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The Other F Word: A Cautionary Tale for the College-Bound from the author of We Regret to Inform You

When I was a kid, we talked about failure a lot.

To be honest, it was less that we discussed it and more that we were lectured about it. Specifically, we were warned against it, firmly, from the time we were very young. And when our teachers and administrators and counselors talked to us about failure, it was always spun as a cautionary tale. We started hearing these early in our academic careers; my earliest lecture about failure came from my shockingly un-cuddly first-grade teacher, who told us one day that if we did poorly on our spelling tests, we would not get into college.

My fellow seven-year-olds and I were alarmed. We didn’t know quite what she meant, except that what she was suggesting was bad, and that we were being threatened with something that sounded very frightening and very permanent, indoctrinating us rather early into the cult of College Admissions Angst.

Later, a favorite cautionary tale we were told was that if you senior-slumped your way to C’s in a bunch of your classes, you could lose your spot in your freshman class. Virtually everyone I know has heard the story of some kid who got a D in physics third quarter of his senior year and then had his offer of admission pulled. Sometimes, in these stories, the kid’s school was mentioned, and sometimes not, but when it was, it was usually something like Stanford. I wonder sometimes if this actually happens a lot, or if all of us were hearing about the same kid. No one ever bothered to tell us what became of him afterward, because that wasn’t part of the formula—the entire point of a cautionary tale is that someone’s life is ruined and that’s the end of it.

That was typically the upshot of these talks: ruination. The worst part was that nothing was ever salvageable. Once you committed whatever sin was being warned against—you flunked spelling or messed up your senior-year grades or didn’t sign up for the SAT on time—a great cosmic hook would appear and pull you from the stage of your own life.

Fear, of course, is a pretty good (if rather medieval) motivator as these things go, but it doesn’t help the person who finds that they have, in fact, become the protagonist in a cautionary tale. For them, life isn’t actually over, most of the time. They have to figure out what to do next. And it’s very hard to move forward when you’ve been told that you are the living example by which other people are inspired to better choices.

So, while we did talk about failure, we didn’t talk about the fact that failure is very, very normal. Adults know it, of course, but kids often don’t figure out this bit of reality until later—that at some point, there will be something they want badly, and they will work for it, and they will not get it, and they will have to decide whether to try again, or try to get something else, or sit on the couch and eat ice cream.

Not long ago, I had coffee with a friend-of-a-friend, a recent college grad who was about to start his first adult job. The conversation turned to writing, and he told me about a novel he was working on. He asked for my best piece of writing advice and I told him that in the writing world everyone fails much more than they succeed, you just need to accept it as part of the process. My ratio of books written to books published is not 1:1, or even 2:1. I said this all very cheerfully, and he looked aghast. There was nothing cheerful about failure. It was something unpleasant and vaguely embarrassing, like diarrhea. You probably had it at some point, but if you were lucky you recovered quickly and nobody noticed.

But failure, like a badly-timed intestinal bug, happens to everyone. Sometimes it’s your fault for eating five-day-old chicken salad, and sometimes it isn’t, but either way: Failure’s normal. You glean what you can from it, brush off the rest, pivot if you need to, and turn your toes in the direction of life.

Kids benefit when we talk about failure as an inevitable part of the human condition, and they benefit when we talk about the very real possibility of failure in college admissions.

The chances of talking to a disappointed kid somewhere in this process are pretty high; many colleges that used to take the majority of their applicants have become highly selective, and even among student who do get into their first-choice school, one in four won’t be able to attend, typically for financial reasons. We need to talk about developing Plan B or C or D when Plan A fails, and we need to have these discussions before the failure occurs—or in the case of one young acquaintance (not my coffee-friend above), before fourteen college rejection letters arrive in a student’s inbox on the same day. Because while the admissions game has become like some kind of stress-generating Rube Goldberg machine for kids, as parents and educators there is one big lesson kids can glean from the process: how to move forward when your hoped-for plans have not panned out. And these conversations need to be more involved than telling kids just to pick a safety school. More than that, we need to have different conversations about what success looks like, beyond wearing a sweatshirt with the seal of a brand-name college printed on it. Ask kids what they want their lives to look like, and how they think they can get there. And how else they think they can get there. And how else.

Because, nearly always, there is a how else.

We Regret to Inform You

We Regret to Inform You By Ariel Kaplan

Mischa Abramavicius is a walking, talking, top-scoring, perfectly well-rounded college application in human form. So when she’s rejected not only by the Ivies, but her loathsome safety school, she is shocked and devastated. All the sacrifices her mother made to send her to prep school, the late nights cramming for tests, the blatantly résumé-padding extracurriculars (read: Students for Sober Driving)… all that for nothing.

As Mischa grapples with the prospect of an increasingly uncertain future, she questions how this could have happened in the first place. Is it possible that her transcript was hacked? With the help of her best friend and sometimes crush, Nate, and a group of eccentric techies known as “The Ophelia Syndicate,” Mischa launches an investigation that will shake the quiet community of Blanchard Prep to its stately brick foundations.

Ariel Kaplan

Ariel Kaplan is the author of We Regret to Inform You, the story of a girl who’s left to figure out a new plan when all of her college applications are rejected. Ariel herself managed to survive the college admissions process twice in order to receive her BA from the College of William and Mary and her MLS from Florida State University. Nevertheless, she continues to have dreams where she did not graduate and must repeat school from the third grade on as an adult.

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