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July 21, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Turning frowns upside down Turning frowns upside down (July 21, 2004)

Paly 'Rejection Wall' help students cope with negative responses from colleges

Jonathan Steinman

Each spring high-school seniors across the country receive millions of rejection letters -- "skinny envelopes" -- from colleges and universities.

Fat envelopes mean you've been accepted. They are jammed full registration information, visitor guides and school histories.

But skinny letters are also laden -- with shame and fear for the future. They carry moments of awkwardness as classmates inquire about your status. They carry a burden of failure.

This spring, nearly 100 students at Palo Alto High School fought back against the often secret shame of rejection by posting their letters of rejection and deferral for all to see on a "Rejection Wall," actually an outdoor bulletin board in the school's bustling main quad.

"Colleges say some harsh things," said Amy Rogg, the 2003-2004 student body president who initiated the idea for the wall at Paly. She was inspired by a "skinny envelopes club" in a prep academy in Massachusetts that she'd heard about from a parent.

One particularly brutal letter told a Paly student that "your academic credentials don't meet our standards, and we don't recommend that you apply again," Rogg said.

The idea behind the wall was to alleviate some of the pain of rejection by "helping people to laugh at their failures," Rogg said. "We have a stressed out class as it is."

Working with Joann Vaars, Paly's student activities director, Rogg went to the Student Council, which enthusiastically endorsed the idea and entered into negotiations with Principal Sandra Pearson as to where the wall would be located.

"I think she was skeptical at first," Rogg said. Vaars explained that although the administration had a generally positive view about the wall, there were some concerns.

One concern was about a perception that kids would be being singled out. Another was that the wall could be an easy target for vandalism. Pearson felt the letters should be posted in a protected area, where they could be closely monitored, such as inside the Tower Building.

But the Student Council wanted a more visible place.

Pearson also decreed that no letters were to be posted individually, but 30 to 60 letters should be collected and posted all at once.

The student government invited students to submit rejection letters, but the response was tepid.

By mid-April, "We weren't getting many responses -- until one incredibly brave rogue senior posted his rejection letter" instead of turning it in, Vaars said. No one can now recall who the senior was, but his action seemed to reassert the student-driven nature of the idea.

"Everyone said, 'Hey, this is cool!'" Rogg said.

"All of a sudden, letters were flying onto the wall. Kids weren't even asking for the staple gun," but supplying their own tacks or push pins, Vaars said.

Seniors reacted positively.

"I felt dumb," Paly Senior Alison Lawton after she got her skinny envelope. "Then I put my letter on the wall and felt better."

Many seniors who posted letters echoed Lawton's sentiments. Some described the wall as a convenient, satirical way to reduce the shame of being rejected.

Posting letters "united rejectees and made them feel they are not stupid," Lawton said.

But non-seniors -- still facing the competitive struggle next year -- were less receptive. Juniors, on the verge of beginning the college-admissions process, had a mixed response.

"At first I thought it (the wall) could be cool," junior Anna Luskin said. But as rejections from prominent universities were posted, "it depressed me, showed me all the schools I couldn't get into."

The rejection wall brought some expectations back down to earth. "I'm sure (posting your rejection) is a very humiliating, humbling experience," incoming junior Teddy Jones said.

The growing mass of letters featured letterheads from top-flight target schools, including the University of California, Harvard, MIT, Brown, and more. Rejection letters from UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego were among the most prominent -- reflecting the statewide UC admission crisis as well as the popularity of the schools.

As days and weeks passed, the hundred or so letters fluttered in the breeze and yellowed in the sun, and were trashed at the end of the school year.

Many students felt the wall had a positive impact. Next year's student leaders look favorably upon making the rejection wall a tradition.

"If it is something that other students want, I will certainly push for it," said Arianna Gianola, Paly's incoming senior class president.

"It snapped people back to reality." Charles Vickery, Paly's upcoming student body president, said, echoing Gianola's conditional support for continuing the wall.

Editorial Pages Intern Jonathan Steinman can be e-mailed at

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