Accepting rejection

High-flying Harvard students get tips on how to rebound from the inevitable 'thanks but no thanks'

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / April 21, 2009
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Single Page|
  • |
Text size +

CAMBRIDGE - They have managed to get into one of the world's most selective colleges. Opportunity is knocking at their door.

But at some point in their life, though perhaps later than most, Harvard students will face the stinging slap the rest of the world feels regularly: rejection.

The dirty secret is out. Harvard students fail sometimes. They are denied jobs, fellowships, A's they think they deserve. They are passed over for publication, graduate school, and research grants. And when that finally happens, it hurts. Big time.

To help students cope, Harvard's Office of Career Services hosted a new seminar last week on handling rejection, a fear job-seekers are feeling acutely in the plummeting economy. The advice from panelists could have come from a caring, patient parent. No rejection is the end of the world, they said, even though it might feel that way at the time.

Participants, who wore snappy buttons with the word rejected stamped in red, also received a road map of sorts on handling failure, a pink booklet of rejection letters and personal stories from Harvard faculty, students, and staff members.

Among the tales of woe: the 2004 alumnus and aspiring actor rejected for a barista gig at a Los Angeles Starbucks for being overqualified and the medical school professor who was wait-listed at every medical school he applied to.

Senior Olga Tymejczyk arrived at the seminar early. With just a month and a half until graduation, Tymejczyk has applied for 10 jobs, but has no offers.

"Rejection is inevitable sometimes, even if you go to Harvard," said Tymejczyk, a Latin American studies major who wants to work in higher-education administration or healthcare research. She has two more interviews this week, and she is hoping for the best but bracing for more bad news.

Panelist Pat Hernandez knows a thing or two about setbacks. The 2004 Harvard graduate was rejected by all three graduate schools she applied to two years ago, after losing out on numerous consulting jobs.

"It's something many people are ashamed or reluctant to talk about," said Hernandez, who serves as a resident tutor for Harvard undergraduates. "Those who deal with rejection more frequently take it in stride and bounce back better."

Hernandez spent the last two years conducting academic research and applied to graduate schools again. She plans to attend Harvard Business School in the fall for a doctorate in organizational behavior and management.

Another panelist, Harvard statistics professor Xiao-Li Meng, took a humorous approach on the sore subject. His two-page take on rejection, printed in the pink booklet, starts with this theorem: "For any acceptance worth competing for, the probability of a randomly selected applicant being rejected is higher than the probability of being accepted."

Hernandez and Meng said students should learn to see rejection as an opportunity to improve themselves, so that by the time they summon the courage to try again, they will be better candidates. Or they can view failure as a blessing, like the would-be barista who reconsidered his goals and launched a tutoring company called, appropriately enough, Overqualified.

But how does one move forward, implored another graduate student facing rejection after rejection, when everyone else in the world thinks: "Surely, you have a Harvard degree. You'll get a job."

Abigail Lipson - director of the Bureau of Study Counsel, which cosponsored last week's seminar - had some advice in the pink bulletin: "We learn to recognize our bad feelings as an indication that we care, we have high standards and high hopes, and we expect a lot of ourselves and of the world, rather than assuming that we are hopelessly untalented or unworthy."

Hard as it is for some to believe, there are candidates more worthy than Harvard students, Professor Meng quipped, in language befitting his field. "Statistically you are rejected, and probablistically it is fair."

Tracy Jan can be reached at