Why didn't I get in?

One of the hardest things for students—for people!—to do is separate the quality of their process from the randomness or disappointment of challenging outcomes. This is why Deal or No Deal always drove me nuts: You didn’t make the right choice because the next case was worth $.01; it was either the right choice in the moment or it wasn’t! All we can ever do is the best we can with the information we have available to us; we can’t justify bad decisions by good outcomes, just as we can’t condemn good decisions that resulted in bad outcomes.

As it’s mid-December, we’ve arrived at the point in the admissions season where second-guessing is rampant and insidious. Armed with new information (“I got in/deferred/denied!”), we suddenly feel compelled to re-evaluate the work we put in. This tends to be true especially for students applying early to the most highly selective schools, the ones where odds are steepest and decisions are made through the evaluation of a tangled web of compelling factors from among thousands of applicants. I roll my eyes when I hear a student tell me they got into Harvard because, “I wrote an amazing essay on my Eagle Scout trip,” because it over-attributes causality to one single factor in their app. (Turns out your grades, scores, letters of recommendation, courses, and extracurricular involvement—not to mention Harvard’s particular institutional priorities—had something to say about it too.) While those students aren’t always right—at least not totally—I tend not to fight that battle because they’ve already gotten in.

What hurts most is hearing students—good, hard-working students—second-guess their essay because they didn’t get the outcome they had most hoped for. With ten years of experience in college admission and college advising, I want to tell you this:

If you felt proud of your essay before you heard back from your dream school, there’s nothing they can say to you that should change that sense of pride. We can’t know why you didn’t get in unless we were in the room when the decision was made. The admission committee might well have loved your essay and decided to deny you in spite of that fact. You will never know. What you do know, however, is how you felt about that essay when you finished it. If you were proud, if it represented who you were, if you made edits and corrections and put forth the best version of yourself, you did good. Go back to the way you felt when you pressed “Submit,” and maintain that sense of satisfaction with your work through the rest of this process and into the spring.

Now recall at the start of this article, I said, “All we can ever do is the best we can with the information we have available to us.” An admissions decision gives us new information, and we may need to adjust our strategy accordingly. This will never mean re-writing an essay unless you were not proud of it when you submitted (in that case, get out that editing pen!). But even with a good essay, it may be wise to adjust your list a little. There’s good reason to believe you’ll get similar results from similarly selective schools in the spring, so you can take some steps to even out a more top-heavy list. If you didn’t get in ED to Boston University, you may not want to burn the midnight oil on New Year’s Eve to write your Harvard supplement. Add a couple more Just Right schools to your list; open your mind to one of those No Problem options. You might even find that a little more scholarship money comes your way with a broader road map and a more balanced list.

Above all, remember that your goals may be further down the road than you’re able to see at this moment in time. Whether you go to college at your first choice or your seventh (like I did!), getting in is just the start of the work that will be required for you to become a thoughtful contributor to the world. Be proud of what you’ve put forth and be smart about attacking your choices with all the information you have available. The outcomes you hope for will follow.


Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College. Visit our website to learn more about Ian Fisher.