That’s about how it feels when the first rejection letter comes in. All the sunny days in the world can’t perk you up when your dream school very politely, very tactfully writes you off. I know the feeling.
My top choice schools were the University of Chicago and MIT. I cried for days after the UChicago rejection, and all of my dad’s ranting about the idiocy of MIT admissions (his alma mater) did nothing to alleviate my distress after that misery. I was so ready to commit, I applied Early Action to both, got deferred from both, and, during RD, rejected from both.
I actually applied to college twice. Apparently the first 7 (no joke) rejections weren’t enough, because I sent in 4 more applications during my gap year. As if fourteen the first time around wasn’t enough. [Note: for any juniors reading this, FOURTEEN IS TOO MANY. It was a lot of unnecessary stress and heartbreak.] I’d deferred my acceptance to Tufts, interested in the school, but my heart set on UChicago. I sent in a second application to UChicago and MIT, with new details about my gap year adventures, and threw in a Stanford and a Harvard application, too, just to placate my dad. All four ended in rejection.
But my sob story is not the point. And frankly, it’s not a sob story at all – I ended up right where I’m supposed to be, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. What I really want to do is tell you why your life ISN’T actually over. I have a long list of friends who didn’t go to their dream school, put off college for years, or didn’t attend at all, and every one of them is happier for it.
Janine dropped out of medical school after three years, miserable and tired, and took a year to explore new passions. She is now a full-time professional photographer, and doing exceedingly well for herself.
Noah got brutally, cripplingly sick his senior year of high school, and was forced to postpone college to recover. His eloquent descriptions of his sickness and recovery got him a full ride to Oberlin. He’s currently studying abroad in El Salvador. For free.
Bryony never wanted to go to college, but always wanted to travel, and so got a job as a chef on a private yacht. She has friends from the high echelon of London society to the Thai mob, and her banana flambé is to die for.
Shaun, loving trains as he does, got a job as a waiter on a luxury train in Europe, and wandered extensively for years before deciding art was his calling. He then spent several years alternately attending art school and travelling on the money he made selling his work.
Jessey thought college was what she wanted. She headed straight to community college after graduation, following her parents’ recommendation, and promptly dropped out. After a few years of menial jobs and boredom, she discovered her love of books could translate into a job, and headed back to school to be a librarian. Who knew that was even a thing?
Elliott’s rejection letter from his tiny, liberal arts dream school sent him to the large but cheap University of Washington. His introductory biology professor sparked a passion for microbiology, and he’s due to graduate with a slew of research experience this spring.
Maggie was unconvinced that college was for her, and found a family in Switzerland in need of an au pair. She loves it there, and still hasn’t decided if she wants to come back.
Thomas had his heart set on Dartmouth or Middlebury, and was rejected by both. Three years in at Pomona, and he still gloats about the weather.
Zach floated from job to job for years before happening upon alternative medicine, and after two years of school, he’s now a practicing acupuncturist.
Jade got recruited by a film producer in need of an assistant two years into college, and after ten years in the film industry, she decided she needed something new. She’ll graduate from Columbia with a degree in social work this summer.
My parents both went to college straight out of high school, and dropped out within their first year. After meeting each other, getting married, and having me, they finally had an incentive to go back to school. The second time around, they went because they wanted to, instead of to follow the pack.
And then there’s me. I liked the idea of college, and I had been raised to believe it was my best chance at a fabulous career, but after two years of International Baccalaureate higher level classes, I was burnt out. My parents made a deal with me: I could spend a year travelling, experimenting, and learning about myself, but I had to go to college afterwards. Weary and sick of academia, the proposal sounded magnificent. And you know what? After all my gap year adventures, I was excited to come to Tufts. College sounded less like a chore or grin-and-bear-it exercise, and more like a continuation of my adventures. I came into college more appreciative of the learning experience, and with fewer nerves about being away from home. Now I never want to leave!
Those are only a few stories I’ve gathered. It’s hard not to imagine that everyone without a college degree works at McDonald’s and cries themselves to sleep, but college, and for that matter, Tufts, is not the only option. For many people, it’s not even a good option. My goal is to remind you that life goes on.
Tufts was not my first choice. Or my second, as I’ve already explained. It was actually floating somewhere in the middle, as terrible as that sounds. I know Tufts is a magnificent school, but I had very high expectations of myself. But when I didn’t get into my first, second, third, or fourth choice schools, Tufts was suddenly much more of a possibility. It wasn’t until I’d eliminated most of the rest of the schools that accepted me that Tufts actually began to look interesting. I arrived freshman year with the mindset that “if I hate it, I’ll just get good enough grades to transfer.” Two weeks into the semester and I never wanted to leave. I’ve grown to love art in a whole new way, I have an awesome job at Tufts Medical Center, I’m a varsity squash player, and I have a slew of incredible friends. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, and it’s not at all where I would have chosen. The world did not end when the University of Chicago shut me out, and you know what? Thank goodness they did. Jumbo for life! Trust me when I say that a different school will be just as valuable as the one you planned for. If you don’t like anywhere you got in, and have decided 100% to reapply to school, look into “Colleges that Change Lives” or “The Best Colleges You’ve Never Heard Of.” There are more than 4,500 degree-granting institutions of higher education in this country. I guarantee you don’t know them all.
So, here’s the worst case scenario I’m working from: having decided that college is the right path, you apply to some number of schools, and get rejected from every one. Any schools you might have found interesting with late application due dates, rolling applications, or whatnot, are already full. The world of higher education has apparently shut you out. I’ve already explained that not getting into your top choice school(s) isn’t as bad as you think it is, but what if you don’t get in anywhere?
Option 1: Community college.
I think a lot of people look down on community college. Maybe because you only have limited choices for majors, maybe because the application process isn’t so strenuous, maybe because they’re not on the US News & World Report Best Colleges list. Whatever the reason, they get a bad rap. Even if you think an Associate’s degree from a local CC is insufficient, community colleges are a good way to keep studying cheaply and in small classes, and getting credits transferred to a larger institution after a couple years isn’t terribly difficult. In fact, a lot of colleges will appreciate the effort you’ve made to continue your education and improve your grades. My dad and mom both started at community college when they went back to school, before transferring to MIT and Brandeis, respectively.
Option 2: Alternative schooling.
If you already know the field you’re interested in, a lot of careers can be jump-started by trade schools, training courses and the like. They’re pretty cheap, you get a lot of on-the-job experience, and they usually don’t take very long. Some of these could even overlap with Option 3, depending on where you find the job or how long you spend training for it. Off the top of my head:
Detective work (via your local police academy)
Real estate brokering
Electrical or plumbing work (via an apprenticeship or trade school)
Nursing (2-year degrees are not uncommon)
I’d also fold international schooling into this category. A lot of schools in other countries are significantly cheaper than American colleges, even for international students, and many people find the direct route to careers very appealing (most countries don’t have bachelor’s degrees, and skip right to career-specific education). You aren’t restricted to US soil.
Option 3: Get a job.
There are a ton of interesting jobs that don’t require a college degree. Many jobs can be acquired by just proving you have the right knowledge. If you’ve been working on cars your whole life, you probably don’t need a college degree to prove you understand them. You can do a quick internet search, but here are a few I know of:
Police academy teacher
Air traffic controller
Option 4: Gap year(s).
This option is about as open-ended as you can get. Most schools will allow you to defer your enrollment by a year, but there’s no reason you can’t completely re-apply during your gap year. It took one brief email to defer my admission to Tufts and the SMFA, and I travelled and interned and studied and explored, knowing that I’d be going to college afterwards. You could get a job, either in a field you’re interested in or just to gain working experience and a little spending money. You could volunteer in your free time. You could find a scholarship that sends you to work in a faraway land. You could write a novel. You could backpack through Europe, for all that it sounds like a cliché. You could start a band. You could study something utterly unrelated to your intended field of employment. If I can wedge it in, I’d love to go to cooking school at some point. No joke, taking a gap year or years is a phenomenal way to get a bit more life experience before making a final decision about college. Frankly, I think it should be required. The thing differentiating the “gap year” option is the implication that college comes afterwards. However, there’s no reason that needs to be a requirement.
Option 5: Start a business.
If you have an idea for a particular product or service you think could be saleable, and you have some interest in how a business functions, you might want to try starting your own business. It doesn’t have to be large-scale, but fail or succeed, you’ll get a lot of experience in self-driven work and it’s a fabulous resume booster.
Option 6: Aaand now for something completely different!
Don’t feel that you’re restricted to these 5 ideas. If you ask around, do some research, or just find a comfortable chair and ponder your best skills, you may find other options I’ve not considered. Keep looking! The world is a big place, and whether you know it or not, you have something great to offer.