by Nathaniel Dolquist
When I was a sophomore at Yale, my acting professor Toni Dorfman looked at the class over the top of her Hogwarts-level spectacles and said, “every director should be forced to act in a play at least once a year. That way they will remember what it feels like to be vulnerable.”
I applied to college in 2009. I wanted so badly to get into Yale and I wrote the best essays I could. I was crushed the first, second, third, and fourth times my English teacher read my supplement essay and said, “this isn’t good enough to get what you want. Try again.” The fifth draft gained me early admission to Yale.
It’s been a while since then. I’m an actor and audition several times a week. When you send in an audition tape, that’s it. You don’t hear back unless you get a callback or book the job: casting offices are so busy that they don’t have time to send out rejection letters or feedback. You might think this would be the absolute worst, that you’d wait in limbo forever, but after a few years you learn to send the tape away and move on with your life. I’m pretty used to it now.
A student of mine recently reached out to tell me about the agony of the wait to hear back from colleges. After the conversation, I realized something: I’m pretty distant from the actual, visceral feeling of that experience. I remember what it felt like, but I don’t feel the gut-wrenching anxiety anymore.
I decided that it was time for me to put myself out there in the same way my students do. I wrote a screenplay based on my twenties, around 100 pages, and submitted it to some of the best film writing festivals in the world just to see what would happen.
The first few days of waiting were brutal. What will they say? Can I truly detach from the outcome and just be proud of my work, like I tell my students to do? I was deeply and truly authentic in my writing: can I handle the rejection of that by people I’ve never met? Can I practice what I preach to my students and accept whatever happens?
Uh, sort of. It’s hard. I’m twelve years older now than I was when I applied to college: twelve more years of experience and practice. Turns out, it’s still pretty hard.
I got my first rejection letter a few weeks later. I sighed defeat, until I read the letter carefully and realized it had no fewer than four grammar and spelling errors in it. I actually sent it to my students: see? You put your heart out there, even pay money to do it, and the people who reject you can’t even spell.
The second letter was full of feedback: honest, impartial feedback about what I could do to make my screenplay better. This I could handle. After, of course, ten minutes of feeling totally miffed that I didn’t get a perfect score and an Oscar. If you’re really looking to test your self worth, I highly recommend sending something full of genuine love and effort to a bunch of people you don’t know. Just make sure you have a therapy appointment set up in advance.
After all this (well, during it: I’m still waiting to hear back from eight other festivals), and after taking some very deep breaths and a walk outside, I came down in the same place I was when I started. I believe that when applying to college, if you turn in an application that is authentically you and represents your best work, then the chips will fall as they may. This is the most important lesson I can teach to my seniors in high school: there’s a lot of rejection in the world. Can you become confident enough in yourself and proud enough of your work to trust that your people will find you, see you, and say yes?