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My College Rejection Story: Or, I'm So Brilliant — Just Ask Me

Reflecting on what might have been the worst college essay ever. (flickr)
Reflecting on what might have been the worst college essay ever. (flickr)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Whenever I am around high school students agonizing over the college admissions process, I want to tell my rejection story, which begins with one of the worst essays ever.

The prompt from Smith College was simple, something like: “Tell us about yourself.”

My response was both earnest and pretentious, a lethal combination.

I gave my essay a title: “C’est Moi,” adding, in parenthesis (“’Tis I.”)

It cost $15 to apply to Smith and $10 to the two others on my list.

Smith was a long shot, even though it was close by, 10 miles from my house in Granby, down Route 47, a country road leading to the Coolidge Bridge into Northampton, Massachusetts. I had often visited Green Street, which borders the campus. At the time, it was a hushed upper class mecca of shopping opportunities beyond my means, Lanz dresses, ball gowns and herringbone suits from stores like Peck & Peck.

My response was both earnest and pretentious, a lethal combination.

An equally good Seven Sisters college existed only three miles from my home, Mount Holyoke, in South Hadley, but it had the disadvantage of being too familiar. I often rode my bike to the town center, where I would order a milkshake at the College Inn, with its old wooden tables engraved with penknife graffiti in which couple after couple expressed eternal love (oh to be one of them.) I would visit the Odyssey Bookstore, first when it was part of a drugstore and, later, when it was in its own building. Its dapper proprietor, Romeo Grenier, blasted classical music and organized his stock by publishers. I eavesdropped on the students, with their shiny page boys, who all seemed to be clutching a copy of J. D. Salinger’s “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenter.” One night, I crashed an event where someone famous was scheduled to speak but cancelled at the last minute. The auditorium was packed with students from colleges all over New England, a high-energy mix of hormones and ideals. A boy from Bates lost interest when he found out I was a townie.

Tell us about yourself.

“Dear Smith College,” I wrote, “Today could be your lucky day. I am a girl who speaks three languages.

“I grew up across from the biblioth­­­èque, in a small, Edenic communitywhere, although we did not personally own an equus or a cheval, we did know many agricoli.”

My campus interview was with a thin older woman who exhibited, at best, polite interest. It is weird to be young and to realize that both you and an adult are marking time, but that is what the exchange felt like: a charade, like taking pictures when there is no film in the camera. I see now that Smith was used to hopeful girls like me: shy, local, high verbals, in need of a scholarship. There was nothing special to recommend me, no hook, as they say today.

During the interview, I began by singing the praises of my girls’ Catholic school, assuming that Smith felt about Ursuline Academy the way my mother did: It was an enclave that trained young women in the best traditions of faith and family. What could be better?

In one sense, I was a bit of a trailblazer: resumé padding. I claimed to serve as president of the Girls Athletic Association (true), but I failed to mention my school had no teams (none!).

In terms of physical exertion, our only effort was an endurance contest. We marched for hours in the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in Holyoke, where no matter how freezing cold it was, how pitiless the wind, we had to wear our regulation uniform: gray blazer, white camp shirt, green skirt, loafer, nylons. The only permissible headgear was a frail green beret. Our fingers trembled inside bleached white cotton gloves that courted the cold rather than repelled it. No coats, no boots.

My other extracurricular was as a member of the school’s Speech Club. Its focus was narrow, in that mostly we memorized the words of Irish patriots who had been sentenced to death by the evil English.

It wasn’t such a surprise, in April, when the thin rejection letter arrived, consisting of the usual evasions and pleasantries.

Sometimes, though, I wish Smith had sent me a letter that read something like:

It wasn’t such a surprise, in April, when the thin rejection letter arrived, consisting of the usual evasions and pleasantries.

“Dear Mademoiselle,

Malheureusement, we regret there is no place for vous at our école, but we hope you have a wonderful vitaAu revoir.”

The rejection from Smith and its sting are long gone, occasion now for an anecdote, the kind you can dine out on for a lifetime.

Writers kill irritating relatives for a lot less.

I ended up attending a fine, small Catholic women’s college, where I served as editor of my campus weekly. My roommate went on to win an Academy Award. Later, I attended two equally fine Ivy League schools for graduate work and a fellowship.

In my current life, I am a professor at the University of Massachusetts, where I teach writing in the Journalism Department. I am part of the Five College consortium, so we get students from Hampshire, Amherst, Mt. Holyoke and, yes, Smith. I must confess to a secret sense of satisfaction, of the joy in coming full circle, in teaching any of them, especially the Smithies. I never tell my students I can speak three languages because, well, I can’t. Just one – English – as best I can.

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Madeleine Blais Cognoscenti contributor
Madeleine Blais teaches in the Journalism Department at UMass Amherst and is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author.

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