• Dr. Erin Avery

Handling College Rejection Letters (or It’s Not the End of the World)

Denials are inevitable in an atmosphere of  increasingly selective admissions. Harvard University recently selected only 5.4% of its applicants, and Stanford University only 4.8%. Suffice it to say, for the most competitive schools, there are far more rejection letters than acceptances. Nevertheless rejection letters are a bitter pill to swallow, especially for top students accustomed to ongoing accolades and affirmations by their teachers and peers.

College admissions is perhaps the first time that you dip your toe into the experiences of adulthood and realize that not everything goes your way all the time. Life is about stumbling blocks, being flexible, and not attaching to any specific outcome. Life is about understanding that there are multiple paths to achieving your goals, and if one of them closes, you just open another. The most important attribute one can have to achieve success is persistence and the ability to overcome setbacks.

First, it helps to peel back the emotions and understand why rejection letters are emotionally difficult to handle. Students are hurt by rejection letters not only because of their own emotions, but because of their perception of how those around them will view the rejection. Students can feel overwhelming pressure from their classmates, especially as others come in with new bragging rights about what schools they were admitted to. Students may also feel that they somehow disappointed their parents. It’s all petty nonsense!

Advice in these kinds of situations always sounds so cliché, but it’s the truth: Don’t take any rejection personally. The college admissions process is an imperfect process at best and most of the variables beyond your control. A rejection letter is NOT the equivalent of “failure,” and it’s not by a long-shot. Colleges act in their own self-interest. And being fair to you is not on their list. They are committed to fulfilling their institutional priorities by accepting students who are often underrepresented. They want a diverse entering class — students from different ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, and even geography. If you are a caucasian male from an upper middle class background in suburban New Jersey with good grades, good SAT scores, and impressive extracurriculars, guess what? You are not alone. There’s a whole bunch of students just like you vying for those limited slots. Unfortunately, if you are a classic “over-represented” student, you are stuck with your demographics like a bad tattoo.

With college admissions, all you can do is put your best food forward. If you “left it all on the field,” be proud of yourself for giving it your best. You will have many successes in your life. It simply isn’t realistic to expect that there will be no setbacks as well. Also, understand the big picture. In the totality of your life, where you go to school is just one chapter in your life’s journey. More important, it’s up to you to make your college experience the best no matter where you wind up. It may seem that your “dream” college meant everything. In truth, it’s just a blip on the radar screen. You’ll have have your career that will span decades, your future family, and plenty of opportunities to find your niche and make the world a better place. Thousands of students who were rejected from Stanford or the Ivys went on to do great things with their lives — and you will too!

You are not the only one who received a rejection letter from your so-called “dream” school. There are lots of other students in the same boat. Reach out to friends. Commiserate together and then move on together. You’ll all appreciate the support. Don’t get caught up with the prestige factor. It’s important to recognize that a brand name doesn’t equal success or, more importantly, doesn’t equal happiness. Your performance during your undergraduate experience will be the biggest factor that determines your job placement opportunities, not where you went to school.

Obsessing about rejections is the ultimate in wasted energy. Instead, channel it constructively. Use your time and energy to identify other schools that you will like as much or even more. Sometimes rejections will send a student to a different school, down a different path, and open up unexpected opportunities. Some students thought they want a big school, and realize they’ll have more opportunity to shine at a smaller school. Be positive about other institutions and celebrate your acceptances!

Handling a college rejection constructively will give you a small taste of how to deal with future obstacles, and believe me, as an adult, obstacles will be coming at you fast and furious! College rejection happens to everyone. You decide how these rejections will affect you. Don’t blow it out of proportion. Instead, use these rejections as an opportunity to show your strength in rebounding from adversity. YOU control your own happiness — not Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Tell whatever college that sent you a rejection letter to go take a hike! You don’t need them. Instead, make a new and better path for your success.

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