Wall of rejection letters is teens' group therapy
With each maddeningly thin envelope, each remorseless rebuff from another top-choice college, Kellen Mandehr died a little death. In search of catharsis, the senior at Newton South High School posted the offending documents on the school's "Wall of Shame," a hallway bulletin board blanketed with dozens of college rejection letters.
With each punch of the stapler, each slam of his fist, Mandehr won a small measure of payback. And a large measure of liberation.
"It was definitely a good feeling," he said yesterday, reminiscing by the mural of rejection letters. "I pounded it pretty good."
High school seniors everywhere have traditionally posted their rejection letters as an act of collective defiance against the high-pressure and hypercompetitive college admissions process. But this year, with top-tier colleges rejecting more applicants than ever before, dejected students say they are especially in need of what amounts to a group hug.
At Newton South, rejection letters from most of the country's most selective colleges, from Amherst to Wesleyan, from Bowdoin to the University of Southern California, tell the grim tale. A demographic bulge in the number of high school students, combined with a sharp rise in the number of colleges they apply to, has created a numbers crunch.
Newton South students did their part, with about a third of the class of 425 students applying to at least 10 schools, with an average of about seven.
Nearly all Newton South seniors will wind up at a strong four-year school this fall. Still, the sting of rejection, particularly for high-achieving students whose sights have been trained on the Ivy League since grade school, is hard to shake.
"These are kids who are used to getting their way their whole lives," said Newton South college counselor Barbara Brown. "For many, this is their first major disappointment. That can be very difficult, especially in a community like this."
So in their moment of need, the reeling students rally together. By making a personal setback public, sharing the letters can be cathartic, students say. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, students find comfort in a communal, almost collegial, show of solidarity against an impersonal, seemingly arbitrary system.
"It's unifying, and kind of celebratory," said Max Lorn-Krause, who was denied at several schools and plans to study theater at Ithaca College. "It's a rite of passage."
Calling the postings the Wall of Shame is meant to be sarcastic, students say. In many ways, posting the rejection letters is a way to find acceptance.
"At first, it was painful. I basically had to lie down and not be out in the world for a while," said Alex Kaufman, who said he was denied at nearly the entire New England Small College Athletic Conference, which includes Amherst, Williams, and other top liberal-arts colleges. "There's nothing worse than getting a rejection letter, but knowing you're in the same boat as lots of other people, that definitely helps."
When Sofya Rozenblat, 18, got the bad news from Dartmouth College, her first choice, she was crushed. She shed some tears. Stapling her letter on the wall the next morning, she recalled, started the healing process, she said.
"It's very therapeutic," she said. "Letting everyone know made me feel so much better. I realized that almost everyone gets rejected, so it's one more thing we all have in common." Now, the setback seems distant as she looks forward to starting at the University of Michigan.
At Newton, the Wall of Shame serves as kind of a water cooler for college-related gossip and reflection. Some sigh and shake their heads, muttering.
Some walk by and glance, then turn their head away in disgust, then reflexively snap it back, like a car crash. Some juniors walk by and gulp.
A few pore over them, reading each stock phrase of gentle letdown - "very real regret" (Duke), "sincere regret [Yale], "so sorry to tell you" [MIT], "I am sorry to bring you disappointing news" [Wesleyan], "careful and concerned consideration" [Brown], and "we wish you every success with your further education" [Georgetown].
A few students have written editorial comments on the letters. "Don't worry, I got in other places!" wrote one student rejected by Bowdoin.
The wall started four years ago by a pair of friends who both applied early to Dartmouth, Brown said. One got in, one didn't, and a tradition was born.
Brown said the college admissions season is always filled with heartache. The race to get into elite colleges can be all consuming, and rejections can take on tragic proportions.
Daniel Rabinowicz, 17, had his heart set on Brandeis, but the affection was not returned.
He is heading to Clark or Northeastern with his head held high, however.
"That rejection letter can be tough," he said. "But look at this, and you know you're not alone."