I didn’t get into Yale. Or Harvard. Or Columbia, or Barnard, or Tufts, or Vanderbilt, or Wesleyan.
Rejection is hard when you’re 18 and already insecure. Rejection is even more challenging when it comes seven times within 14 days from schools; you’d been dreaming of your whole life.
I’ve always done well in school. I prided myself on getting the top score on every test, the highest grade on every paper, and the warmest feedback on every project. Doing the best—being the best—that was my thing.
So now that I wasn’t the best anymore, I didn’t know who I was. If I had to pick, I would’ve gone with “mediocre,” “second-best,” and “unimpressive.” I spent a lot of time crying and wondering how I was going to have this amazing career when I’d be graduating already five steps behind the Ivy-Leaguers.
Meanwhile, my parents hugged me and told me they didn’t care where I went to college. My friends awkwardly smiled when they asked where I was going to school, and I said, “Cal Poly San Luis Obispo,” which I’d chosen because it was the most affordable of the places I had been accepted. My teachers were bewildered; one of them even asked, “A state school?” before realizing his faux pas and turning red. Unsurprisingly, none of these reactions made me feel better.
Things got a little better when I moved into the freshman dorms. To my surprise, my roommates were funny, kind, and smart. My classes were challenging, and my professors were engaging and knowledgeable. But I was still anxious: I knew my diploma would be much less alluring than, say, a diploma from Stanford just three hours north. Even though I was going to an “ordinary” college, I still wanted an extraordinary career.
And that’s when I decided to start writing online. You see, on the Internet, people don’t care what school you’ve gone to. All that matters is the quality of your content.
I channeled all of my energy into building my writing career. Every day, I spent hours reading, from the biggest outlets to the most niche websites, trying to figure out what made a fantastic article so great. I researched how to pitch editors and the best journalistic practices. I used what I discovered to pitch, contacting the same publications over and over again until the editors gave me a chance. I wrote for absolutely anyone that would publish my work—all I asked for in return was a couple of lines of constructive criticism.
In my first year at Cal Poly, I published over 500 articles. And where at first I was writing for virtually unknown sites, by the end of the year I had moved up the ladder to big, recognizable ones. I was able to use all those clips to land a prestigious internship at a media company—where the other interns were from schools like Stanford, Middlebury, and Cornell. And I started fielding requests from corporate executives three times my age who wanted me to write posts for their company’s blog or copy for their websites.
At first, I’d felt bitter that these great colleges had turned me down. I’d taken their rejections as a measure of my intelligence and potential—not considering that with selectivity rates ranging from 5% to 7%, they had to reject plenty of smart, determined, passionate people like me who would’ve done just fine at their schools.
I realized getting rejected did not mean I was doomed to failure. In fact, it had helped me. I redefined my idea of “success” from something another person bestowed upon me to something I reached out and took.
And I also realized that just because Cal Poly doesn’t have the brand appeal of Harvard or Princeton it doesn’t mean it’s not a great place to learn. I’m getting the essentials of a college education; if I need to work a little hard to prove to employers why I should get the job, well, that’s just fine by me.
As if to show me life has unexpected twists—just the other day, the career counselor at Princeton reached out to tell me she shared my articles with all of her students.