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, who is 17, is a senior in high school in Dallas. He was one of the millions of kids who refresh their inboxes every spring in anticipation of a fateful letter from college admissions officers. It’s usually a moment of private drama for students, their families and friends, but Chae planned to share his with the world by filming his reaction to the decisions from the five colleges he’d applied to attend. Then he would post the recordings to 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.
“Okay, so, rejected from Stanford,” he said finally. “Um, that was expected. Yeah. Okay.”
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 this week — branded themselves as relatable college students, albeit ones with millions of followers and dorm rooms paid for by Amazon.
Reaction videos from non-celebrities, 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 said in an email to The Washington Post. 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 says. “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 the 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, which was agape, and looked directly at the camera with an expression of pure joy.
His video has more than 300,000 views.
Every year, dozens of students post videos like Chae’s to YouTube. 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 frame, whistling with his fingers in celebration as his daughter opens a letter announcing her acceptance to Georgetown. In another, a student who says he’s a legacy at Cornell is so excited about his acceptance there 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. A disturbingly world-weary 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 checks his application there. As he finds out he’s rejected, he removes the sweatshirt.
The authenticity of the college reaction genre is, like anything viral, primed for possible exploitation. A series of reaction videos from T.M. Landry, a prep school in Louisiana, attracted millions of views from those who were inspired by the nearly identical footage of students sitting at a laptop, surrounded by their classmates, finding out that they’d been accepted to some of the top schools in the nation. But the school is now the subject of a Louisiana state police investigation, after the New York Times reported allegations that the school helped students win acceptance to those colleges with “falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments” and other misdeeds that “mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity.” (The school released an internal investigation days ago disputing some portion of the Times’s reporting).
But most reaction videos appear to be amateur productions without any shady underpinnings. For Nina Wang, an 18-year-old 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, so so so many people have watched her video, which has hundreds of thousands of views.
That puts her in the same category of quasi-celebrity as Justin Chae. He’s off to Princeton (although, he told The Post, he hasn’t yet officially accepted the offer of admission) and thousands of strangers know it.
Chae wants to keep making videos documenting his college life. He’s already mastered the art of the follow-up: “SURPRISING MY MOM WITH MY ACCEPTANCE TO PRINCETON,” a video showing Chae springing the news on his mom at her workplace, already has more than 100,000 views.