Hustlin’ case study: How to get into your dream organization — after getting rejected

Ramit Sethi

Note: This isn’t only about getting into college. You can use Failure Expectation to get a dream job or getting into almost any exclusive organization.

“Welcome to the Class of 2014!”

There is no feeling quite like getting admission into your dream college. No purchase, no vacation, no other achievement can rival it.

But it’s even more impressive when you’ve already been rejected…and you turn that rejection into admission the very next year. This is extraordinarily rare.

Today, a detailed case study about how a young man named Max Marmer turned rejection into admission — and how you can use these techniques yourself.

You’ll learn:

  • How Max got into Stanford after being rejected the year before…and how a blog post helped (including the actual note from the admissions officer)
  • How your automatic ego-protecting defenses prevent you from trying to overcome failure…and how to shortcut them
  • How to apply the Craigslist Penis Effect to be more remarkable than your competition

Come along as I show you how most people are so unaccustomed to failure that they’ll do almost anything to avoid it — and how, by understanding this, you can leapfrog virtually everyone on the way to your goals.

* * *

Examples of Failure Expectation

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I used “Failure Expectation” to get into Stanford in 2000.

Let’s look at 2 comments that “I Will Teach You To Be Rich” readers left of how they’ve managed failure instead of being afraid of it.

“I started a new job in summer 2009, and when the annual review rolled around, I decided to ask for more of a raise than the average 2-3%. I expected that my boss might say no because I was so new, and in the event that happened, I decided in advance that I was going to ask to be able to work from home one day a week (very valuable to me in terms of flexibility and even some cost-savings). I was also going to ask for approval for 100% tuition reimbursement toward a master’s degree in my field. I got a crappy raise, but I did get the other things I asked for. ” – Jessica

“Thanks for this post. I work in education (teacher) and I’ve always wanted to work in curriculum, but there isn’t a position open and I don’t know if there will be a position open in the near future. I was going to work hard at school and hopefully a position would open and I would apply for it – but now I think I will make proposals for the position to be opened and why it is so important to the school – as well as solving some problems (like you mentioned in another post) instead of focusing on the smaller stuff. And make plans for when my proposal gets rejected (it will) and try, try again. It’s better than sitting on my hands and hoping. Thanks.” – Teacher

The beauty of this idea is that you can use it to achieve anything great, like getting the job you’ve always wanted, getting into a top university school, or even networking with someone you have always wanted to meet.

The key piece is treating rejection as a normal step in the process. Expect it and then take action to keep the process  going forward instead of stalling out because you feel sorry for yourself.

There are a few things you can do to nudge things in your favor.

For example, in the post I pointed out that you have to be REALLY GOOD at what you do. If you want to get into a top college or job, you can’t just be average. Why would a very selective institution want you?  You have to do remarkable things… but if you’ve read about my Craigslist Penis Effect you know that being remarkable isn’t really that hard (at least compared to most horrible people).

Check out how Max Marmer used the Failure Expectation technique when he got rejected from Stanford to earn himself an acceptance letter a year later.

* * *

[Enter Max’s Story]

The summer before my senior year while at an internship in Silicon Valley I realized I couldn’t leave the Bay Area for college. Then I decided two things:

1) That Stanford was the best place for me.

2) That I was going to take a gap year before starting college.

I also realized that getting into Stanford was going to be very hard, and this plan gave me the opportunity to apply a second time if I didn’t get in the first time.

[Note From Ramit: Note how rejection was built right into this timeline so that it wouldn’t stop him from executing his plan]

Over the next few months I applied to 2 schools: Stanford (early admission) and Berkeley.

I got deferred from early admission from Stanford into the regular pool and then was rejected. I was accepted into Berkeley, but for the Spring semester not the fall.

[Note from Ramit: At this point he could have whined about how life was unfair, or rationalized his rejection(“I never really wanted to go there anyway…”) but he simply followed his Failure Expectation plan to manage and deal with failure.]

I wrote a blog post about getting rejected and my experience with college admissions. I accepted Berkley as a backup.

Then I took the gap year as I had planned and continued to pursue my entrepreneurial interests. I got accepted into a 30-person innovation camp in Berlin so I headed overseas for 6 weeks.

I had re-applied to Stanford again, early admission, while at the camp and got my acceptance letter the week I got back to the States. On the acceptance letter the admissions officer said that when my application was up for review in committee they found the blog post I wrote last year about being rejected and that it swayed the committee. I withdrew from Berkeley and never stepped on campus as an official student.

Click to see larger image

Here’s what the handwritten note from the committee says:

“As impressed as we were by your perseverance and accomplishments during your gap year, what really swayed the committee was your blog posting last April, you showed real maturity and resilience. Welcome to the class of 2014!”

* * *

Analysis: How can you use this to dominate?

Put yourself in the mind of the admissions officer. You reject someone. What do you expect them to do?

99.999%% of people will slink away, never to be heard from again.

A very small group of people will persevere and continue doing extraordinary things — and telling people about it — so they can achieve their goals.

Getting into Stanford isn’t even the point. When you have somebody like Max who continues doing interesting things, you know he will go on to achieve unusual results.

When I applied to over 65 scholarships for college, I didn’t plan on getting them all — I planned on losing most of them. And in fact, I did. Yet I won enough scholarships to cover over $100,000 of undergraduate and graduate school at Stanford.

You’ll notice that Max didn’t do anything truly amazing. He simply continued on doing the things that interested him…things that were off the beaten path, but fun to him. What you start to see is that anyone could do these things — but their own psychology holds them back. When rejected, they undergo rapid dissonance reduction (“I never wanted to go there anyway”) and they retreat to a predictable conservative path.

During times of ambiguity, we are extremely susceptible to social cues. This is why when you go to a fancy restaurant you’ve never been to, you look to the host to see how to behave. And this is why most people, upon their first serious failure, retreat into an even more conservative shell by taking a standard college approach.

This is an extremely subtle point.

Getting into Stanford is rare. Getting into Stanford after being rejected is remarkable. But having the psychological control and perspicacity to continue doing interesting things — even after being rejected — is truly extraordinary.

This case study is not about getting into Stanford. It’s about managing your own emotions and psychology to focus on your goal, even after being rejected point-blank. Your goals may change, but nothing — not failure, not your skeptical parents, not the lack of money — will stop you.

Only you can.

To get more specific techniques and case studies on hustling your way to success, sign up for my free newsletter.

Do you know your actual earning potential?

Get started with the Earning Potential quiz. Get a custom report based on your unique strengths, and discover how to start making extra money — in as little as an hour.

Start The Quiz

Takes 3 min


  1. Andrea

    Love this post. I dream of Stanford GSB as well as MIT Sloan. Thanks for giving me the guts to apply.

  2. paurullan

    This even applies to women: keep your life rocking, do not look back and plan another try sometime in the future.

    Thank you Ramit for this post and congratulations Max!

  3. Patrick

    this is amazing.

  4. Maxime

    Thanks for this post.
    When I first read the post about Failure Expectation, it seems like I didn’t need it in my life.
    These days, it is perfectly the time to remember me to expect failure.
    So I’ve decided to plan at least 5 failures before 2011 and then 5 every month.
    I’ve already plan my failures before finishing to read this post. I’m going to plan the next steps for every failure.
    This motivates me a lot.
    Keep going Ramit

  5. David Haddad

    Take off that red shirt! Go Bears! Congrats on getting into Stanford Max. Your process for incorporating rejection into your timeline would have helped me smooth out my med school admissions. Good luck.

  6. matt

    Good story, but when I read on his blog post that he expected the admissions committee to make the right decision to accept him and they made a mistake, I was shocked. First, it comes off as arrogant- even if you think you should get in, there’s no way to know what particular person the ad com needs that year- and second, I was surprised that the ad com would read that and then accept him.

  7. Brian Drolet

    Fantastic Post. Thanks!

  8. Kyle Pennell

    In most extreme sports, you expect to crash from time to time. In mountain biking, you actually learn how to crash gracefully, relax your body, keep your knees in line so you don’t tear any ligaments. If you run into a tree, roll with it, go with the momentum and you’ll be ok most of the time.

    By expecting to crash from time to time, not only do you get better at landing bigger and better things, but you don’t hurt so bad when you do crash. If you fear crashing, you get rigid and end up getting more hurt. Sad statement (could be urban legend): drunk drivers tend to get way less maimed that their victims because their bodies are relaxed on impact.

    You should watch this video if you want a case in point, these guys live for riding big and they occasionally pay the price for it, but the only way they get better is by getting back up and trying that jump or drop again. (most people aren’t willing to subject their bodies to this, but they won’t know the thrill of success either)

  9. Ryan Waggoner

    This post really hits home for me. I applied to 4 top business schools last year and got rejected at two, interviewed at one, and waitlisted at the last before finally being denied. It sucks, but I’ve had an amazing year since then and 2011 is already looking like it’ll be even better. I may apply again in a year or two, assuming I still want to go, and this blog post was a good reminder that rejection is a part of life for everyone; it’s all about how you deal with it.

  10. David

    CONFIDENCE and a belief in yourself are non negotiable for accomplishing anything. This is just another example. We do get very emotionally tied to decisions we make, particularly when we are young so this is fantastic to see someone figure it out sooner rather than later.

  11. Janet

    @paulrullan “This even applies to women.” Ummm, why wouldn’t it?

    Anyway, thanks Ramit for a great post. I wish I had read it a year ago when I was in a different place … competing for “dream jobs” while temporarily unemployed. What a boost it was to step into a well-deserved career for a company far better than the one I initially wanted to work for.

  12. paurullan

    @Janet You may have misread: I was not talking about women getting into college but flirting with women 😀

  13. marcie

    Yesterday, I started my day off at the dentist’s office. I was told the work I needed done was going to set me back $7,000. Yeah, OUCH! Then, I received an email with questions about a bill I’d submitted months ago . . . that still hadn’t been paid. I jumped to the blog as much to distract me from feeling like a failure as to see if there was anything new.

    I really reflected on the post because for me it was timely. I responded to the dentist that I needed to explore my options because I couldn’t afford $7,000, and I got a response back with a way to save 30%-40% on dental care in the Bay Area. A follow up email offered to email my xrays to save me even more cash. Then I tackled the billing questions without getting defensive. I was even able to see it as a sign of how far I’d come because I was running my own business and generating additional income. Today, I received and email that I’d have a check for $1,600 within 7-10 business days.

    Now, all I need to do is figure out a way to get Ramit to release his Blockbuster 4,355-word email sent on 9/27/10 (I just found out about this blog a few days ago) and I’ll be golden.

  14. Janet

    @paurullan Aaah, I see. Sorry for the confusion, and thanks for clarifying! Sometimes the feminist in me jumps to conclusions.

  15. Wendell

    “Your goals may change, but nothing — not failure, not your skeptical parents, not the lack of money — will stop you.”

    Nothing will stop you from what–Achieving your goal? If nothing can keep you from achieving your goal, why would your goal need to change? Ramit wouldn’t have posted this story if Max hadn’t achieved his original goal of getting into Stanford.

    Redefining success (changing goals) is just a psychological trick to get around the hard fact that you may not be able to get what you originally want. Changing your goal is not better on your psyche than saying “well I didn’t want that anyway.” If you get an outright rejection, pursuing another goal at least temporarily is the only option, other than giving up and having a pity party.

  16. Dave Doolin

    Max is cool. I met him a couple of years ago at a Startup Weekend. Also very cool you would feature his story here, Ramit.

    @paulrullan: =) That knife cuts both ways. A couple of women friends of mine want to find the right relationship…

  17. Zac Sullivan, M.A.

    I felt a strange sense of encouragement from this post and a calling back more to the determined self I used to be and am now becoming again. This time around should be even better.

    ~ Zac Sullivan ~

  18. Hilary Corna

    Max’s story is one that is truly inspiring. He should be proud of his accomplishment. His go for it attitude is something that I strongly identify with.

  19. Mike

    This sounds awesome will probably pick it up!

  20. Sunil from The Extra Money Blog

    perseverance . . . amazing. thank you for the reminder and reinforcement. there is ALWAYS a way when there is will

  21. Max Marmer » Blog Archive » My Stanford Story On

    […] Here’s an excerpt from the post. If you want to read the full post you can do so here: […]

  22. Estelle Bryers

    A True Story.
    I wanted to get a degree. There were many obstacles.
    I applied for a course, got the interview, was not accepted. One year later I apply again and am not interviewed. The year after I apply again and am not interviewed. The fourth year I apply again and am asked in for an interview. It goes like this…
    ” Have you applied for this course 4 years in a row ? ”
    ” Yes ”
    ” If we do not admit you this year, what will you do then ?”
    ” Apply again next year. ”
    ” Ok, you are on the course. ”
    So I impressed them with persistance.
    Good Luck everybody.

  23. Max Marmer » Blog Archive » Why I’m Stopping Out Of Stanford and Applying For The Thiel 20 Under 20 Fellowship

    […] marked with a big red X for years on my roadmap of life. The first time I applied I got rejected. I wanted it bad enough that I applied again a year later and got in. But by the time I arrived on the farm this fall the honeymoon was over. Stanford and I were no […]

  24. Gerald

    Long time, no comment, but by now it’s irked me enough.

    Posts like this are nice as the single stories they are, but there is nothing to learn from them except that sometimes perseverance pays – and that you need to go on doing things, preferably good, interesting, profitable ones, anyways.

    “Hustling” is not going to do it, and a magical “failure expectation” is not going to get you anywhere. If you can find me a single story of a person who was rejected from an academic position and got that same position after “expecting failure” and “hustling” their way in nonetheless at a similarly good institution, then I may believe something – but there would still be dozens other applicants who would not manage, even if they tried whatever – and they will probably be amazing enough (as far as academics ever are)…

  25. alhamdu

    its the stories of success have change my perception of failure. i have been challenged to work harder and look at disappointments a bit more differently.