Kelley Kitley grew up yearning for a life on the stage and spent years honing her talent through voice lessons, private coaching and loads of school and community productions.
So when the time came for her to apply to college, one school topped the list: New York University, a few subway stops from the Broadway theater district. There, she figured, she would study with some of the country’s great teachers before starting her career on the boards.
But that’s not how things worked out. The school rejected her.
“I was devastated,” Kitley recently recalled.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t keep her from becoming successful. Counselors say that’s an important thing for high school seniors and their families to keep in mind as many of them open letters bearing bad news. The country’s most selective colleges have acceptance rates around 5 percent, and competition to get into state universities, once viewed by some as fallbacks, is getting stiffer, too, with some accepting fewer than 10 percent of applicants.
The college admissions cheating scandal that erupted recently with allegations of six-figure bribes, SAT chicanery and fabricated athletic profiles offers an extreme example of how desperately some parents try to spare their children the indignity of rejection.
But, as Kitley discovered, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story.
Students think “to have that [college] name is what’s going to make their lives smooth sailing, which we know is not true,” said Laura Docherty, college counselor at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Ill. “It’s what you do with what you have.”
Kitley volunteered as a bilingual tutor in San Jose, Calif. There, she kindled an interest in service and returned to her hometown to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work. Today, she’s a psychotherapist and social worker, and she’s convinced that her NYU rebuff might have been for the best.
“The biggest takeaway is don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get into that school,” she said. “It might be a blessing in disguise.”
Money a factor, too
Sometimes it’s not rejection that keeps students out of dream schools, but finances. Jessica Cabe, who grew up in a suburb of Rockford, Ill., was accepted into the University of Illinois and Illinois State University when she graduated from high school in 2009, only to turn them down when she didn’t receive the financial aid she needed.
She decided to stay home and attend Rockford’s community college, Rock Valley, where she studied with people from widely different backgrounds and had the chance to participate in extracurricular activities from student government to jazz band.
“I met kids who were at Rock Valley for financial reasons like me, or because they took some time off after graduating high school, or because they still hadn’t figured out what they wanted to major in,” said Cabe, who works in public relations for the Chicago Loop Alliance.
“I shared classes with single mothers and fathers, with people of a variety of religious backgrounds and class backgrounds. It was a beautiful learning experience.”
‘Find some hustle’
When it comes to college rejection stories, few people can top Chris Stewart. Ahead of his high school graduation with a stellar academic record in 2012, he applied to six schools, from the rarefied University of Pennsylvania to the fallback Clemson University, which has about a 50 percent acceptance rate.
But he didn’t get in anywhere. Stunned and deflated, he grudgingly enrolled in his hometown University of Texas at San Antonio.
While there, he got involved in politics. He volunteered to work on several campaigns, and when he graduated, a job was waiting for him at City Hall. In 2017 he moved to Chicago, where he works for the nonprofit International Interior Design Association. In March, he was accepted into a graduate program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he’ll study voting rights and urban land use starting in the fall.
Even though he’s about to attend a university with a gold-plated name, he said, he doesn’t expect it to give him a sense of validation. His college rejections taught him to look for that within.
“At the time, I definitely didn’t see it this way, but it caused me to go out and find some hustle,” he said. “It taught me to build something for myself.”