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  • Writer's pictureDr. Thom

College Admissions Decision Season: How to help your teen respond to rejection



College admissions notifications go out this week. Here's how to help your college applicant.
Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Submitting that first college application is a milestone for many young people and their families. It’s another landmark when that first offer of admission arrives. During mid-December, a large number of colleges release their early decision/action notifications; we hear from many of our students on the responses they received from their early round of applications.


It can be an exciting and disappointing time as decisions roll in. Whereas most parents experienced college decisions exclusively by mail, receiving admissions decisions over email is quite different emotionally. The postal mail came once a day so if there wasn’t a correspondence from the college, you simply waited until the next day. Now, an admissions decision could come at any point, seemingly out of the blue. In some instances, the college will notify applicants in advance of a particular date and time that decisions will be released, which often creates a countdown effect: “2 days and 18 hours until I find out.”


Parenting a college applicant through these decision releases can be difficult, and it is hard to know how best to help. When you find yourself in the exact moment when your student receives a college admission rejection, here’s our best advice:


Fight the Urge to Fix


In the immediate wake of bad news, most young people are simply not in a place to think about “what’s next” just yet. Your first priority is to make sure that your son or daughter knows you love them and are proud of them, no matter what. A lot of time, we, as parents, jump to ways we can fix the problems our young people are facing, but this isn’t the right moment. Acknowledge the disappointment and just love on them.


Let the Colleges Own the Decision


Upon receiving the news that they were not admitted to a top choice college, many students will blame themselves and begin to second guess themselves. They will want to know what went wrong. “Was my essay not good enough? Should I have taken that extra AP class? I knew that B in sophomore year would be my undoing.” Keep in mind that in a recent survey, more that three quarters of students indicated that they believed that one single mistake in their college application would negatively impact their admissions chances, whereas the reality is that admissions decisions factor in dozens of variables and are rarely determined on one single factor.


In your own way, try and remind them that this was entirely the college's decision. Phrases we have found to be helpful are “That’s an unfortunate decision on [College name]’s part” or “They will be missing out.” The admissions decision involves the student, but it belongs to the college, and they alone get to live with the consequences when your student goes on to do amazing things elsewhere. 


Avoid Talk of an Appeal


While it is technically an option for students to appeal an admissions decision, please know that such appeals rarely result in a changed decision. An admissions appeal only results in a change due to an error in documentation in the applicant’s file, which is very rare. Discussing and encouraging appeals in the aftermath of receiving the decision creates false-hope for the student and delays their ability to move on.


Focus on the Colleges That Said Yes


A first principle in our work with students is to love the places that love you. When those applications are submitted, they go out as a big question. Essentially the applicant is saying, “This is me, this is what I want to do, what do you think?” The college therefore gets to answer that question. Some are going to say “no thanks,” but some are going to say “Hell yes!” We teach our students to focus exclusively on the latter. This isn’t giving up, or settling. This is teaching our young people to have high standards with how they wish to be treated and to not lower themselves in order to fit in with groups and organizations who do not understand their worth.


So when that “no” decision shows up, we focus on all the “yes” decisions that have or will come their way.  


Happiness is Measured Backwards


While it is certainly important to look forward to things that have yet to happen, we don’t measure happiness that way. It is not possible to "look forward" to happiness, though we often spend a lot of time trying. We convince ourselves that “I will be happy when . . .” and look forward to some hoped-for future events like finding that special someone, getting that promotion, owning a house, and for young people, getting admitted to that “dream” school. (Did we mention that we don’t like the term “dream” school?) The problem with this is that even if these conditions are realized, we simply pick the next future event that will make us happy. Not to mention that sometimes you do not achieve those future conditions, including being admitted to that “dream” school.


The reality is that true happiness, what some might describe as fulfillment, can only be measured by looking back at how far you have come, not in some future idealized state. We can help our young people most by focusing on how hard they have worked, and how many challenges they have already overcome. They have dealt with disappointment before, and they are capable, strong, and wonderful. 


Even though this milestone didn’t turn out the way they had hoped, they have already passed many, more meaningful milestones. 


Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process?  Let's chat.

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