College applicants' react to acceptances, rejections

High school senior Justin Chae reacts as he reads the decision by Princeton University to accept him into its Class of 2023. Chae was accepted into two colleges and rejected by four — and he posted all of his reactions in a YouTube video.

Justin Chae/YouTube

Justin Chae woke up from a nap 10 minutes after Stanford University let early-action applicants for the freshman class of 2023 know whether they’d been admitted. With his camera perched next to him, Chae opened up his laptop.

“You know what they say,” Chae said to the camera. “Hope for the best, expect the worst. So, let’s see how this goes.”

It was December. Chae, 17, is high school senior in Dallas.

He was one of the millions of kids who refresh their inboxes in anticipation of a fateful letter from college admission officers.

It’s usually a moment of private drama for students and their families and friends, but Chae planned to share his moment with the world by filming his reaction to the decisions from the six colleges he’d applied to. Then he would post the recordings on YouTube.

Stanford was the first. Still sitting on his bed, Chae clicked the “status update” on his Stanford account. A letter popped up on the screen. For a second, Chae said nothing.

“OK, so, rejected from Stanford,” he said finally. “Um, that was expected. Yeah. OK.”

He would have to wait until March to hear from the others. When it was all over, he would edit the videos together and post all of his reactions as a kind of highlight reel — or maybe lowlight reel — depending on how it all turned out.

Social media is filled with content that celebrates (and sells) the college experience, from dorm room tours to “day in the life” videos to productivity tips.

Rich influencers like Olivia Jade Giannulli — whose famous parents, actress Lori Loughlin and designer Mossimo Giannulli, pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from a college admissions bribery scam — have branded themselves as relatable college students, albeit ones with millions of followers and dorm rooms paid for by Amazon.

Reaction videos from noncelebrities, like Chae, offer a different kind of relatability.

Some of the viewers are high school juniors and sophomores who are beginning the long process of applying to college themselves. For that audience, the videos aren’t just good content, they’re glimpses into the future — not the heightened version of their dreams and nightmares but vérité depictions of acceptance and rejection as it happens.

That’s how it was for Chae, who watched a few reaction videos before he started applying to colleges. “It’s almost infectious seeing people freak out when they get accepted and you can’t help but smile and be happy for them,” he wrote in an email.

But the rejections were valuable, too. They helped motivate him to submit long-shot applications to some of the top schools in the country, Chae said. “I realized that even if I also got rejected, it wouldn’t be the end of the world and I would end up in the right place in the end.”

He had to live with the Stanford rejection all winter. Finally, an email came from the University of Texas at Austin. Chae pointed his camera at his laptop and clicked on the link. The glare from the screen makes it hard to see the text, but his whoop makes it clear. “Let’s go!” he says, grinning and pumping his fist.

Then University of Southern California posted a rejection. The Ivy League schools were next. Yale? Rejected. Columbia? Rejected. Finally, he clicked a link from Princeton that left him speechless.

“CONGRATULATIONS!” it began. Chae held his hand to his mouth, agape, and looked directly at the camera with an expression of pure joy. His video currently has more than 380,000 views.

Every year, dozens of students post YouTube videos like Chae’s.

In one, a high school senior sits at her computer screen openly weeping as she is rejected on Ivy Day from Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Brown. The only college left is her top choice, the University of Pennsylvania. “I’m freaking out,” she says, as her family around her comforts her.

She clicks. She screams. She got in.

That video, from 2018, has more than 1 million views.

In another video, a dad pops into the frame, whistling with his fingers in celebration as his daughter opens a letter announcing her Georgetown acceptance.

In another, a student is so excited about his acceptance that he brings his camera outside to film himself doing a front flip into a swimming pool.

Not all popular college reaction videos end with a dream coming true.

One high school senior filmed himself opening up all his college decisions at once. The first is Amherst. He looks at the screen, smiles and claps once. “Fantastic,” he says. “So I got rejected from Amherst. Next college. Next college!” The rest of the video is much the same as the student casually leafs from one rejection to the next. (He does get into Carleton College and the University of California at Los Angeles.)

Another video shows a student wearing a Northwestern sweatshirt. As he finds out he’s rejected, he removes the sweatshirt.

For Nina Wang, a senior from Massachusetts, the decision to document the big moment almost made itself. “I decided to film my own,” she wrote in an email, “simply because I watched so many others (like, so so so many).”

Now, many people have watched her video, which has hundreds of thousands of views.

That puts her in the same category of quasi-celebrity as Chae. He’s off to Princeton and thousands of strangers know it (although, he says, he hasn’t yet officially accepted the offer of admission).

Chae wants to keep making videos documenting his college life.

He’s already mastered the art of the follow-up: His video, “Surprising my mom with my acceptance to Princeton,” in which he springs the news on his mom at her workplace, already has more than 150,000 views.