Colleges' rejects who made it big
Few events arouse more teenage angst than the springtime arrival of college rejection letters. With next fall's college freshman class expected to approach a record 2.9 million students, hundreds of thousands of applicants will soon be receiving the dreaded letters.Teenagers who face rejection will join good company, including Nobel laureates, billionaire philanthropists, university presidents, constitutional scholars, best-selling authors and other leaders of business, media and the arts who once received college or graduate-school rejection letters of their of their own.
Both Warren Buffett and "Today" show host Meredith Vieira say that while being rejected by the school of their dreams was devastating, it launched them on a path to meeting life-changing mentors. Harold Varmus, the winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1989, says getting rejected twice by Harvard Medical School, where a dean advised him to enlist in the military, was soon forgotten as he plunged into his studies at Columbia University's med school.
For other college rejects, from Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy and entrepreneur Ted Turner to broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw, the turndowns were minor footnotes but ones they still remember and will talk about.
Rejections aren't uncommon. Harvard accepts only a little more than 7% of the 29,000 undergraduate applications it receives each year, and Stanford University's acceptance rate is about the same.
Buffett: 'Turned out for the better'"The truth is, everything that has happened in my life . . . that I thought was a crushing event at the time has turned out for the better," Buffett says. With the exception of health problems, he says, setbacks teach "lessons that carry you along. You learn that a temporary defeat is not a permanent one. In the end, it can be an opportunity."
Buffett regards his rejection at age 19 by Harvard Business School as a pivotal episode in his life. Looking back, he says, Harvard wouldn't have been a good fit. But at the time, he "had this feeling of dread" after being rejected in an admissions interview in Chicago and a fear of disappointing his father.
As it turned out, his father responded with "only this unconditional love . . . an unconditional belief in me," Buffett says. Exploring other options, he realized that two investing experts he admired, Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, were teaching at Columbia's graduate business school. He dashed off a late application, where by a stroke of luck it was fielded and accepted by Dodd.
From these mentors, Buffett says, he learned core principles that guided his investing. The Harvard rejection also benefited his alma mater: His family gave more than $12 million to Columbia in 2008 through the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, based on tax filings.
The lesson of negatives becoming positives has proved true repeatedly, Buffett says. He was terrified of public speaking -- so much so that when he was young he sometimes threw up before giving an address. So he enrolled in a Dale Carnegie public-speaking course and says the skills he learned there enabled him to woo his future wife, Susan Thompson, a "champion debater," he says.
"I even proposed to my wife during the course," he says. "If I had been only a mediocre speaker I might not have taken it."