College Rejection Letters -- How to Cope When They Arrive

Rejection letters hurt; but they can have positive consequences.

Posted Feb 19, 2010

Colleges across the country have now sent out their acceptance and rejection letters. Every year at this time I am struck by the meanings these letters have for high school seniors and their parents. Since I think understanding what any experience means helps us cope with that experience, I always ask clients to try to tell me what they can about the impact of both the acceptance and rejection letters as they come in. Parents and their offspring frequently have very different responses to the question.

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Last week, for example, a dad whose son had not been accepted early admissions to the university from which he (the father) had graduated said he just wanted to make sure that his child had the same opportunities in life that he had. His son, on the other hand, said he was sad about disappointing his father; but that he was not sure this was where he really belonged, anyway. A second father, who had been born outside of the US, was baffled by his wife and daughter's sense of desperation over this process. His daughter said that if she did not get into her first choice school she would be humiliated in front of all of her friends. And a couple whose daughter had been accepted early decision to her first choice spent their therapy session worrying that they had not guided her in the right direction, and that this was actually not the right school for her.

On a recent posting on the blog Cozy Chicks, mystery writer Jennifer Stanley speaks of yet another meaning: the feeling that we cannot give our children the tools they need in life. As a writer she is used to rejection, she says, but nothing prepared her for the pain of having her young son rejected by every private school to which they applied. For many parents, a child's failure to meet the requirements of a given school, whether nursery, high school, college or graduate school, are experienced as personal criticism. They interpret the rejection as meaning that their child was not considered "good enough" and that they, by extension, have not been successful parents.

In her blog, Stanley takes a different view. Although she says that she was initially more depressed than she had been in years, she adds "My outlook is much more positive today. I trust those educators knew what they were saying and I can only hope he gets the attention he needs at our local school." She then adds, "I plan to meet with them soon just to make sure of it."

Her reaction captures three crucial stages of dealing with rejection:

1) Accepting that rejection hurts. Rejection in the college application process is seldom a personal indictment, either of a youngster or of her family. As every high school college counselor and every college admissions officer reiterates thousands of times each fall, many schools are overwhelmed by the number of excellent students they must turn down (as an aside, in his book The Gatekeepers: Inside the College Admissions Process, NY Times staff reporter Jaques Steinberg makes the astonishing statement that this is only true for "about fifty American colleges that reject more students than they accept. The lion's share of the nation's two thousand four-year colleges take almost anyone who applies." The problem, according to Steinberg, is that "American teenagers flood those brand-name institutions with a disproportionate number of applications.") Yet it feels personal, and it hurts. The first thing to do is accept those feelings and understand that they are reasonable, even if they are not accurate.

2) Understanding meaning. What exactly is it that you expected to accomplish (or expected your child) to accomplish at this particular school? Did you think it was the only place where you (or she) could accomplish this goal? What did you think it would mean about you as a student (or a parent)? What would it reflect about your family? While a particular school may seem to hold the key to a golden future, there is never a single path to the person any child is going to become.

3) Changing direction. Disappointment can lead to creativity, personal strength and a growing capacity for problem-solving. After sitting with your unhappiness for awhile, and being sure to acknowledge that it is both understandable and reasonable to feel down about any rejection, ask yourself, "what next?" Make a plan. And then take action.

Examples of all three of these steps are easy to find. Ask friends and family for their stories, or check out the numerous blogs discussing this topic:College Confidential, the Daily Beast, NPR , Huffington Post, NYTimes Motherlode and Stanley's post on Cozy Chicks  are just a few of the places where you can read stories and get ideas about how other families are coping with this process.

Frank Bruni has a terrific book about this issue, called Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. He also has a Ted talk and a podcast about it. Here's what he says about the podcast and his book: 

I did this New York Times podcast on the college admissions mania just days after so many "elite" schools announced new acceptance-rate lows. And I stressed what should be obvious and what I dwell on in my book "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be," which is that a person's future is going to be infinitely more reflective of the way he or she spends the college years, no matter the college, than of the exclusiveness of the institution attended. I wish high school students and their parents would take a portion of the prodigious energy lavished on "getting in" and divert it to "making the most of," and I talk about that in this interview with The Times's Susan Lehman

I am very familiar with this process from my own experience. When I applied to college, I only had one wish. I wanted to go to the University of North Carolina, from which both my mother and uncle, the only two people in my family with college degrees, had graduated. At the insistence of a very smart teacher, I also applied to Duke, although I was horrified at the idea of attending the arch rival of my family's alma mater. I was a North Carolina resident, and the admissions process was much less demanding in those days, so I expected to get into Carolina easily. For reasons unknown to me even now I was rejected by Carolina but accepted with a full scholarship to Duke. I wish I could say that my original loyalty to UNC was the reason I never really settled in at Duke, but when I left after my sophomore year it was because of psychological growth, not school spirit. Although I had wanted to be like my mother, I now needed to develop an identity outside my family circle. Like many youngsters today, but few then, I took a year off (what is now called a Gap Year). I moved to New York City, found a job as an assistant teacher in a private nursery school, and in the second semester took a course at Columbia where I finally, and instantly, fell in love.

Not with a person, but with an institute of higher education. At Columbia, I felt at home. I graduated with honors; but even so, I was rejected by every graduate program to which I applied that year. I was depressed, but started looking for work and became a caregiver in a residential treatment center for children who could not be maintained in their homes. I loved the youngsters and the staff, and I discovered what I wanted to do professionally. A year later I was back at Columbia, this time in the School of Social Work, beginning the training that took me - through winding paths and many more rejections - to the place I am now.

I imagine that, had I been accepted by Carolina all those years ago, I might have found my way to a similar end point, just as I might if I had gotten into one of the graduate programs that rejected me. But I believe that these failures were crucial to my development into the person and the therapist I am now. I learned from these experiences that while rejection really does hurt, it can lead to intellectual, personal and emotional growth. I know that negative responses have many meanings; that they can take us to places we did not even know we wanted to go; and that they can unlock as many doors, in the end, as can getting exactly what we thought we wanted.

Let me know what you think -- and please share your own stories!


Recommended reading: 

Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania by Frank Bruni