Even 20 years later, I remember receiving my first rejection letter like it was yesterday. My parents and I stood together outside my house as I read the words that ended my hopes of playing football at the Olympic development level, and after 10 years of playing at the highest level to achieve this goal, it felt like my world had suddenly stopped.
I remember the shame I felt reading those words aloud, the disappointment of realising I had been judged as unworthy, and the loss of a future I’d been dreaming about and would now never see actualised. For the first time, I had been told I was not good enough.
If my experience has taught me anything, it’s that rejection, from a school, programme or job, is not the measuring stick by which we should define ourselves. These are the moments that challenge us. They have the potential to act as a springboard for your future, rather than a barricade to your dreams. Rejection is the catalyst, but your response is the key, so don’t waste the chance to take a momentary setback and turn it into a golden opportunity.
When the universe hands you something devastating, it seems unfathomable that you’re expected to pick yourself back up and find a new plan, or dream a new dream. As a teenager, that devastation came in the form of a life-changing rejection letter, but rejection can take many different forms. However, three years later, I was offered a Division 1 scholarship — this time for football, a sport I hadn’t spent a decade of my life mastering – which led to me being a placekicker for Purdue University competing in front of 100,000 screaming fans.
Looking back, I realise now that my life could have gone very differently if I’d refused to accept the rejection and move forward. It may not have been the future I had planned for myself, but my time at Purdue and my career path today were all the direct result of a decision to let go of a door that had closed and step through the one being opened.
Unfortunately, I’m sure the feelings I described will ring true for many students receiving college decision letters this spring. After years of AP classes, piling on the extracurriculars and driving hours to find an available SAT or ACT, being rejected from your first-choice school, or even one that was second or third on your list, will hurt, and it will make you question why you bothered in the first place.
For one thing, know that you’re not alone, because college rejections have reached an all-time high in 2021. Top-tier schools such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Stanford are receiving tens of thousands of applications, in some cases almost one and half times as many as in prior years. With acceptance rates at these schools already low, and enrollment numbers remaining the same, many more applicants will be receiving that dreaded thin envelope than ever before.
If I could go back in time and give my 15-year-old self advice on how to handle the rejection, the main takeaway would be this: don’t give into the impulse to drown in self-pity and all the other negative feelings that follow. Grief is natural, and change is hard, so give yourself time to mourn the loss of what could have been, but don’t lose yourself in the process.
Since that day, my life has been an amazing adventure, one I would never have experienced if I had remained fixated on what could have been. Years after receiving my life-altering rejection and completely changing my game plan, I used those experiences as the motivation to build my company. You never know what can happen, so buy into the clichés about lemonade and opening doors and start dreaming about all the possibilities for plans B, C and D.
These rejection letters also present the perfect opportunity to see failure as a conduit for growth and learn from your mistakes and hardships. There is an outdated, incorrect notion that failure is negative and the end of something, but like most things in life, failure is about what you make of it.
Choose to see failure as something positive, give your failures meaning and use them to help motivate you to achieve more in the future. This is a fundamental life lesson we must all learn at some point, and the sooner the better, so take your rejection letters for what they are: a slight bump in the road that marks the beginning of a new journey.
Casey Welch is the co-founder and CEO of Tallo, a digital college and career connection platform with nearly 1.5 million users.