A Student Writes a Rejection Letter Rejecting Harvard’s Rejection Letter (1981): Hear It Read by Actor Himesh Patel

The doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er and sports edi­tor Paul Devlin has won five Emmy awards, but he may well be bet­ter known for not get­ting into Har­vard — or rather, for not get­ting into Har­vard, then reject­ing Har­vard’s rejec­tion. “I noticed that the rejec­tion let­ter I received from Har­vard had a gram­mat­i­cal error,” Devlin writes. “So, I wrote a let­ter back, reject­ing their rejec­tion let­ter.” His moth­er then “sent a copy of this let­ter to the New York Times and it was pub­lished in the New Jer­sey sec­tion on May 31, 1981.” In 1996, when the New York Times Mag­a­zine pub­lished a cov­er sto­ry “about the trau­ma stu­dents were expe­ri­enc­ing get­ting reject­ed from col­leges,” she seized the oppor­tu­ni­ty to send her son’s rejec­tion-rejec­tion let­ter to the Paper of Record.

It turned out that Devlin’s let­ter had already run there, hav­ing long since gone the pre-social-media equiv­a­lent of viral. “The New York Times accused me of pla­gia­rism. When they dis­cov­ered that I was the orig­i­nal author and they had unwit­ting­ly re-print­ed them­selves, they were none too hap­py. But my mom insists that it was impor­tant to reprint the arti­cle because the issue was clear­ly still rel­e­vant.”

Indeed, its after­life con­tin­ues even today, as evi­denced by the new video from Let­ters Live at the top of the post. In it actor Himesh Patel, well-known from series like Eas­t­En­ders, Sta­tion Eleven, and Avenue 5, reads aloud Devlin’s let­ter, which runs as fol­lows:

Hav­ing reviewed the many rejec­tion let­ters I have received in the last few weeks, it is with great regret that I must inform you I am unable to accept your rejec­tion at this time.

This year, after apply­ing to a great many col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, I received an espe­cial­ly fine crop of rejec­tion let­ters. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the num­ber of rejec­tions that I can accept is lim­it­ed.

Each of my rejec­tions was reviewed care­ful­ly and on an indi­vid­ual basis. Many fac­tors were tak­en into account – the size of the insti­tu­tion, stu­dent-fac­ul­ty ratio, loca­tion, rep­u­ta­tion, costs and social atmos­phere.

I am cer­tain that most col­leges I applied to are more than qual­i­fied to reject me. I am also sure that some mis­takes were made in turn­ing away some of these rejec­tions. I can only hope they were few in num­ber.

I am aware of the keen dis­ap­point­ment my deci­sion may bring. Through­out my delib­er­a­tions, I have kept in mind the time and effort it may have tak­en for you to reach your deci­sion to reject me.

Keep in mind that at times it was nec­es­sary for me to reject even those let­ters of rejec­tion that would nor­mal­ly have met my tra­di­tion­al­ly high stan­dards.

I appre­ci­ate your hav­ing enough inter­est in me to reject my appli­ca­tion. Let me take the oppor­tu­ni­ty to wish you well in what I am sure will be a suc­cess­ful aca­d­e­m­ic year.


Paul Devlin
Appli­cant at Large

How­ev­er con­sid­er­able the mox­ie (to use a whol­ly Amer­i­can term) shown by the young Devlin in his let­ter, his rea­son­ing seems not to have swayed Har­vard’s admis­sions depart­ment. Whether it would prove any more effec­tive in the twen­ty-twen­ties than it did in the nine­teen-eight­ies seems doubt­ful, but it must remain a sat­is­fy­ing read for high-school stu­dents dispir­it­ed by the sup­pli­cat­ing pos­ture the col­lege-appli­ca­tion process all but forces them to take. It sure­ly does them good to remem­ber that they, too, pos­sess the agency to declare accep­tance or rejec­tion of that which is pre­sent­ed to them sim­ply as neces­si­ty, as oblig­a­tion, as a giv­en. And for Devlin, at least, there was always the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Read Rejec­tion Let­ters Sent to Three Famous Artists: Sylvia Plath, Kurt Von­negut & Andy Warhol

T. S. Eliot, as Faber & Faber Edi­tor, Rejects George Orwell’s “Trot­skyite” Nov­el Ani­mal Farm (1944)

Gertrude Stein Gets a Snarky Rejec­tion Let­ter from Pub­lish­er (1912)

Meet the “Gram­mar Vig­i­lante,” Hell-Bent on Fix­ing Gram­mat­i­cal Mis­takes on England’s Store­front Signs

Steven Pinker Iden­ti­fies 10 Break­able Gram­mat­i­cal Rules: “Who” Vs. “Whom,” Dan­gling Mod­i­fiers & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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