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Ask HN: High school senior, deferred from Harvard. Advice?
10 points by jellyksong 809 days ago | comments
Hello HN! I'd just like to say that I admire every person on this website, and one day I hope to be working in the tech/startup industry as many of you are. Right now, I'd be grateful for some advice and perspective.

Today I got deferred from my dream school. Perhaps that's better than being rejected, but Harvard rejects even less applicants than it accepts, so I'm in the majority (~70%).

I know that I should focus on completing my other applications, and maybe do something awesome that'll get Harvard's attention, but right now I feel so unmotivated. Several of my friends did get accepted, so that also stings. I almost feel too discouraged to do work.

It's only been a couple of hours since the news, but I'm afraid this deadbeat-ness will stick and deadlines are looming ever closer.

Do you guys have any advice? Kind or harsh words are both appreciated :)




I'm going to disagree with a lot of other commenters: In my experience, a top-notch education is enormously valuable, and where you go to school very much matters.

I applied for grad schools in math, my first choice was MIT. I was very disappointed to be rejected. My second choice was Michigan, and I was very disappointed to be rejected there too. My third choice was Stanford. Rejected.

My fourth choice was Wisconsin. I went there and it was an AWESOME experience. They gave me as much as I could handle, and prepared me very well for the road ahead.

I will disagree with other commenters and say that it is not "all for the best". It probably would have been better if you got into Harvard. You really did lose something, and you would be dishonest to yourself to pretend otherwise.

But Plans B and C and D and E and F are also really incredible. I had the amazing fortune to get a three year postdoc at Stanford (a "postdoc" is a short-term job you can get right after you get a Ph.D.) and worked with some of the best mathematicians in the world. Stanford is a top-notch place. Apply there.

Apply to MIT. Caltech. Princeton. Rice. Brown. Harvey Mudd. Deep Springs. Apply to the state school in your state. State schools vary highly in quality, but some of them (Michigan, Wisconsin, Berkeley, UNC, and others) are really top notch.

Apply to any school that piques your interest. Or, consider doing something else for a year before returning to school, if that's your cup of tea.

You still should be selective and aim as high as you can, but know there are a huge number of wonderful universities out there offering mind-blowing educations.

If you're prepared for periodic disappointments, then you need fear nothing and the world is yours! There are so many opportunities out there which are still available to you. What an awesome fact to contemplate. I wish you good luck.

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I certainly don't disagree that going to a good school is valuable. My only statement is that it is not so important to place such a strong emphasis on the name blindly. It helps in many ways and their programs are generally known for something but I wouldn't discount the late-bloomer, super motivated kid who went to a no name school and worked his ass off to get to where he wanted to go. I would just take it in context. That's all.

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Agree with this, except for you telling him what schools he should be applying to. You don't need to spam out applications for undergrad like you might for certain grad programs.

People on here do not understand how strong financial aid at top schools is (or how sharply that aid falls off as you get outside the very top tier), nor do they realize which doors are opened to you.

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I remember this exact same feeling when I got rejected from what I thought was my dream school at the time (MIT). I felt physically tired and just laid in bed for several hours right after getting the news. It's a pretty natural reaction to the situation.

The good part is that it does pass. Give it a few days or a week and you'll wonder how you felt so bad now.

Also, this may be too obvious to need saying, but there are a number of other schools where you can learn as much and make as many good connections as Harvard, and it sounds like you're likely to get into at least one of them. In my case, I ended up going somewhere where I'm pretty sure I had a better overall experience than I would have at MIT. It's very possible the same will be true for you.

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I got accepted into my dream school (MIT) and couldn't afford to go. Two sides of the same coin, I suppose.

The reality is that you are who you are, and you are a person who was not accepted in to Harvard. There are many other good and great schools that would be happy to have you. While you will be missing out on a Harvard education, at the right school you could do just as well, or better.

Don't let this discourage you. While it seems like a huge deal right now, in ten years where you went to school is going to matter less than how passionate you are about your work, who you decide to spend your life with, and where you decide you want to be.

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It's only been a few hours. Do whatever it is you do to relax / clear your mind. Go for a run, listen to some music, etc.

Long term success has a great deal to do with how you respond to challenges or failures along the way. Also, it's important to try for some perspective. It's easy and tempting to view college admissions as a referendum on your worth as an individual.

After all, for many folks it's a first chance to actively choose / be chosen by a group, and the "start" of your independent adult life. But as much enrichment and opportunity as any good school will provide, it's not going to define who you are and what you do with your life.

That's up to you.

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Did you make an account to say this? Thank you :)

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I think trying to convince you that where you to go school isn't as big of a deal as you might think it is may be fruitless. Harvard is great nonetheless. First and foremost you still have a shot of getting in, in April or whenever you find out. Second and most importantly, examine why you really want to go to school. Do you want to meet new people, study/experience academics, be independent, or any linear combination thereof? If you want to school, I think for more than just the name and the fact that it's the next step, finish your applications. It can't hurt and you don't have to go if you don't want to. BUT if you are feeling a lack of motivation because you're tired of school, the rigid structure, or whatever it is, then don't feel like you have to step in line. Many people, brilliant and not brilliant, have taken time off between high school and college. I certainly wish I did. Whether this is the right move or not is certainly particular to you and what you choose to do with your time off. You can do great and wonderful things that school could never offer but you have to be self-motivated. Good luck.

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Thanks for the insightful comment! I don't really mind the structure of school, and I think college will be even less "rigid" in terms what what I learn or do.

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What's your financial situation? Harvard costs about $58,000 a year. If you're not absolutely sure you'll get a significant scholarship, you should finish those other applications just to ensure you also get in somewhere you can afford.

Right now, the unemployment plus underemployment rate for recent college graduates is 53%. Quite a bit higher than the national unemployment rate. $100-200k in student loans (which will cost closer to $300-400k to pay off with interest) doesn't make it easy to get by even if you landed a great job. A low-paying, risky startup job might not even be a realistic option once you're saddled with debt.

This is the time to think about things like that -- what you can afford, how you'll repay it, what kind of job you want when you get out, where you want to work, whether the name recognition of an ivy league school matters to those companies (and whether that's worth as much money as a small house versus going somewhere cheaper), etc.

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I respectfully disagree. In the first place, Harvard (and other prestigious universities) have excellent financial aid, and OP will only pay $58,000/year if his parents are wealthy enough to afford it.

Student loans suck, but I think it is very wise for OP to seek out the best education he (or she) can.

I think it is premature for OP to seriously plan for the future, except to know that time spent in the library that first year will really pay off. There are a couple of people who can figure out their future when they're 17, but when I was in high school I certainly wasn't one of them.

One of the great things about university, especially at the best places, is you'll meet ambitious people who have goals you'd never contemplate before.

And Ivies are not just about name recognition. I know people who went to Harvard and Princeton. They learned soooo much. Perhaps as much or more from their peers than from their classes, but it's still worth it.

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Harvard has excellent financial aid.

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To elaborate, from Harvard's financial aid website: "Beginning in the fall of 2012, this "zero contribution threshold" will be increased to $65,000. Financial aid is available to all students based on assessed need. Beginning with the class of 2016, families with incomes up to $150,000 will have an average expected parent contribution of 10 percent or less of their income"

For most people, going to Harvard would be cheaper than attending a state university.

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I ended up going to my fourth choice. I actually got into my second choice program but I'd have had to wait a year.

I had a great time, learned a lot and made tons of friends. If you're like me, your second, third or fourth choice will still be an incredibly good school so education and reputation won't be that big of a loss. Complete your other applications.

It's a big blow the first time you realize the path you'd set out for yourself won't, or in your case might not, happen. Get over it and it makes you a stronger, better, more humble person. Believe me, it's not the greatest disappointment you'll ever face.

As a side note, Harvard sent me the nicest rejection letter of any school.

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I go to Yale and I can assure you that Harvard sucks and is no fun. That sounds like hyperbole but is surprisingly accurate. Harvard is teeming with strangely elitist once-nerds who want to exclude you from their "finals club". Apply to Yale. Everyone here is mad chill and if you got deferred from Harvard, you probably have a pretty good chance of acceptance. So take the application seriously. And who knows, maybe getting deferred from Harvard will become the best moment of your life.

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Was at one point in a similar situation. Went to a math and science high school with the hopes of eventually going to Stanford or MIT. Instead, I ended at my state school. As a senior looking back on college, I'm extremely satisfied with my choice. I've had the opportunity to learn from some great professors and have gotten a few internships at Google and a fulltime job at Palantir from it.

Regardless of where you go you can always find great people and learn from them.

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I was deferred as well when I was a HS senior but then after looking at the total pool of applicants, MIT excepted me before the school year started. But I pursued other options... went snowboarding in the NH mountains for the winter months, it was a blast... then I reassessed my situation and selected another school and spent 4.5 years having the time of my life. It's all good mate! Have no fear, it will work out. Stay sane and push on.

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Read some Lifehacker. I've gotten a surprising amount of inspiration from them. But for now, just focus on getting on with your life and apply again next term. Or pull a Robert Zemeckis and call and give an "impassioned plea". (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Zemeckis#USC_education_...)

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Deferral is not rejection. Yeah, I know very few people get rejected outright from EA, but I also know people at Harvard right now who were first deferred.

Care to share stats? Have you had your essays looked over by successful admits or other strong applicants? Most teachers are useless for evaluating college essays at top schools.

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Kinda bursting my own bubble here but it's also extremely unlikely to be accepted after being deferred -- even less than applying regular. I'd have to do something extraordinary between now and April.

Also, at this point I think it's too late to edit my essays. Are you applying as well?

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"it's also extremely unlikely to be accepted after being deferred" - What are your sources on this?

I meant your essays for other applications.

I'm a recent college grad. I didn't apply to Harvard but did get into Stanford, MIT, Princeton, etc. One thing you learn attending a top school and actually meeting a large volume of admits is that the people who talked about college admissions back in high school (on CollegeConfidential and elsewhere) didn't know jack shit.

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I believe that ~100 deferred applicants were accepted last year, out of the deferred pool of 3,000 and the regular pool of 30,000.

Hm, what are some misconceptions then? What do you think they are looking for?

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Just do what you really want to do.

If you want to go to Harvard for the piece of paper they give you at the end, you're doing it wrong.

The relationships and skills you could build there are all within your grasp, and are up to you to take advantage of.

Don't wait for a professor to deliver knowledge on a silver platter, go out and grab it!

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Long ago, in a galaxy far away: I was accepted to UGA (which is a big deal in hicksville) with a National Merit Scholarship. I also was offered the chance to apply for a fellowship, but I missed the deadline. (My dream college was St. John's in New Mexico but I didn't have the foreign language classes to get accepted.)

I went up to UGA by bus for orientation and wandered around on foot on a Sunday trying to find something to eat while feeling awful. As the day wore on, I felt worse and worse. By the end of the day, I just felt really dreadful and I just wanted to leave. I called my sister who kindly drove up to get me. I gave up my scholarship, attended a local college, married, dropped out of school. I had kids and was a homemaker for a long time.

Many years later, after a lot more mysterious health issues, I was told I had a deadly disorder. Looking back on it, had I gone to UGA (or St. John's) and pursued a career, I likely would have died young, one of those headlines that says something like "Promising youth dies mysteriously". The social isolation of being home wth my kids likely helped me stay relatively healthy for longer. My preference would have been "social butterfly". And it likely would have helped to kill me.

I am not religious and I don't think you have to believe in some sort of god to find a logical explanation for the detour I took. I didn't have a diagnosis but I also didn't feel well that fateful day at orientation when I decided "I just want to go home". So let me suggest that if you fail to get into Harvard, perhaps the message is that it isn't the best fit for you. Forcing it might do more harm than good.

I am more inclined these days to accept seeming roadblocks as constructive feedback: Either step up my game so I can get past it without forcing it or accept that it is probably for the best that I not go there. I suggest you get cracking on something else. It would be a shame to let a lot of other doors close because you wasted too much time on disappointment.

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What's the name of the disorder, if you don't mind me asking?

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Atypical cystic fibrosis.

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