Getting rejected from your dream school can feel like the end of the world.
But sometimes it can open up a path to a future you can’t yet imagine. Sometimes what seems like a disaster can turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you. As Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
If you’re skeptical, you don’t have to take my word for it. Or even Steve Jobs’. Just ask these 6 celebrities who got the small envelope but ended up having the last laugh by becoming rich and famous.
1. Warren Buffett
Warren Buffett knows what it’s like.
Although it’s hard to imagine the words “failure” and “Warren Buffett” even in the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence, the third wealthiest person in the world blew his Harvard Business School interview.
At the age of 19, Buffett was set on Harvard and thought it was a done deal, even inviting one of his friends to attend Harvard with him. But when the up-and-coming financial wunderkind sat down for his interview with a Harvard alum, he had a hard time selling himself, and it quickly became clear he wasn’t what the school was looking for.
Left out in the cold by the school he was sure he was destined to attend, Buffett went back to the drawing board, started looking at other schools, and found out about Benjamin Graham, a professor at Columbia who would become Buffett’s mentor and whose ideas would go on to shape Buffett’s ridiculously successful approach to investing.
These days, Buffett is the first to point out that while his rejection from Harvard filled him with a “feeling of dread,” he has since realized that everything “he thought of as a crushing event at the time, has turned out for the better.” In his words: “a temporary defeat is not a permanent one. In the end, it can be an opportunity.”
And if anyone knows about opportunities, it’s Warren Buffett.
2. Barack Obama
But in 1979, he was at the mercy of a faceless college admissions officer at the college of his dreams, Swarthmore College in Philadelphia. And that admissions officer said “thanks but no thanks.”
Looking back, Obama admits that the rejection “really broke my heart,” but he didn’t let it stand in the way of his White House- sized ambitions. Instead, Obama enrolled at Occidental College in Los Angeles that fall, transferred to Columbia as a junior and kept heading east to Harvard Law School after that.
The rest, as they say, is history. But there’s an interesting question here: if Obama had gotten the green light from Swarthmore College, would he still have had the experiences that ultimately led him to land the number one job in the nation?
3. Ted Turner
Media mogul Ted Turner is known for a magic touch that lets him grow businesses from nothings into somethings. In 1980, for example, he started a little outfit called Cable News Network – known more commonly today as CNN.
Back before he became a household name, though, Turner’s applications to Princeton and Harvard, could better be described as somethings that shrank into nothings.
Getting “we regret to inform you” letters from his two top choices, Turner instead headed up to Rhode Island to start his undergraduate studies at Brown. Not so bad, right?
But that wasn’t meant to be either, and Turner was subsequently expelled from Browne – either for letting a female student into his dorm room or for burning down his fraternity’s homecoming display, depending on who you ask.
Turner never earned a college degree (although Browne did award him an honorary B.A. in 1989), and his life took a tragic twist not long after getting the boot from Browne when his father committed suicide – forcing Turner to take over the family business.
And that’s where Turner’s bio starts transforming from a story of defeat into one about triumph. Turner took that family business and grew it into a global media empire. He may never have gotten his diploma, but these days he’s worth a couple billion, and he’s more than happy to spread the wealth around through his work as a philanthropist.
He still isn’t too hot on college though: “I didn’t fail college; college failed me.”
4. Harold Varmus
As a 1989 Nobel Prize winner and the current director of the National Cancer Institute, Varmus has had a career most medical researchers can only dream of, but he traveled a bumpy road to get there.
After earning a masters in English, Varmus decided his true calling was medicine and set his sights on medical school – Harvard Medical School that is. There was only one problem: Harvard Medical School had not set their sights on him, and they replied to his application with the big no.
So how did Varmus handle rejection? Did he give up? Far from it. He sent in another application to Harvard the next year.
And I’d like to tell you that things worked out better for him this time, but I’d be lying if I did. The Harvard admissions committee wasn’t budging. To add insult to injury, they rejected him and also told him he should think about joining the army instead.
Happily, Columbia’s medical school recognized Varmus’ potential and offered him a spot. From there, he stopped in San Francisco to do research at UCSF, then took a trip to Stockholm to pick up his Nobel Prize.
In other words, you can still have the career of your dreams if you get rejected by the school of your dreams. Heck, you can have the career of your dreams if you get rejected by the school of your dreams twice (and told to join the army).
5. Steven Spielberg
Harold Varmus isn’t the only superstar to get two rejection letters from their dream school. No less than Steven Spielberg, winner of three Academy Awards for Best Director, is a member of the double rejection club.
Steven Spielberg has a long history with USC – he has donated generously to the school, served as a trustee, and even has a building named after him – but it’s a history that started with Spielberg’s repeated unsuccessful applications to the film school.
After twice getting the cold shoulder from USC, Spielberg enrolled at CSU Long Beach to study English instead but dropped out to join the film industry before getting his diploma. In 2001, over thirty years later, Spielberg returned to CSU Long Beach to finish the requirements for his B.A. and walk across the stage in cap and gown at graduation.
Meanwhile, Spielberg seems to have gotten over the rocky beginning to his relationship with USC. Upon becoming a trustee at the school, he quipped, “Since 1980, I’ve been trying to be associated with this school. I eventually had to buy my way in.”
6. Meredeth Vieira
Unsurprisingly, many people count Harvard as their dream school. Also unsurprisingly, most of those people never end up stepping foot inside the school’s hallowed halls.
But Vieira stands out in how hard she took the rejection – she was “so devastated that when I went to Tufts my freshman year, every Saturday I’d hitchhike to Harvard.”
She also stands out in one other way: after meeting a mentor who introduced her to journalism, Vieira went on to build a career as a superstar journalist. Vieira credits that mentor with her decision to become a journalist, pointing out that her Harvard rejection ended up being a blessing in disguise.
Life has a funny way of not working out the way it’s supposed to. Sometimes things that seem like catastrophes turn out to be strokes of luck that steer you in directions you never would’ve otherwise known to try.
So if you’ve gotten the dreaded thin envelope from your dream school, try to remember that when one door closes, sometimes a new, better door opens. There’s probably not many things Warren Buffett, Barack Obama, Ted Turner, Harold Varmus, Steven Spielberg and Meredeth Vieira agree on, but I’m sure they’d all be happy to tell you that getting rejected from your dream school doesn’t condemn you to a life of failure.
Of course, if you do get into your dream school, more power to you! But either way, there’s an important truth to remember: it’s not where you go, but what you do once you’re there that counts.
By Niels V.