Taking Charge of College Rejections
How to interpret college decisions with a resilient mindset
Posted Mar 25, 2019
Hovering over the laptop at the designated time, it all comes down to this. Many families of seniors have spent the last 12 years preparing for this one shining moment of truth: Where will your child go to college? Am I being hyperbolic, here? Perhaps, but after sitting with thousands of students over the years from elementary school aged kids to high schoolers who worry that the “B-” on their spelling test means they won’t go to college, and that every grade or activity "counts" for college, we all know that the specter of admission decisions hovers over kid’s minds long before senior year.
But what exactly is the truth contained in that moment? That no matter where your child is accepted, no matter where they attend, this moment does not determine their worth, nor does it define where they will go in their lives. Yes, of course advantages help, but they only help with some things and they only help so far, Harvard has its dropouts and community college has its superstars. A particular college may seem that it opens doors, but kids still have to walk through, and keep walking again and again. Wherever your child goes to school they will have access to the tools to live a more fulfilling, meaningful, and impactful life. Your child determines their own path. It’s not the college, it’s what they do with it. How they live their life, the opportunities they pursue, the connections they seek, the focus they cultivate in a distracted world, wherever they go to school, these are truly the factors that count the most. This is a truth that is best understand over time, but you can help them get a jumpstart on that vision now.
But back to the rejections….so while it may feel like the horizon of your child’s future has dropped out of sight when they get those “We are sorry to inform you,” emails, this is just your child’s brain on the sting of college admission rejection. The sting is temporary, it will pass. And everyone gets stung. College rejection letters are a statistical fact of life. Due to the jump in the number of applications submitted to colleges, especially to highly competitive colleges, and the fact that class size hasn’t budged, thousands and thousands of highly qualified students will be finding the “We are sorry to inform you” emails when they log on to college acceptance pages—but they are still the same promising, amazing students they were before they logged, as they are after, regardless of the outcome.
While nothing can take away that initial impact—you have to feel it to move on—where they go next, this is where your child has many choices. While it feels like with great precision these “nos” from colleges targets your child’s self-worth, and the result is shattering, this is just how it feels at first. How long that feeling lasts, how quickly your child rebounds, is up to them (and you can help!). It all comes down to the meaning of that rejection, the story they are telling themselves about the rejection. Is it a defining moment? Is it going to affect the rest of their lives? Not in the way you think now. Kids aren’t stocks, their value can’t plummet. Their values only accrete. In fact, it is very likely that in they will be building character just in the way that they process the news college decisions.
Here are many ideas to get you through those rough times and quickly reverse the damage of rejection shock while your child is finding the school that is right for them.
Advice for Parents:
Be brave! Don’t confuse your own disappointment on behalf of your child, with the facts. There is absolutely life on the other side of this moment, be a good role model for riding out the feelings and not confusing them with the facts. The more you can be clear that allowing themselves to feel the disappointment does not change or determine who they are, what they are capable of, or what they will do in their lives.
Empathize first Connect and support what your child is experiencing, reflect those feelings: this feels terrible right now, this feels like such a shock, this feels like such a judgment right now. I feel it too, I know how hard you worked for this. I know how much you wanted this. You worked hard, and that was important to do. You took a risk. I’m proud of you. Sometimes this is what happens, but taking risks is an important part of how you will be successful in life.
Reality-check second After your child knows that you are on his or her side and recognize the feelings, go for the facts: I know it’s hard to believe this right now, but you are going to be OK. You are still the strong, qualified student you were before you got this news. Many, many successful people did not go to their first-choice school, it’s not about the school, it’s about the match and what you do there. This won’t change your plan of what you do in your life, it just changes where that will happen. This doesn’t change you. You have everything that you had before this moment. In time, as you shift out of this plan, you will shift into another one, it’s going to feel better, give it time. This is the hard part right now.
Don’t blur the facts with the feelings Your child’s brain on rejection—and maybe yours too will make it seem like all is lost. What really changed? If your child is saying things like, “I’m worthless, I’m not smart after all,” etc., have them fact-check those thoughts. If they had to take a test on that at school, these are not the conclusions that make sense to draw from this one “no” from college.
See the strengths It is hard to watch your child suffer with disappointing news, but you are in a unique position to keep reality firmly at hand. Focus clearly on your child’s strengths, see that these are entirely independent of this rejection, and believe in his or her ability to apply those strengths wherever the path may lead. Don’t fall prey to the same negative thinking your child is experiencing. Be proud that your child went on a limb applying to schools. There’s always risk involved. Your child is learning how to take calculated risks. This is an important skill in life.
Know this is temporary Know that your child’s reaction to rejection (and yours) is like a wave, it comes, hits hard, but then it passes. Don’t be surprised if your child is over it sooner than you are there. Once your child has been accepted to a school that feels right, this rejection will be barely a footnote. They may even come to see how that school that they wanted so badly, was really not a good fit for them after all.
Follow your child’s lead We all react to stress differently. Some take a run, some blast loud music, some want to be with friends, some want to be alone. For the day or days following a rejection, your child may be off schedule while the disappointment is processed. If your child needs some R and R make room for it, and be flexible, while still keeping basic expectations for bedtime, homework steady.
Advice for Students:
Disappointment is temporary: It will get better How you are feeling when the rejection first hits is how anyone and everyone would feel. You are in good company. Right at this very moment, thousands and thousands of students are feeling the very same thing given that there are more rejections than acceptances to many colleges. It’s like getting into an ice cold swimming pool, it feels awful at first. But it doesn’t stay that way. We have the incredible ability to adapt and adjust. So be good to yourself, ask your parents to cook your favorite food, watch a movie. Though these things won’t turn off the hurt like a switch, they will help distract you and ease you into this transition. You’ll feel better the next morning, and the day after. It’s human nature. You can count on it. Trust that you’ll adjust.
Get up and go! don’t wait till you feel better—or feel motivated to go do something. Staying in a dark room with Netflix may be an escape for a while, but it won’t change your mood. We feel better when we are doing things. Text a friend to make sure you get out of the house. Get a change of scenery. Walk your dog. Lead with your feet, your mood will catch up.
You are not alone! It’s not personal Remember that although this feels very personal, this likely doesn’t have a lot to do with you. Chances are you did your job and you did it very well. Much of college admission is a numbers game, close to 20 million kids go to college each year, just as you will lose some, you will win some too. And you only need one to win. The vast majority of students who are rejected from a school would have been perfectly successful students at that school had there been room. There just isn’t enough room.
What was lost, what wasn’t? Success isn’t about place… it’s about you. Research shows that there’s little connection between where you go to college and success in the workplace. Success in college and job satisfaction overall are not about numbers and prestige, it’s about finding meaningful work and doing it well.
Control what you can You can’t control the admission process, but you can decide the meaning. Giving yourself credit for taking a chance, for stepping out of their comfort zone, working hard to do their applications, this value-in will be value-out even if it doesn’t look that way today.
Contain the spill Contain the meaning of this rejection. Though it feels like not getting into a particular college that you thought was surely for you means that you aren’t as good or smart or interesting as you thought, or that this will mean that you won’t have the future that you pictured for yourself, this is not the case. You are still you. Who you are and what you do with your life is entirely up to you. This is only one small data point which will soon become insignificant. The only thing that has changed is that you won’t be going to that school, everything else has stayed the same. You might not remember that now, but in time, and certainly when you are accepted at another school, you will bring all of your strengths, gifts, interests, and determination to that project. No part of you was lost in this process.
Successful people are flexible people: Use your growth mindset In the face of disappointment, resilient people keep it small, compartmentalize and don’t see the moment as a general statement about them as a person, but rather a specific event psychologist Carol Dweck has identified the mindset of the resilient. The most successful people are those who work their flexibility muscles when things don’t go as planned. There will be great opportunities ahead—and you’ll find them even if you can’t see that today. Getting used to managing disappointment will help you continue to challenge yourself in life.
With risk comes reward The truth is that the nature of the beast of growth and reaching for greater success is taking risks, there will be good parts, hard parts, but this is the process. You can’t apply to college without having some of each, and by deciding to apply to college, to take those risks, your child is already more prepared to be a fuller participant on life’s stage. It may not feel that way in this moment, but this experience will help prepare them to take other risks in the service of their growth.
How to share the news? Lead the way You may feel pressure about how to share this news with friends. You have a lot of choices here, including not talking about every school, or waiting until you have an acceptance to report before you share a rejection. You are not obligated to share all of your news. Remember, though too, friends will follow your lead. If you take this in stride and say, “This stinks, but if they didn’t take me, I probably wouldn’t have been happy there, “ or, “Yeah, I’m disappointed, but I knew it was a long shot,” kids will see that you are dealing with this, and they’ll be supportive. You might even try, if you dare, to use some humor (when you’re ready): “I can add to my resume that I was rejected from FOUR of the top schools in the country!”
Be happy for friends’ good news In the midst of your own disappointment it may be hard to hear good news from friends. Try to zoom out and see the positive. Of course you want to be happy for your friends as you would want them to be happy for you. See the big picture—happiness for people you care about is good news for you too. Rather than feeling outside of the process, congratulate your friends with an open heart—you’ll immediately feel better and on the inside of life.
College is a crossroads, a beginning. Eager to begin that journey, it’s hard to wait to see where that journey will happen. There are no right colleges or best colleges, there are only colleges that are best for your child. It’s time to trust in your child and that just as soon as your child has found the right place, these challenging days of highs and lows, of disappointments and triumphs, will quickly be absorbed into distant history, and they will begin writing the story of this exciting new chapter of their lives (and yours!). Faster than you’d like, it will be full speed ahead to college! Congratulations to all.
©2019 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want, and Freeing Your Child from Anxiety.
Know someone else who could use these ideas--Please share! Here's to less worry all around.