Handling Rejection: A Necessary Part of the College Application Process

Today we welcome a guest blogger -- Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. -- who has some excellent advice for both students and parents about how to handle the rejection that can be a part of the college application process at this time of year. Take advantage of her common sense and helpful sound bites as the news -- good and bad -- arrives in the coming days:

When it comes to applying to college, we’d all (students and parents alike) love to fast-forward to the glorious ending.  That “start spreading the news” moment, when we buy the t-shirts and bumper stickers of our child’s newfound alma mater, tell our friends, our enemies, our neighbors, and any stranger in the supermarket line who, willing or not, is going to hear all about it. But that is getting ahead of the story. Handling the good parts, kids and parents need no help with. It’s natural. You celebrate, you revel, you do massive recycling of all the other college catalogs and paraphernalia. Your decision is made; you are done.

In contrast, the inevitable moments of rejection feel wholly unnatural, and at times even unbearable. Students and parents alike can feel unprepared for what, statistically speaking, is a given. Due to the jump in the number of applications submitted to colleges, especially to elite highly competitive colleges, and the fact that class size hasn’t budged, thousands and thousands of highly qualified students will be receiving thin envelopes in the mail or finding the “We are sorry to inform you” emails when they log on to college acceptance pages.

It is best to think about applying to college as a process. And, as with any process (dating, writing a research paper, downloading music on a new computer), there are good parts, perhaps great parts, but along with these there are frustrating parts and, yes, painful parts, even very painful parts. You can’t apply to college without having some of each. It’s the nature of the beast.

But it is essential to remember that this rejection will not, I repeat not, (and it would be helpful if you and your child could repeat this too) determine what happens in the rest of your life. Nothing out there determines your life path, only you determine that. Your path is still up to you. How you live your life, what you do when you’re in college, the choices you make, the opportunities you pursue, wherever you are, these are the factors that count.

Rejection is like a sting. You can’t help that you got stung, and almost nothing can take away that initial impact, but where you go next, this is where you have choices.

Here are some guidelines to get you through those rough times until your child is settled into the right school for them.

Advice for Parents:

Empathize first: Connect and support what your child is experiencing, reflect those feelings: this feels awful, this feels like such a shock, this feels like such a judgment. 

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 but you are going to be fine. 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.

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:

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.

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, 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.

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.

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 three of the top schools in the country!”

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. So trust that just as soon as your child has found the right place for him or her, these difficult days of disappointment will disappear and along with the proud displaying of bumper stickers and t-shirts, maybe even faster than you’d like, it will be full speed ahead to college.

Tamar Chansky is a psychologist and author of several books on anxiety including, Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want, and Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. She is the Founder and Director of the Children's and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety in Plymouth Meeting, PA. Follow her on twitter: @freeingyourmind.

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