Author: David Bersell

Joan Didion Essay About Being Rejected by Her Top College

The author Joan Didion

By Joan Didion

This piece, about the author’s college rejection from her first-choice college, appeared in The Saturday Evening Post April 16, 1968.

“Dear Joan,” the letter begins, although the writer did not know me at all. The letter is dated April 25, 1952, and for a long time now it has been in a drawer in my mother’s house, the kind of back-bedroom drawer given over to class prophecies and dried butterfly orchids and newspaper photographs that show eight bridesmaids and two flower girls inspecting a sixpence in a bride’s shoe. What slight emotional investment I ever had in dried butterfly orchids and pictures of myself as a bridesmaid has proved evanescent, but I still have an investment in the letter, which, except for the “Dear Joan,” is mimeographed. I got the letter out as an object lesson for a 17-year-old cousin who is unable to eat or sleep as she waits to hear from what she keeps calling the colleges of her choice.

Here is what the letter says: “The Committee on Admissions asks me to inform you that it is unable to take favorable action upon your application for admission to Stanford University. While you have met the minimum requirements, we regret that because of the severity of the competition, the committee cannot include you in the group to be admitted. The Committee joins me in extending you every good wish for the successful continuation of your education. Sincerely yours, Rixford K. Snyder, Director of Admissions.”

I remember quite clearly the afternoon I opened that letter. I stood reading and re-reading it, my sweater and my books fallen on the hall floor, trying to interpret the words in some less final way, the phrases “unable to take” and “favorable action” fading in and out of focus until the sentence made no sense at all. We lived then in a big dark Victorian house, and I had a sharp and dolorous image of myself growing old in it, never going to school anywhere, the spinster in Washington Square. I went upstairs to my room and locked the door and for a couple of hours I cried.

For a while I sat on the floor of my closet and buried my face in an old quilted robe and later, after the situation’s real humiliations (all my friends who applied to Stanford had been admitted) had faded into safe theatrics, I sat on the edge of the bathtub and thought about swallowing the contents of an old bottle of codeine-and-Empirin.  I saw myself in an oxygen tent, with Rixford K. Snyder hovering outside, although how the news was to reach Rixford K. Snyder was a plot point that troubled me even as I counted out the tablets.

Of course I did not take the tablets. I spent the rest of the spring in sullen but mild rebellion, sitting around drive-ins, listening to Tulsa evangelists on the car radio, and in the summer I fell in love with someone who wanted to be a golf pro, and I spent a lot of time watching him practice putting, and in the fall I went to a junior college a couple of hours a day and made up the credits I needed to go to the University of California at Berkeley. The next year a friend at Stanford asked me to write him a paper on Conrad’s Nostromo, and I did, and he got an A on it.  I got a B- on the same paper at Berkeley, and the specter of Rixford K. Snyder was exorcised.

So it worked out all right, my single experience in that most conventional middle-class confrontation, the child vs. the Admissions Committee. But that was in the benign world of country California in 1952, and I think it must be more difficult for children I know now, children whose lives from the age of two or three are a series of perilously programmed steps, each of which must be successfully negotiated in order to avoid just such a letter as mine from one or another of the Rixford K. Snyders of the world.

An acquaintance told me recently that there were ninety applicants for the seven openings in the kindergarten of an expensive school in which she hoped to enroll her four-year-old, and that she was frantic because none of the four-year-old’s letters of recommendation had mentioned the child’s “interest in art.” Had I been raised under that pressure, I suspect, I would have taken the codeine-and-Empirin on that April afternoon in 1952. My rejection was different, my humiliation private: No parental hopes rode on whether I was admitted to Stanford, or anywhere. Of course my mother and father wanted me to be happy, and of course they expected that happiness would necessarily entail accomplishment, but the terms of that accomplishment were my affair.

Their idea of their own and of my worth remained independent of where, or even if, I went to college. Our social situation was static, and the question of “right” schools, so traditionally urgent to the upwardly mobile, did not arise. When my father was told that I had been rejected by Stanford, he shrugged and offered me a drink.

I think about that shrug with a great deal of appreciation whenever I hear parents talking about their children’s “chances.” What makes me uneasy is the sense that they are merging their children’s chances with their own, demanding of a child that he make good not only for himself but for the greater glory of his father and mother. Of course there are more children than “desirable” openings. But we are deluding ourselves if we pretend that desirable schools benefit the child alone. (“I wouldn’t care at all about his getting into Yale if it weren’t for Vietnam,” a father told me not long ago, quite unconscious of his own speciousness; it would have been malicious of me to suggest that one could also get a deferment at Long Beach State.)

Getting into college has become an ugly business, malignant in its consumption and diversion of time and energy and true interests, and not its least deleterious aspect is how the children themselves accept it. They talk casually and unattractively of their “first, second and third choices,” of how their “first-choice” application (to Stephens, say) does not actually reflect their first choice (their first choice was Smith, but their adviser said their chances were low, so why “waste” the application?); they are calculating about the expectation of rejections, about their “backup” possibilities, about getting the right sport and the right extracurricular activities to “balance” the application, about juggling confirmations when their third choice accepts before their first choices answers. They are wise in the white lie here, the small self-aggrandizement there, in the importance of letters from “names” their parents scarcely know. I have heard conversations among 16-year-olds who were exceeded in their skill at manipulative self-promotion only by applicants for large literary grants.

And of course none of it matters very much at all, none of these early successes, early failures. I wonder if we had better not find some way to let our children know this, some way to extricate our expectations from theirs, some way to let them work through their own rejections and sullen rebellions and interludes with golf pros, unassisted by anxious prompting from the wings. Finding one’s role at 17 is problem enough, without being handed somebody else’s script.

Joan Didion is an iconic American writer who launched her career in the 1960s after winning an essay contest sponsored by Vogue magazine. Her writing during the 1960s through the late 1970s engaged audiences in the realities of the counterculture of the ’60s and the Hollywood lifestyle. For more info about Joan Didion, you can visit her website. 


Wow Writing Workshop teaches students and educational professionals a simple, step-by-step process for writing effective college essays so students can stand out and tell their stories. Our signature Wow Method teaches students how to write strong, effective essays with less stress and greater confidence. We hire the best coaches. And we provide a calm, nurturing environment designed for success.

We are accepting a limited number of students from the Class of 2022 now for our private college essay writing workshops, which begin in June. Find out if we’re a good fit. If you’d like a little preview, join Wow President Kim Lifton once a Month on Wednesday night for our free 1-hour webinar, Get Started on the College Essay. Sign up here.

Help Your Child Without Taking Over the College Essay

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Parents often ask us, “Isn’t there a fine line between editing your child’s essay and writing it for her?”

It’s a common dilemma, especially for parents who would do anything to help their children get into the schools of their dreams. We all want our children to succeed; college is critically important. But the truth is, you should not heavily edit your child’s application essays, and you most definitely should not write them yourself.

So how can parents be helpful without crossing the line?

  • Offer encouragement. In this case, you are more cheerleader than coach. No one knows your child better than you. Encourage her to express herself in her own voice, in her own words. Yes, she really can do this. And she can do it well.
  • Be realistic. An essay should be well-written, but it should sound like it was composed by a high school student. Admissions officers can tell the difference between a heartfelt, well-crafted essay and a submission that is so highly-polished it sounds flat.
  • Get a head start. For many students, the essay is the hardest part of the college application process. The fall of senior year is a stressful, exciting time, not necessarily the best environment for students to sit quietly and write about themselves. Start in the summer, as soon as the essay prompts become available.
  • Read, but don’t criticize. Read drafts and offer your opinion, but don’t go too far. Ask clarifying questions. Engage in a conversation with your child to figure out what he is trying to say about himself. Save the editor’s pencil for misspelled words and grammatical errors.

No matter what the prompt, the essay is not about the job, the vacation, the illness, the book or the influential person; it is about the student – what he or she learned, gained or realized as a result of the experience. As a parent, you can help the most by keeping your child focused on the essay’s purpose.

It can be hard to write about oneself, especially when it really matters. We get that. That’s why we teach our students how to write their essays, using a straightforward, 10-step process. We help kids find their voices. They leave our workshops feeling empowered, confident in their own abilities, certain of their words.

College Essays: Six Common Mistakes You Must Avoid

by Kim Lifton

Do you know what college admissions committees want to see in college essays? Do you know what makes them cringe? Make your college essays stand out by avoiding these common mistakes:

1. Featuring someone other than yourself. You might genuinely admire your football coach, love your dog or dream of growing up to be just like your great uncle who won a Nobel Prize, but do you think college admissions committees care about them? Nope. They want to learn more about you. You can write about your dog or your favorite relative as long as you explain how that relationship or experience helped you discover something about yourself.

2. Not answering the question. If the prompt specifies that you write a story about an experience during the last year, and asks you to explain how it has prepared you for College X, don’t talk about getting cut from the soccer team when you were a freshman. If the prompt asks for a reflection about your plans to serve the community in the future, don’t focus on your favorite book. Read the prompt before, during and after you write your draft, then ask someone else to tell you whether or not you responded to it. Read more

The College Journey: Advice from the Pros

by Kim Lifton

Despite what you may have heard, there is a college for everyone.

In fact, a recent National Association for College Admission Counseling survey supports that statement:  On average, four-year institutions accept nearly two-thirds of their applicants.

“It’s not that hard to get into college,” says Marie Bigham, one of the nation’s leading authorities on college admission.

A former admissions officer at Washington University, Bigham, now Director of College Guidance at the Greenhill School in Addison, Tex., and a national board member of NACAC and ACCIS, will bring years of know-how about the admissions process to parents, counselors and students in our newest (and FREE!) webinar series, Get Ready! Get Set! Get In! Starting The College Journey, this Thursday, Feb. 6, at 9 p.m. ET.

“Be open-minded,” she adds. “There is no one perfect school.”

Joining Bigham will be another leading college expert, Ralph Figueroa, Dean of College Guidance at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico. Figueroa rose to national prominence as the Wesleyan University admissions officer featured in the bestseller, The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.

He is Past President of the Rocky Mountain Association for College Admission Counseling, former member of The Common Application Board of Directors, and The Common Application Outreach Advisory Committee.

“As stressful as this college process is, and as overwhelming as it seems, it is manageable,” Figueroa says.

Our esteemed guests will discuss what you really need to know about starting your journey to college, how you can tell good information from bad, the importance of the college essay, and much more!

Register now. This is a rare opportunity to learn, and ask questions, from the best and most experienced admissions pair in the U.S.

What Do You Want Colleges to Know About You?

By Kim Lifton

Recently, I asked a group of Wow students what they wanted colleges to know about them after reading their application essays.

One boy blurted out, “I’m inquisitive.” A girl said, “I don’t give up.”  Another boy said, “I’m hard working.” Several students stared blankly at me; they couldn’t answer the question. Read more

Wow Featured in Metro Parent Magazine

In the competitive world of college admissions, other businesses have sprouted up – includingKim Lifton's Wow Writing Workshop, based in Royal Oak. After decades of reviewing her friends' kids' college applications around the dining room table, Lifton launched Wow in 2009.

"Our company teaches students how to prepare to write their college essay and the essay portion of the ACT," explains Lifton, who launched the business together with Susan Knoppow. "The essay portion of the application gives admissions representatives the opportunity to see who the student really is."

Read more

Fastweb Publisher Shares Top 6 Favorite College Scholarships

Mark Kantrowitz

By Kim Lifton

It’s hard for financial aid guru Mark Kantrowitz to imagine why a student wouldn’t apply for college scholarships; more than 1.5 million scholarships worth some $3.5 billion are awarded annually by donors, philanthropists, foundations, corporations and other charitable organizations.

“Kids say it is too much work. They don’t like writing the essays,” said Kantrowitz, publisher of Fastweb and author of Secrets to Winning a Scholarship. “Well, once you finish half a dozen, the rest get easier.” Read more

Stay Calm and Plan for College

by Kim Lifton

As high school seniors put finishing touches on college applications, the rest of you –  freshmen, sophomores and juniors – might be thinking about your own journeys beyond high school. Stay calm. There is a college for each of you.

Yes, many four-year colleges will like it when you take honors, advanced and AP classes – if you can do well in them. They are happy with regular classes too – as long as they are challenging enough for you.

If you excel in Spanish and want to try French, go ahead. If you have always enjoyed running, consider joining the cross country or track team.  And if you like to build things, robotics might just be a perfect fit.

But be careful you don’t overdo it in the name of the college resume. Read more