Students Find Joy in ‘No’ With College Rejection Parties

At Downtown Magnets High School in Los Angeles in mid-April, Lynda McGee, one of the school’s college counselors, checked her paper shredder. She needed to make sure it had the optimal effect: loud, obnoxious and finite.

Soon, her high school seniors would parade into the room clutching rejection letters from colleges across the nation, and those papers need to be masticated as dramatically as possible.

“You have to learn that you will survive and there is a rainbow at the other end,” said Ms. McGee, who started the school’s rejection party about a decade ago and has been fine-tuning the event ever since.

Today, about one-quarter of the senior class attends the party. The only ticket required is a rejection letter.

“You have to print it out, because there’s no satisfaction with deleting an email,” Ms. McGee said with a laugh. Each student takes a turn announcing the name of the college that scorned them before putting the letter into the shredder as the others cheer.

Then they receive an ice-cream sundae, and pledge to not be defined by the college they attend. “Ice cream heals all wounds,” Ms. McGee said with the confidence of a teacher who has done her research. The student with the highest number of rejections (this year, 17) receives a gift card to Barnes & Noble.

It’s officially college rejection season for many — and, of course, acceptance season for some — as high school seniors receive decision letters. The rejections are piling up at a staggering rate: Between the 2019-2020 academic year and 2022-2023, college applications rose by 24 percent, according to the Common Application report (this is partly because of the Common Application, a single application used by more than 1,000 colleges).

Nick Hopwood, a professor of professional learning at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia, created a rejection wall of fame after receiving two rejections in a single day: a research grant proposal and a research article rejection. Dr. Hopwood mentioned his rejections to a colleague, who told him how reassuring it was to hear that even he also gets rejected.

“It made me think about how other people see me and see many other academics: We see the success,” Dr. Hopwood said. “It’s like seeing a swan gliding effortlessly down the river, and not the feet frantically paddling and hitting all sorts of stones on the bottom.”

Barbara Sarnecka, a professor of cognitive sciences and associate dean of graduate studies and research at the University of California, Irvine, holds a rejection party featuring champagne, Roman emperor costumes and togas whenever her graduate students’ rejection pile — for academic journals, conferences, grants, fellowships and jobs — reaches 100.

Dr. Sarnecka began the tradition a few years ago to normalize rejection as a part of academic work.

“By sharing our rejections with the group and even celebrating milestones like 100 rejections, we counteract the sense of shame and isolation that early-career academics often have,” she said.

Anna Swann-Pye, an A.P. literature teacher at Nest+M, a public school in New York, said she clearly remembers the sting from her own rejections. During her teen years, she would hide her tests, report cards and college letters under her bed.

“It wasn’t for fear of being in trouble so much as that these documents produced a deep shame in me, as if they were evidence of something I already felt about myself: That I wasn’t as good as my friends or classmates,” Ms. Swann-Pye said. “It took me way too long to recognize how natural and normal rejection was.”

When she became a teacher, she was determined not to let the same thing happen to her students, so she started a rejection wall for seniors. (It also helps that the college-rejection parties are often for a subset of students who will likely be going to college somewhere, lessening the slap.)

As soon as a student pops up a rejection letter on the wall, they’re greeted with a round of applause and an opportunity to dip into the rejection grab bag, which is filled with ring pops, candy bracelets and Rubik’s Cubes. Students also supplement the wall with their own messages, like “You’re too sexy for Vassar” or “You’ve been rejected, you’re too smart. Love, NYU.”

Laura Sanchez, 18, a senior at Downtown Magnets, was disappointed to receive five rejection letters from colleges including Pomona, Scripps and Cornell. But she was looking forward to bringing those rejections to her school’s rejection party.

“I have also been able to process and appreciate that I still have many options,” she said, “which is extremely significant to me as a first generation Latina who wants to make history within her family by being the first person to get a higher education.”

Her classmate Zhangyang Wu, 18, was rejected from M.I.T. and Princeton. “When you think about a celebration, you think you’re winning something,” he said. “But the rejection party is using the type of hype to help students who expressed themselves. All of us got rejected, and it’s a norm we need to acknowledge.”

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