When I found out I didn't get into the colleges I wanted to go
to, I was in New York City on a school trip. I called home from
a pay phone, and my little sister Alex said four envelopes had
arrived: Georgetown, Cornell, William and Mary, the University
of Massachusetts. She then opened and read them to me in her
adenoidal, 10-year-old voice: "We regret that we do not have a
place for you...." Rejected from Georgetown. "You were one of
many qualified candidates...." Rejected from Cornell. And
number 73 on a waiting list of 75 at William and Mary. Accepted
to UMass, my safety school.
I didn't digest the rejection immediately. I toured the United
Nations, took Amtrak home, and went back to school. Then I
realized that other people had gotten into schools they really
wanted to go to. Up to that point in my 17 years, I hadn't
really failed at anything. I got good grades, made varsity, and
scored well on the SATs. I hadn't experienced any major
disappointment in my life--no deaths, no disease, no divorce,
no cavities, even. So being rejected seemed apocalyptic.
I had always assumed I'd go to one of "the good schools."
I really wanted to be chosen: This is a place for smart people
and we want you. UMass, on the other hand, had been a
Playboy party school. To which, come September, I'd be
headed with the guy who sat next to me in 10th grade history
and who, during tests, would leave his book open on the floor
and flip through it with his feet.
I became bitter. I compared everyone's grades and talents to
my own--a desperate attempt to make my misfortune add up.
"Of course she got into Harvard. Her dad went there. Who
needs a frontal lobe when you're legacy?" I became
melodramatic. Talking to teachers, relatives, or friends, I'd
say, "I'm going to UMass," and project my indignation onto
them. "Not UMass," I'd imagine them thinking. "Not you."
I'd draw a deep breath, raise my eyebrows, and frown slightly,
like some old Yankee farmer confirming the death of a faithful
I did not get proactive, like my friend Heather, who, having
been rejected by her first choice, Duke, made I Love
Lucy--style plans to drive to Durham with her soccer ball and
her science-fair project to show the admissions board exactly
what they were saying no to. I simply adopted the mantra,
"I'll transfer after one semester." And I'd say things like,
"I've decided to forgo the bachelor's degree and take Carvel's
cake decorating course." Subtext being: I'm stupid. The world
isn't fair. I made my jokes right up to the registration desk in
my dorm, where I had my sister Alex, the 10-year-old, present
my paperwork and pretend to be me.
The strangest thing happened, though: I liked UMass. I met
Marci, my soul mate, whose first choice had also been Cornell.
However, UMass had been her second. Finally I'd found someone
who would take a nightly three-mile jog with me to buy a
sundae. And I met lots of other smart, funny, interesting people.
I liked my classes, too. It didn't take me that long to figure out
that basically, college is college, wherever. Sometimes on
weekends, when I didn't want to see anyone I knew, I'd head
downtown to study in the library at Amherst College--the
Shangri-la of competitive colleges. Walking across campus I'd
think, Why don't I go here? Inside the library, though, the
students weren't so unlike the ones back at UMass, whether they
were studying, napping, or procrastinating. I realized, too,
that trading UMass for any other school would be a pretty
shallow move: I'd be deserting my friends and my classes so I
could have Oriental rugs and some hi-pro name on my T-shirts,
diploma, and resume.
Now I only occasionally wonder if going to some fancy-pants
school would have made a difference in my life. My one friend
from Amherst calls me every so often--collect--to beweep her
unsatisfying stints as a waitress, a stripper, and a phone-sex
operator. She tends to say: "God, I should have just gone to
UMass." And then: "The real world is so unfair." Welcome to it,
(This article originally
appeared in the April 1995 issue of Seventeen.)
Copyright 1995 K-III Magazine Corporation. All rights reserved.