Dealing with Rejection

What do investor Warren Buffett, entrepreneur Ted Turner, Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy, American television journalists Meredith Vieira & Tom Brokaw, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger and Nobel laureate Harold Varmus all have in common?

All were rejected by Harvard.

In a Wall Street Journal article of March 24, 2010, these (and other) thought and business leaders discuss being rejected by their first choice university. Obviously, none of their lives ended when they did not get into Harvard. On the contrary, several of them can draw a solid line between the rejection and their subsequent successful careers. Indeed, Buffett and Vieira, who both admit to being utterly devastated by the rejection, met life-changing mentors at the schools where they ended up (Columbia and Tufts, respectively). And McNealy finally got into Stanford –after applying three times– where he met his Sun co-founder.

Others learnt to turn the rejection into a success by attending lesser-known universities where they could thrive. Bollinger, who came from a small town in Oregon, says the rejection by Harvard “cemented his belief that it was up to him alone to define his talents and potential.” He ended up at the University of Oregon and later graduated from Columbia Law School. And John Schlifske, president of insurance giant Northwestern Mutual, who was rejected by Yale, went on to receive a “phenomenal” education at Minnesota’s Carleton College. “Being wanted is a good thing,” he says. Four years ago, when his son was rejected by his own first choice school, Schlifske Sr. told him, “Just because somebody says no, doesn’t mean there’s not another school out there you’re going to enjoy, and where you are going to get a good education.”

And then there is Ted Turner. Rejected by both Princeton and Harvard, but accepted to Brown, Turner left college after his father cut off his financial support. He joined his father’s billboard company and built it into the media empire that became CNN. He pointed out that even though having a degree may be better, “I did everything I did without a college degree.”

With a 2009-2010 admissions season shaping up to be another record-breaker, and acceptances to the top b-schools hovering at 8-15%, this means that 85-92% of applicants will be rejected from their first choice schools. And perhaps their second -and third- choices as well. This shouldn’t be the end of your dream. Whether it means looking at a school with a lower slot in this year’s rankings, or recognizing that rejection is a sign that you might not be ready, or have to work harder, don’t let the rejection control your life. To “allow other people’s assessment of you to determine your own self-assessment is a very big mistake,” says Columbia’s Bollinger. According to him, the question really should be: “Who at the end of the day is going to make the determination about what your talents are, and what your interests are? That has to be you.”