In those days, you could tell by the size of the envelope. A thick envelope, full of registration materials and welcoming letters, meant you got in. A thin one was a one-page rejection. They all came the same day. My mailbox was full of thin envelopes -- plus a fat one from my last-choice school.
These days, news, bad and good, comes by email. It came last week: One young man in Houston, Texas, got in to all 20 schools he applied to. This column is not for him.
It’s for all the people who received the email equivalent of thin envelopes. Later in life, when it was law-firm rejection letters, we used them as wallpaper. But in high school, I threw them away with the wet tissues.
So I went to the school that accepted me. They even gave me money, adding insult to injury. It was a perfectly good school —- actually, a wonderful school. But it wasn’t where I wanted to go.
I’m not going to tell you that everything happens for a (good) reason. I didn’t get in because in those days, girls like me from public schools who didn’t know squat about SAT-prep classes (I didn’t even know there were guidebooks) didn’t get in to Harvard/Radcliffe. These days, you can study online, and everybody knows about the books, and public school kids with straight A’s who have been working since they were 15 are actually in (some) demand. The “college admissions calculators,” which are supposed to tell students their chances of acceptance at different schools, count being a big-city private school graduate as a minus. Go figure.
I’m not even going to tell you it all worked out for the best. Wellesley taught me that women could do anything in the world, or almost anything; presumably, it taught Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, both of whom preceded me there, that as well. And for that, I am deeply grateful.
It also cemented the huge self-image and self-confidence problems I had when it came to my personal life -- which was why I didn’t want to go to a women’s college in the first place. I jokingly say, these days, that Wellesley made me what I am: successful and single.
This is what I learned, albeit later, from getting rejected by all but one of the colleges I applied to: It matters, sure, but how you play your hand matters just as much, and usually more.
It’s easy to look around -- at the guy in Houston, at the kid who sits behind you -- and think that they have it all. Trust me, no one has it all, even if it looks that way some of the time.
I did well at Wellesley, very well. And I bought a book before taking the law school entrance exam. When I got my score, my sister asked me whether I was sure that they hadn’t reversed the numbers. I applied to five law schools. They all accepted me and offered me money.
When I was a third-year law student, my world fell apart. I was doing very well: I was the first female president of the Harvard Law Review (by the way, my year, there were more women from Wellesley at Harvard Law than from Radcliffe — so there). I was headed to a clerkship in Washington. That spring, my father died; my mother left her abusive husband; I literally had no money; my best friend’s husband died; I had nowhere to live or eat when the dorms closed and neither did my brother; my job didn’t start until August; I had three more issues of the law review to get out and five exams to take in classes I had not set foot in. And I was having trouble sleeping. A very kind doctor gave me a book to read (though I hardly had time to read) called “Adaptation to Life.” The book followed a cohort of Harvard graduates. What the author found was that those who were the happiest were not those who started out with the most — those with the best hands, as it were -- but those who played theirs well. It was what you did with what you had -- not what you had -- that mattered.
And so it is with college. It’s not where you go, but what you do when you get there.