them during their College years and beyond.

What Yale Looks For:

  • …two questions guide our admissions team: “Who is likely to make the most of Yale’s resources?” and “Who will contribute most significantly to the Yale community?”
  • Again, we are looking for students who will make the most of Yale and the most of their talents. Knowing how you’ve engaged in the resources and opportunities at your high school gives us an expectation of how you might engage the resources at Yale if admitted.

Stanford, Our Selection Process:

We want to see the kind of curiosity and enthusiasm that will allow you to spark a lively discussion in a freshman seminar and continue the conversation at a dinner table. We want to see the energy and depth of commitment you will bring to your endeavors, whether that means in a research lab, as part of a community organization, during a performance or on an athletic field. We want to see the initiative with which you seek out opportunities and expand your perspective.

Columbia University:

…we seek to identify those who we believe will take greatest advantage of the unique Columbia experience and will offer something meaningful in return to the community.

Princeton University:

Tell us your story. Show us what’s special about you. Tell us how you would seize the academic and nonacademic opportunities at Princeton and contribute to the Princeton community.

University of Pennsylvania:

Penn looks for students with the ability to turn their ideas and interests into action, people whose talents and experiences will energize our community.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Admissions Consideration

We’re interested in students who can be successful at Carnegie Mellon while taking full advantage of all the university has to offer.

Amherst College

Amherst seeks, above all, to enroll exceptional students of strong and vibrant intellectual promise who have the demonstrated qualities of mind and character that will enable them to thrive in our dynamic academic and social environment and to take full advantage of the remarkable resources our community offers.

From MIT’s “What we look for:”

Opportunities are abundant at MIT, but they must be seized. Research projects, seed money, and interesting lectures aren’t simply handed to students on silver platters here. For those students who take initiative—who take advantage of what’s around them—MIT’s resources are unparalleled.

But Duke’s was the best:

Until January of 2020, Duke’s admissions page had a pretty “frank” statement:

Students we accept haven’t just gone through the motions–they’ve put heart and soul into the areas that interest them. Frankly, students we do not admit often have these qualities as well.

The Purpose of Elite Colleges

The elite colleges are not in the business of transforming students but rather providing outstanding students with the label of “outstanding” and the opportunity to interact with other such students. They aren’t developing students to represent their brand but are selecting students that will already serve as the face of their brand. Remember, these are the schools that are putting their course content online for free.

Many would argue that it’s the chance to interact with similarly talented students that is the true value of elite institutions. Such interactions will inspire them to even greater heights, or at least get them jobs in investment banking.

Argue all you like. If you are truly the passionate, self-starter that didn’t just take advantage of the opportunities offered by your high school, but created new opportunities for others at the high school, you should be able to survive rejection by elite colleges and still continue on your path to success.


The Truth About Rejection by Elite Colleges