The Great College Hoax

Coping with college rejection letters

Posted Apr 07, 2013

My office was filled with tears and virtual (and some real) hair-pulling this past week as not just high school seniors, but their parents struggled to cope with letters telling them that their dream of getting into a top tier college was not going to coming true. Let me say first that their grief was genuine.  Parents and children, they had for many years accepted the popular myth that getting into a top level university was the path – perhaps the only way – to achieving lifelong success and happiness.

But here’s the thing. After empathizing with their pain, I asked them a couple of important questions: First, I asked them to think of people they knew who were living a successful and happy life. Second, I asked them where those people had gone to college, and what their paths to success and happiness had been. And third, I asked how many of those people were recent college graduates?

 The answers were pretty amazing. Here are just a few examples:

  • Howard,*a successful businessman, had gone to an Ivy League college and was financially doing “pretty well.” But he was currently being divorced by his third wife and had no contact at all with several of his grown children.
  • Marci*, a stay-at-home mom, had also graduated from a top university, in her case, with honors.  She had gone on to graduate school where she had also done very well, and had been hired by a prestigious organization, only to have a life crisis after her second child was born. After several years of struggling with a painful depression, she left her job to be at home full-time; but she was still struggling with questions about what she should actually be doing with her life.
  • James* had gotten into a top tier school but had not received the financial aid he needed in order to attend. His parents had insisted that he would be happier in the long run if he did not leave college burdened by financial debt. As an adult, he thanked them almost daily for that decision. He was happily married, had children he loved, and was both financially and professionally successful and satisfied.
  • Trish graduated from an Ivy the year before and was still living with her parents and looking for a meaningful job. She told the parents who shared this story that if she had a chance to do things over, she would have taken a gap year before starting school. “I didn’t learn anything about real life,” she said, “either in the lead up to school or in the years that I was there. I had this idea that getting into my school was all I had to do – the rest would just come to me.” Trish was, they said, a very hard worker. It was just that she had only learned about one kind of hard work – not the kind that includes getting your boss’ coffee and otherwise being at the bottom of the work hierarchy.  

I actually could go on and on with this list.  Jackie Burrell adds these examples from college admissions expert Josh Bottomly:

  • over half of our U.S. Senators graduated from public universities.
  • 43 of the top 50 CEO’s in the world graduated from schools other than Ivies.
  • Condoleezza Rice graduated from the University of Denver.
  • Steven Spielberg was rejected from USC three times and graduated from Cal State Long Beach.
  • Tom Hanks attended Chabot Community College.

Bottomly then goes on to say, “Part of the genius of America is that you can make your destiny by what you do, not where you go to college."

In a lovely post on the Huffington Post Teen Marc Rinosa, a high school senior, writes:

…As a teenager, we are pushed and pushed and pushed to almost fit into a mold of success. No longer are we only concerned with crafting a successful social image; we are also concerned with an image of personal success in the eyes of others.

As teenagers, we have goals. We have goals to finally graduate high school and attend a good college. Sometimes, such as in my case, goals become expectations. We expect to get into the college of our choice. We expect to become successful. But success in itself is subjective. What success is to others may not be what success is to you...

I'm not going to graduate as the valedictorian or the salutatorian of my class. Heck, I'm not even graduating in the top 20 percent of my class. I won't be able to wear a gold sash during my graduation or be able to sit on stage. Sure, some people may think of that as not being successful. But to me, just being able to walk the stage, take that diploma, and leave as a high school graduate -- that is success to me.

Why does this myth tying personal success to college acceptance keep on going? And why do so many of us buy into it? It’s easy to place the blame on parents, or on educators; or even on kids themselves. But I think it’s sort of like the fantasy of getting married and living happily ever after – such fairy tales do not usually include any of the conflict, ugliness or discomfort that is part of real life. Parents generally want what’s best for their children; they just don’t always realize that managing disappointment and living with discomfort is actually good for human development. Kohut, the psychoanalyst who created the school of thought called Self Psychology, wrote about the importance of optimal disappointment – that is, disappointment and disillusionment that is manageable. This tolerable pain is optimal because it helps children build the ego strength, or the muscles, that will allow them to manage difficult situations throughout their lives.

Such pain happens naturally in life, so it’s important that parents not erroneously purposely create situations in which their children become sad or unhappy. And it’s important that it not be overwhelming – that’s why it’s called “optimal.”

When college rejection letters come in, parents can help by

  • Acknowledging the disappointment
  • Realistically (and privately) reviewing and reconsidering their own expectations and trying to separate their own wishes (e.g. that their child go to the school they went to, or the one they wanted to attend) from their child’s life
  • Reinforcing that there is more to their child than what appears on their college application
  • Helping the youngster recognize that they are by no means alone in having been rejected, no matter what their friends’ experience might be
  • Re-visit back up schools and consider other options and opportunities
  • Encourage their child to speak with other adults in their lives, in particular adults (and older adolescents) who did not get into their first choice colleges

It’s understandable that parents are trying to provide for a happy and meaningful life for their offspring; but buying into the myth of living happily ever after once you get into the so-called perfect college is not going to do it.

Some Helpful Readings:

Kohut, H. (1977). The restoration of the self. New York: International Universities Press.

6 Myths About College Admissions  

Coping with College Rejection: How Parents Can Help

Rejection: Some Colleges Do It Better Than Others

Forget Tuition: Just Applying to College Can Cost Thousands 

Why I Framed My NYU Rejection Letter  

*names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy

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