December 8, 2023

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

It turns out that Devlin’s letter was already running there, having long since become the pre-social media equivalent of viral. “New York Times they accused me of plagiarism. When they found out I was the original author and they unknowingly reprinted, they weren’t too happy. But my mum insists it was important to reprint the article because the issue was clearly still relevant.’

His afterlife continues today, as evidenced by the new video from Letters Live at the top of the post. In it actor Himesh Patel, known from serials like EastEnders, Station elevenand Avenue 5reads Devlin’s letter aloud, which reads:

After reviewing the many rejection letters I have received over the past few weeks, it is with great regret that I am unable to accept your rejection at this time.

This year, after applying to many colleges and universities, I received a particularly good crop of rejection letters. Unfortunately, the number of rejections I can accept is limited.

Each of my rejections was carefully and individually reviewed. Many factors were considered – institution size, student-faculty ratio, location, reputation, cost and social atmosphere.

I’m sure most of the colleges I’ve applied to are more than capable of rejecting me. I’m also sure there were some mistakes in deflecting some of these rejections. I can only hope they were few.

I am aware of the great disappointment that my decision may bring. In my deliberations, I was mindful of the time and effort it may have taken you to decide to reject me.

Keep in mind that I have occasionally had to reject even those rejection letters that would normally meet my traditionally high standards.

I appreciate that you have enough interest in me to decline my request. May I take this opportunity to wish you the best of luck in what I believe will be a successful academic year.


Best regards,
Paul Devlin
Applicant at large

However considerable the moxie (to use an all-American expression) young Devlin displayed in his letter, his reasoning does not seem to have swayed Harvard’s admissions department. It seems doubtful that it would prove more effective in the 1920s than in the 1980s, but it must remain a satisfying read for high school students disheartened by the pleading position the college application process forces them to take. It certainly does them good to remember that they too have the option of declaring acceptance or rejection of what is presented to them simply as a necessity, as a duty, as a given. And at least for Devlin, there was always the University of Michigan.

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based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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