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Rejection Sensitivity

Helping Your Child Deal With College Rejection & Acceptance

A surprisingly important step toward adulthood.

Part 1 of a two-part post.

Allan* was distressed because his daughter Lainey, a top student at a competitive high school, didn’t get into her first or second choice college. “What’s the matter with those admissions people?” he wondered. “This kid has all of the qualifications they could ask for!” He was also worried about how she was going to manage telling her friends, and how she was going to do at her third choice school, which had accepted her.

Missy* was worried because her son, who had been accepted to two excellent schools, could not decide which one he should go to. “I don’t know how to help him decide,” she said. “Which one would be the best one for him?”

Trish’s* daughter was an average student. “She didn’t even apply to those top schools. But will she get a good enough education?”

Jack* said, “My son has gotten into the best possible university. We’ve supported him and given him everything we could. Now he’s on his own.”

Ellen was worried that her son would not be able to manage college. “I just don’t think he’s mature enough yet. But maybe I’m being a helicopter parent. I don’t know what to do.”

Over the years, I have worked with many parents struggling with these and other questions about their child’s college applications, acceptances, and rejections. And I have come to believe that underneath their concerns is another set of questions, which are even harder to answer than whether or not their child is going to the right college. Those questions break down into three parts:

  1. Is my child prepared to leave home and manage in the world without me?
  2. Which college will be the best at helping my child make the move into the outside world?
  3. How am I going to cope with letting my child go?

Although few of us realize it, most of parents focus on the answer to the second of these questions, “Which college will be best for my child?” as a way of trying to answer the first and last questions, “Is my child ready to leave home?” and “How will I deal with it?”

One of the reasons that college acceptance and rejection takes on such significance is that we are looking for concrete assurance that this next move, the transition from high school to college, will go well and will lead to a happy, successful adulthood. And where our children will go to college has come to represent that concrete assurance.

In other words, if you are worried that your child has not gotten into the “right” school, chances are that you are thinking that the “right” school will be a place that will set her or him on the “right” path for future success. But if that thought has passed through your mind in any way, ask yourself what you actually mean by it? What do you hope that college will provide for your child?

Perhaps you are hoping that the college your child goes to will provide the status needed for future job success. Or maybe you believe that it will offer an opportunity to meet future colleagues and establish networking relationships. Maybe you think that this particular university will fit your child’s learning style, or will help her expand her horizons, or conversely that it will be a place where his acting out will be curtailed in a way you haven’t been able to do. Or possibly you think your lonely child will finally find some soulmates.

No matter what you are hoping for, it is important to remember that high school seniors are still developing. This means that, despite their arguments to the contrary, they are not yet adults. They still need your guidance – not in the ways that they did when they were younger, but often in new and more subtle forms. And one way to offer that guidance is to model a different kind of reaction to their college choices.

What is that different kind of reaction?

Simply put, it involves recognizing that college acceptance and rejection is just one more step in a long developmental process from childhood to adulthood. According to some researchers, the core developmental issue of the college years involves the establishment of identity, which is key to successfully managing the developmental issues that arise in early adulthood. Managing disappointment, as when your child does not get into the schools of his choice, or excitement and pleasure, as when he does, are both part of the developmental process.

How you model dealing with either of those experiences will do far more for your child’s development than where he ultimately goes to college! If you act like it’s the greatest tragedy or the greatest success in the world, you are modeling a version of life that is neither helpful nor valid.

As Frank Bruni puts it in his thought-provoking book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, “the admissions game is too flawed and too rigged to be given so much credit.” And then he adds a second, even more crucial insight. He says, “…the nature of a student’s college experience—the work that he or she puts into it, the skills that he or she picks up, the self-examination that’s undertaken, the resourcefulness that’s honed—matters more than the name of the institution attended.”

According to a group of researchers who studied how we deal with transition, how we deal with changes in routine, relationships, and setting can affect our sense of who we are. And how we perceive ourselves is, of course, crucial to the development of a positively colored identity.

The support of parents in the transition from high school to college is extremely important to the developmental process. You might think it sounds paradoxical, but an appropriate amount of parental support is one of the things that will help your child to develop into an independent adult. Modeling a healthy response to disappointment when your child does not get into the college of her choice and healthy excitement (which includes genuine empathy for friends who were not so lucky) when she does is one of the important ways that you can provide appropriate support at this stage of the transition process.

* Names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy

Copyright @fdbarth 2017

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Schlossberg, N. (2008). Overwhelmed: Coping with life’s ups and downs (2nd ed). Lanham, MD: M. Evans.

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college (2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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