On being denied admission to graduate school

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It is the season of gatekeepers.

I’ve spent the morning reading first-person stories on Twitter from those who were long ago denied admission to the graduate school of their choice. Many of these stories read like biblical parables. “Denied admission to my dream school,” the redemption arc goes, “and am now chair of the department that rejected me way back when.”

I have many thoughts about this plot line, which is obviously an implicit (and right-minded) reproach of admissions standards, written for anyone sitting at home wondering if they’ll ever “get in.” I’m especially struck, I want to add, by the missing details, by the abrupt move from denial years ago to triumph or success right now. Absent those details, such a radical move from tragedy straight to success suggests that personal pluck and hard work accounts for the endpoint. It fails to capture the excruciating arbitrariness of the gatekeeper’s supposed wisdom, the loss of so many dreams to such a capricious process, and the disturbing unevenness that those gates ensure long after we’ve passed through them.

I, too, was denied admission to the PhD program of my dreams (NYU). I entered the university that eventually gave me a degree (Rutgers) sideways, without any funding package. (That made me what was then called a “walk on” student). I didn’t even apply to Brown, where I presently teach. There were many reasons for all of this – I was a terrible student for the first few years of college, worked out the kinks in a local community college, made many tactical errors in my applications, and abruptly shifted all of my applications to the NYC area after I met my wife (who has a great and righteous disdain for academics, as well as for any region of the world not named Queens or Manhattan). I was also, if you want the deeper truth of it, a seriously flawed high school student with pretty abysmal SAT and GRE scores and a serious lack of writing skills. Graduate admissions committees have to play it safe, and I was a serious risk.

Admissions decisions are very difficult, are largely impressionistic, and inevitably they can seem whimsical and even cruel. Getting in doesn’t mean everything. And, by itself, getting denied reveals nothing. If that happens to you, and if you’re committed to graduate school – and there are good reasons not to be – learning and growing as an applicant can be a personally rewarding process. Applying a second time or even a third time can sharpen your own thinking about the questions you have, and clarify the sort of place you need to answer them. So get feedback, think harder, and try again – knowing, once more, that the application portal is something like a roulette wheel.

I now teach, mentor, and advise at a place that would never have admitted me. Never. I take pleasure in the teaching, the mentoring, and the advising, but not in the location. I appreciate – deeply, even spiritually – those moments when I can “make a difference,” or “free someone else,” to borrow from Toni Morrison. I take no pleasure at all, though, in the irony of my role or place here. The ground here in Providence is littered with the corpses of those who were enthralled with privilege, status, and the folklore of their own success. Bootstrappers and status divas, working together, dying together, all to preserve the brand. Even Morrison, the avatar of the very best of Princeton, describes the work of freeing someone in the modern university as something done singularly, sparingly, or rarely, as if the act of reaching back to grasp another’s hand requires that your other hand hold fast to the institution.

Let’s not celebrate how far we’ve come. Let’s not deliver a message that is, basically, “buck up, because you could be me!” Because I don’t see my arrival at this present as somehow less a matter of fate and fortune than that first rejection letter from NYU. The story of how I got this job at Brown isn’t biblical. Because the institutional reward for any such a “rags to riches” ascent is that you get to work the gates. And there is a deep, exhausting perversity to manning the gates of the place that once denied you entrance, or some place like that place, and celebrating that work as if it proves you’ve made it.

Let’s all think about where we are and what we’re doing with those gates. Let’s think about how we can “free” and “empower” more and more people. Let’s list out the hundreds of little things we can do, alone and together. The thousands of people for whom we can open a door. The thousands of doors that need to be kicked open just a little further, the door jams that need widening and repairing, the gate posts that need dynamiting, no matter the consequences. That won’t be a triumphant list – it will be an index of the Herculean challenges that lie before us, that will require everything of us. A list we might not finish in our lifetimes.

If someone opens a door for you, if you make it “in” when others don’t, that list becomes yours. Your job isn’t to let folks in, it is to blow up the gates; your job isn’t to free someone else, it is to free everyone.