How to handle college rejections

This is the month when the majority of college decisions arrive home.  And while there will be a lot of happy squealing and celebrating by the mailbox, it can also be a disheartening time for students when a college for whom they were holding out hope doesn’t come through with an offer of admission.

I don’t want to minimize that disappointment.  Many kids today (I believe unfortunately so) predicate their hard work on goals to be admitted to particular, often very selective, colleges. For those kids, it’s an especially painful sting when those colleges say, “No.”

But like break-ups, bad hair cuts, and embarrassing moments, the pain associated with the rejection will eventually pass.  Here are a few tips to speed up the healing process a little.

1. Maintain your perspective.

You are allowed be disappointed by a rejection.  But (warning, a little tough love coming here), you are not allowed to treat the rejection like a tragedy.  This isn’t a tragedy; it’s a disappointment, and all successful people have their share of them.  It’s important to remember how lucky you are to be living in a country with the best system of higher education in the world.  Wherever you go, you will carve out a college experience that you’ll one day tell your kids about.  It’s still going to happen, and that’s something worth appreciating.

You should also know that while not everybody gets into their first choice colleges, statistics show that the vast majority of college students report that they are very happy where they are.  Seriously, can you blame them?  Have you ever been to a college party?

That statistic is a good thing.  It means that thousands and thousands of students who were right where you are today, students who felt the sting of a rejection from a college they loved, are reveling in their college lives now.  It will happen for you, too.

2. Try not to take the rejection personally.

College rejections often feel bitterly personal.  But a rejection does not necessarily mean that the admissions office didn’t love your essay or appreciate your activities or think you wouldn’t be a great addition to the campus.  A rejection often just means that there weren’t enough spaces to go around.  So don’t think that a rejection invalidates all of the work you’ve done.  It just means that you’ll be taking that work ethic with you to a different college.

3.  Move on.

Not getting into a college you loved is a little like going through a break-up.  Break-ups can be rough.  It’s almost impossible to imagine feeling the same way again about someone else.  But you always do eventually (have you ever met a 20 or 30 or 50 year-old who’s still devastated over a high school breakup?).  You just have to put yourself out there and find someone else.

A college rejection is a lot like that.  It hurts, but you’ll get over it faster if you let yourself move on. If you’ve been accepted to other colleges, you already have your suitors awaiting you.  It’s like getting dumped at noon and having six voicemails by 2 p.m. from desirable people who want to date you.  If only romance worked that way.

You won’t remember this rejection in a few months once you move into a dorm.  So you’re allowed a brief period of college-rejection mourning if necessary.  But as quickly as you can, move on.  Start to imagine yourself at one of the other
colleges.  The sooner you begin falling in love with a college that said, “Yes,” the sooner you’ll be excited about the next four years. And speaking of that…

4. Look six months down the road.  

One of the best ways to get over a college rejection is to look ahead six months from now.  This September, you will be moving into a dorm.  You’ll be meeting your new roommate while your parents exact a promise that you’ll call home on a regular basis.  You’ll be buying a sweatshirt bearing the name of your new college. You’ll go to your first college class, start making your initial college friends, and officially begin your life as a college freshman.  Do you have any idea just how exciting that’s going to be for you?

Six months from now, the college rejection that stings today will be a distant memory.  That’s why rejections don’t dash college dreams in the long run.  Once a student commits to a college who said “Yes,” the rejections and their associated pain will disappear.  I promise.

5.  And here’s a tip for the parents.

The most important advice I can give a parent whose son or daughter receives a disappointing rejection is to remember that your kids are looking to you to set the example of how to handle it.  I recognize that this is a lot of pressure on a parent, especially given that you can’t help but share the same disappointment your kids feel.  But as adults, we’ve had more experience handling life’s disappointments. Kids are relatively new to this and will inevitably follow a parent’s lead.

Tell your son or daughter your love and pride doesn’t change because a college said “No.”  Be excited about the schools who said, “Yes.”  And most importantly, show your kids what it means to just be thankful for health and family and the chance to attend a college at all. Your kids will follow your lead.

This is how it’s done

I admit it–I've got a collegiate crush on the College of Wooster.  I've written about them before and this probably won't be the last time.  But for now, I'll hold off on my praise for Wooster and instead praise a parent I've never actually met.

This is a video, presumably shot by a father, of his son Kyle's freshman orientation day at Wooster (parents are encouraged to attend this day at Wooster–and lots of them do so). Wooster tradition dictates that the Fighting Scot marching band leads the new freshman through the campus to their first convocation where they are reunited with their parents. 

My favorite part is at the 0:57 mark when the father yells, "Kyle!  Kyle!" from behind the video camera in a valiant attempt to get his son's attention. And Kyle does his best to ignore his father, just as any 18-year-old college freshman would be virtually bound by law to do in this situation.  

Parents of students who are going through the college application process can learn a lot from this video. 

No, you should not fill out applications for your student.  You should not write his essays, pick his colleges for him, or in any way hijack the process from your college applicant.  One of the most important steps a parent of a college applicant can take is to back off and recognize that this is your student's college process, not your own. 

But you retain the inalienable parental right, nay, the parental obligation to embarrass the bejeezus out of your kids with overt displays of pride and excitement over whichever college they choose to attend.  Don't hold back.  This is the time to let loose.

The College of Wooster is not what you would call a "name-brand" school.  But this parent obviously knows that how famous a college is should have no bearing on his level of excitement for his son.  He's out there with his video camera capturing every moment of his son's experience (and then posting them on YouTube!).  This is a father who's taking his responsibility to display parental pride seriously.

Kyle may act embarrassed now, but I bet he will later recall fondly how happy his father was to see him starting college. 

Parents, you've got a choice to make.  You can pin your excitement on the admission of a few selective colleges, crossing your fingers in belief that anything less than an Ivy League acceptance just won't be good enough for your son or daughter.

Or you can resolve to get the video camera out and flaunt your pride wherever your student ends up in college.  It might not be easy for some parents, but this dad shooting the video is showing you how it's done.

Advice from students who have been through it

Parents often lament to us that their kids won't listen to them about college.  I always remind those parents that in just a few years, your kids will realize just how right you were about almost everything. 

Until that time, kids might be more likely to listen to advice from seniors, as written about in The Choice Blog

Here's an excerpt:

On a general level, the seniors had these valuable words of wisdom to share with the younger students:

    * Remember that there is a school for everyone.
    * Start the process early.
    * Do not to stress about the SAT.
    * Put yourself in your application and essays.
    * Do not wait until Dec. 31 to file your applications.
    * Don’t waste high school just trying to get into college.

Lastly, it seemed that in retrospect, with the process either complete or winding down, the seniors advised the students in the audience to listen to — and be tolerant — of their parents.

Those seniors really seem to know what they're talking about.

What happens next?

A Collegewise father once called me and told me,

"Kevin, you won't believe this.  Lauren (his daughter) just called me and said, 'Dad, I'm graduating from college in two months.  So, what happens next?'"

He had a reply that would have made my own father proud.

"I told her, 'What happens next?  I'll tell you.  You go to work every day like ME!"

Students, wherever you end up in college, enjoy it.  Wring as much learning and fun from your time as you can.  You have a lot to look forward to in your life after college, but the experiences you have while you're there are likely a one shot deal.  So make the most of that time before you have to figure out what happens next.

Pronoun guidelines for parents

I received an email from a parent last week asking about how to find volunteer opportunities for her son.  Here’s an excerpt:

“I was thinking about volunteering him at a hospital or maybe at a local soup kitchen.”  

It’s coming from a good place.  But wherever that kid ends up, he won’t actually be “volunteering”; he’ll just be doing what his mother told him to do.  And no college admissions officer will be moved by a student
doing things that his mother organized for him.  Kids impress admissions officers by showing the initiative, skills and drive to locate and secure those opportunities on their own.

A parent can certainly help when a student asks for it.  Making suggestions or recommending steps he can take are completely within the rules.  But doing it for him is out of bounds in the college admissions world.

Marilee Jones coined the term “pronoun abuse” when it comes to parents inserting themselves in their kids’ college admissions process.  If you say things like, “I’m organizing,” or “We’re applying,” or “Our applications,” it’s likely that you’re doing things for your kids that any college-bound students can and should be doing on their own.  Stick with “He’s organizing,” and “He’s applying,” and “His applications.”

So parents, watch your pronouns. The more your student does for himself, the more successful he’ll be getting into college, and the more prepared he’ll be once he gets there.  Let your pronouns be your guide.

Treat rejections like break-ups

When someone breaks up with you, you have two options.

1.  You can enter an extended period of mourning.  You can blame yourself and say you weren't pretty enough or smart enough or fun enough.  You can wallow, shun other potential dates, and remain convinced that you'll never find love again.

2.  Or you can mourn–briefly–and move on, assured that there are plenty of good matches out there for you who will appreciate you for you who are. 

The second option is far, far better than the first.

A college rejection should be treated like a break-up except for one crucial difference; break-ups are personal, college decisions are not.  They might feel that way, but the fact that you were rejected does not necessarily mean that the admissions office didn't love your essay or appreciate your activities or think you wouldn't be a great addition to the campus.  Sometimes is just means that there weren't enough spaces to go around. 

Post-rejection dejection is normal.  But wallowing in a college rejection, telling yourself that you might have gotten in if your test scores were higher or if you took another AP class or if your essay were just a little stronger, that's like beating yourself up after a break-up.  It will only make you feel worse and delay your opportunity to find a better match.  

The best thing you can do is accept the rejection and move on to one of the colleges who was smart enough and lucky enough to offer you a spot.      

What’s your story?

I was meeting with a Collegewise family once when the student revealed that his now bald father had an afro back in college.

The dad held his hands six inches from his head and said, "It was out to here."  

As the student sat there giggling, I told the father how hard that was for me to imagine.  And he had the perfect reply with an exaggerated, relaxed college tone.

"Hey, it was the seventies, man." 

Every respectable adult I’ve ever met who’s been to college has a story to tell, a story from a time when they weren’t always so smart, perfect and grown up.  That’s part of college.  Kids get to make their mistakes and be who they are (afros and all) with impunity, knowing that as long as they manage to learn something in their classes along the way, they’re pretty much going to be OK.    

Parents, when you feel the stress of your kids' college process getting to you, think back to your college days and what you were like back then, how you spent your time, and what path you took to become the responsible adult that you are today.  I'm hoping if you do this, it will remind you that you have good kids who will enjoy the opportunity to create their own stories at whatever colleges are lucky enough to get them. 

Burgers and shakes for the parent’s soul

To really experience college, I think you need to pull at least one all-nighter.

I look back at my college life and marvel at the things I could do back then, like play intramural basketball at midnight, live on pasta and canned sauce, and stay up all night writing my six-page paper for “English 201: Modernism.”

I’d known about the modernism paper for weeks.  But two weeks became one week, and five days became one day, and the next thing I knew, my paper was due in nine hours.  It was time to get serious.

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone.  My roommate was an electrical engineering major and was facing a final exam at 8 o’clock the next morning.  By midnight, I was starting up my computer and he was cracking the books.

We were giving it the old college try in our tiny living room, not all that concerned about the impending academic deadlines, when he sounded an alarm at 1:45 a.m. that brought panic to us both.

“Dude, if we’re going to get to In-N-Out Burger before it closes, we need to leave RIGHT NOW!”

A six-page paper and a final exam in electrical engineering sparked no sense of urgency in us.  But the impending lights out at the local In-N-Out Burger made these two procrastinators spring right into action. 

I see the sun rise every day now, but it’s certainly not because I’ve stayed up all night.  Since I graduated college, my body has essentially switched time zones. 

Part of the college experience for kids means being a little irresponsible.  In fact, stories like this are the ones parents tend to share with us about their own college experiences.  I would never want kids to be unsafe, unhealthy or just plain reckless.  But, when a kid stays up all night to do a paper he’s known about for two weeks, it's not mature, but it is wonderfully collegiate.  I can't tell you one thing about that "English 201: Modernism" course today, but I remember that night fondly. 

When your kids get to college, they won’t be adults yet.  Experiences like the all-nighters are what will ultimately teach them the hard lessons about planning, preparation, and digging in to give something the old college try.  And they're probably the experiences they talk (and write) about 20 years later.     

Thoughts for parents about college costs

One of the difficult parts about researching colleges is that kids have to apply without parents knowing what it is actually going to cost.  You know the listed price (tuition, room and board, etc.), but you don't know how much financial aid you receive until you are actually admitted to the school.  So how can parents assign any kind of financial guidelines to the kids' college search?

If your kids are starting to talk about colleges and you're starting to worry about the costs, here are three basic guidelines to keep in mind.

1. Don’t necessarily eliminate a college based on the cost.

Every financial aid talk I've heard emphasizes how much money is actually available for college.  And the amount of aid you can receive isn't dependent only on how much money you have (or don't have).  The academic strength of the student, her match with the school, and the college's desire to have her on campus can also influence a financial aid award. So while I wouldn't recommend applying to a list of schools that are all out of your price range, don't necessarily limit your list to colleges you're sure you can pay for. 

2. Talk with your kids about the cost of college.

I don't think parents should feel obligated to hide the economic realities of college from their kids.  It won't hurt kids to know how much money is being invested in their education; a student who knows how much his parents are sacrificing to send him to college is more likely to get up for that 8 a.m. calculus class every day during his freshman year.  Don't forget that while parents may be paying the tuition, student loans are taken out in the student's name.  And it will be the student–not the parent–who takes that on-campus job as part of a work study financial aid award.  That’s why college financing is often a family decision whether you want it to be or not. 

3.  Consider picking a financial safety school.

Consider encouraging your student to apply to at least one school where you're sure the student
can get in, you're sure he'd want to attend, and you're sure
you could pay for it even if you got no financial aid.   

Life changers…

I've made a living doing public speaking almost since the day I graduated from college.  But I never knew I was any good at it until that one day in college when I ran for an office in my fraternity and we had to get up and give a speech.  I learned something about myself that day (I would also later learn that "Rush Chair" is a pretty thankless job in a fraternity, but that's not really the point). 

In “Making the Most of College,” a Harvard education professor interviewed more than 1600 undergraduates about what had been their deepest, most meaningful college experiences.  When he asked students to think of a specific experience that changed them profoundly, four-fifths of them chose something that happened outside of the classroom.

Yes, colleges are like academic supermarkets where you can study anything that interests you.  But don't forget about the opportunities for self-discovery that take place in college, too.  What you learn in your psychology class may not ultimately be as life-changing as that one day the professor told you that she saw great potential in your work.  The one internship you get over the summer, or the time you spend writing for the school paper, or the research you do with a professor, or the volunteer work you do at a local non-profit, your college experience will give you a lot of opportunities to discover your talents, likes, dislikes and potential life paths. 

At Collegewise, we tell our kids all the time that it's not where you go to college, it's what you do while you're there.  If you spend your college years putting yourself in the positions to have these kinds of self-discoveries, you'll find them.  I don't care where you go to school–the famous colleges do not dole out life-changing experiences with any more efficiency than the non-famous ones

That's an importing thing to keep in mind as you're searching for colleges.  Remember that the college rankings don't take these experiences into consideration.  The websites and literature and tour guides can't tell you what your discoveries will be.  But your chances to find them for yourself will be waiting for you wherever you go.

And if you're a senior who's starting to receive your college news, remember that if your dream school says "No," you'll still have these life-changing moments in college.  You'll just be doing it somewhere else.  It doesn't matter where you have them; lives change at lots of colleges.