Photo illustration of someone reading a college rejection letter

I didn’t get into my dream college—and my life didn’t end

A recent college graduate’s honest reflection on rejection, and how they're thriving years later

Words by Winter Qiu

For AA+PI teens around the country, it’s more than Heritage Month, it’s National College Decision May. From Washington to Florida, students are partaking in the same roller coaster ride of the college application process, emerging at the end of the gut-turning loops to find whether they were accepted, rejected or—a foreboding third option—waitlisted from their prospective colleges.

Four years ago around this time, I had just finished receiving the last of the letters that would shape the next four years of my life: “We regret to inform you that we cannot offer you admission to this college.”

Fresh out of high school and college prospecting, a rejection letter from my top-choice college hit like I’d been shoved down a flight of stairs. I had applied to 15 colleges and received my tenth rejection of the month. My anxiety was building like a mudslide that threatened to bury me alive.

Why wouldn’t the colleges want me? I survive on an average of five hours of sleep a night. That’s 19 hours of the day I’m grinding and hustling. My caffeine addiction ensures a guaranteed source of income for the campus town’s local coffee shops. I’m even willing to buy school merch and become a walking advertisement. As the perfect college student, I couldn’t understand how so many admission offices could fumble so badly.

My high school college advisor had different ideas. Only one AP class? I needed at least five more. So what if I did sports all four years of high school? I wasn’t the team captain. For a decent shot at Princeton, Stephanie from my biology class held nightly rituals promising her firstborn child to some dark lord. Stephanie had dedication. “Dedication that you obviously lack,” hissed my college advisor, peeling away her mask to reveal she’d been a snake this whole time.

An Asian American person stands on a lawn, next to a tree, in a graduation gown, holding their hat, with an orange building in the background.

The author getting prepared to graduate.

Courtesy of Winter Qiu

But now that it’s been four years since I settled on whatever college would have me (just kidding, love you Skidmore), and I’m emerging with a shiny, newly minted bachelor’s degree, I hardly remember the days when I would ugly-cry into my polka dot pillowcase from the woes of rejection. I cannot believe I’ve made it through college, and truthfully, I could not have gotten this far without the support of my parents, who began preparing me for the epic highs and lows of Ivy League applications before my eighth birthday.

It was a dark and stormy summer night when my father first asked me in brisk Mandarin, “Ey, what do you want to do when you get older?”

“I want to be a writer! Or maybe a food critic. Or maybe an artist,” I replied, crayon in hand. “Or maybe…”

“No, no, I meant, which college do you want to attend? Have you ever heard of Harvard? Or Princeton? Brown?”

“Is that a fun place like Coney Island?”

“Sure it is!”

“Can we go to Coney Island?”


And I only sulked for a day, which was undeniable proof that I had been great at handling rejection ever since I was a child. As for Ivy Leagues, I did end up applying to Brown.

On the day of my interview with an alumnus from Brown University, I showed up 15 minutes early, dressed in my best wrinkle-free shirt and slacks. I greeted her in the same way I had rehearsed in the mirror the night before, and then I sat down and proceeded to do the worst thing I could have done for any interview—tell the truth.

The alumni interviewer asked, “Why did you apply to Brown?” Well, I’d heard that Brown had a tradition where students received free donuts during finals week. I liked donuts. And the school seemed cool, too.

What were my hobbies? I lit up and proudly spoke about drawing for the school newspaper.

What awards did I win from my artwork? I hadn’t won any. I just liked to draw.

Was Brown my first choice? “To be so honest with you,” I said while staring intently into the interviewer’s blue orbs, “I will go to whichever school gives me the most financial aid.”

If I was given a chance to redo the interview, would I lie to give the over-embellished answers that the interviewer wanted to hear? No, probably not. The college application process already took my time and money, and I wanted to keep my integrity.

She looked me over, once, twice, a subtle crease appeared between her brows. She was struggling to find the necessary tidbit that made me extraordinary enough to be let through the great Van Wickle Gates of yore, but by the end of the interview, her polite, pitying smile made it clear that I hadn’t met her invisible rubric. I got the feeling that it didn’t help my case to admit my family couldn’t afford to pay $65,000 a year. If I was given a chance to redo the interview, would I lie to give the over-embellished answers that the interviewer wanted to hear? No, probably not. The college application process already took my time and money, and I wanted to keep my integrity.

Afterwards, out of the five colleges I was ultimately accepted into, I chose the one that offered the best financial aid package. My college rejections then became a small speck in the long history of rejections to come.

And how did my parents react when I’d finally made my decision after all the years they’d lectured me about college applications, all building up to this one climactic moment? 

“Okay,” they said.

An Asian American person in white and beige, stands behind a lectern reading "Skidmore College," with their thumbs up.

The author at their thesis reading ceremony at Skidmore College.

Courtesy of Winter Qiu

Asian families are not known for expressing their affection through words like “I love you” or “I’m proud of you,” and my Chinese family was no exception. At the same time, Asian parents have their own way of supporting their children through their own love language of cut fruit and pristine textbooks (yes, even if you didn’t ask for them). Even so, what I really needed more than the freshest fruit and the newest books was to be told, “You’re going to be alright.”

If you don’t have the kind of supportive adults in your life who will give you this helpful refrain, a pat on the back, a somewhat awkward yet empathetic side-hug, let me be that adult for you today.

To the anxious student who has a big decision to make, my heart goes out to you. You’re going to be okay.

To the parents of those students, and the ones who weren’t accepted anywhere at all, your child will thrive regardless. Be there for them because your support will mean the world.

To my future employer, look at how well I self-reflect and grow from difficult situations! Doesn't that make you want to hire me? (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)

For anyone else who I haven’t addressed yet, you’ve handled rejection too, haven’t you? That job you wanted, that lover that got away? You’ll be okay too, I promise.

Winter Qiu has served as JoySauce's winter/spring intern. If you'd like to hire them for anything related to communications and writing, or if you're interested in learning more about JoySauce's internship program, please contact

Published on May 23, 2024

Words by Winter Qiu

Winter Qiu is a first-generation Chinese American born in New York. When they're not playing board games or watching cartoons, they can be spotted in the wild with a cup of milk tea. They probably could've become a doctor like their parents wanted if they didn't like the creative arts so much, but then again, most likely not.

Art by Ryan Quan

Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.