College Rejection: How to Take the Sting Out of Bad News

Rejection stings. And a rejection from a college your teen loved and hoped to attend, stings badly. College counselors, parents and peers will all try to tell them not to take it personally. They will say the university admissions office gets more applications than they can possibly accept and many well qualified candidates are rejected. But there will still be anguish. College rejection always feels personal, deeply personal.

We asked a few experts for their advice on ways to move past this let down. Here are a few things to consider.

12 things to do when your teen gets a college rejection letter

teen girl sitting on a rick
How parents can help if their teens get rejected from college.

1. Feel the pain.

Experts suggest that teens (and we would add their parents) take a little time to feel sad. We have all been disappointed before. We know that there is a sharp stinging pain that usually, with time, begins to fade.

Allow yourself to feel that pain for a short period of time, to mourn something your teen wanted (and in turn you wanted for them) and will not have, and then get ready to move on to something, perhaps even better.

2. Try to come to grips with how much of this is about you, the parent.

The excruciating truth is that we often take our teens’ disappointments harder than they do. We have dreams for their lives even as they live in the here and now. Life is about to take your teen on a different path than the one you might have envisioned. Yet, we have all lived long enough to know that it might just be a better one. This is our teen’s college choice, not ours, and we need to keep this top of mind. 

3. When the college rejection letter arrives it is easy to second guess decisions you or your teen made.

Do not beat yourself up. Good parents want the best for their teens. It is not time to change that formula but time to recognize that when it comes to college, it is impossible to know what is “the best.”

The best is a college at which our teen can thrive, find their intellectual home, make friends for life and explore opportunities. There is not a single school where this can take place, but rather many.

The sooner a parent moves on, the sooner their teen will be able to as well. Yes, this is easier said than done, sometimes. But how a teen views the college they attend next fall may have everything to do with how their parents embraced the colleges that accepted them.

4. Know you’re in good company.

Despite the fact that it will feel like a cliché, discourage your teen from taking a college rejection personally. The admissions committee does not know you child. They have a list of facts, a few hundred words and a handful of recommendations. Your student is simply pieces of paper and while most admissions officers are trying their best to see behind the simple facts, this is a highly fallible process.

Many colleges reject 50%, 60%, 70%, 80%, 90% and more of their applicants. Anyone experiencing a college rejection from a school they set their sights on is in very good company. The Wall Street Journal notes that many highly successful, and famous, people were rejected by the college of their choice. 

Teenagers who face rejection will be joining good company, including Nobel laureates, billionaire philanthropists, university presidents, constitutional scholars, best-selling authors and other leaders of business, media and the arts who once received college or graduate-school rejection letters of their own.

The Wall street journal

The painful truth is that there is an element of chance in admissions.

5. Parents can make it better or worse.

Warren Buffett, the storied investor, has described being rejected from Harvard Business School as a pivotal moment in his life. He matriculated at Columbia Business School and worked with professors who helped form his approach to investing and set the course of his life.

One of his biggest fears when Harvard sent the seemingly bad news? Letting down his father.

Getting rejected hurts but getting rejected and disappointing your parents just makes the experience that much more painful. Buffet describes the relief he felt when his father showed “only this unconditional love…an unconditional belief in me.”

A college rejection may be one of the best “teachable” moments in childhood. On the threshold of adult life our teens may feel that they have suffered a setback. Parents know, and perhaps in this moment teens may learn, that the only way to escape setbacks, disappointments and even failures is to never take a risk, to never try. In this moment we can help them learn a new level of resilience.

6. Take another look at the options.

It is time to learn a lot more about the schools that accepted your teen. Maybe a second choice was clear-cut, but maybe on reconsideration, another choice looks more attractive. Time to delve in with visits, emails to professors or admissions staff with any questions, plans for overnight stays, if possible, and querying any kids you might know or who the admissions office can put you in touch with about their experience.

It’s time to take a long close look at financial and merit aid options and consider if you need to appeal (note: these are not set in stone, and should be examined and compared).

While your student may have thought she knew exactly what she wanted to study and why that “school who cannot be named” was perfect for that course, consider this, eighty percent of students change their major from what they anticipated studying when they were in high school. Your student may be setting off in a whole new direction at the school that will turn out to be the very best for him.

Frank Bruni’s pivotal book, and its title says it all, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, is the best explanation of why the adage, “college is what you make of it” is entirely true. If you need a reminder, lose yourself in his pages. Bruni’s conclusion should help parents and teens move on to embrace the opportunities that lie ahead. 

I’ve paid close attention to the educational biographies of successful people, and what I’ve seen in them — the only pattern — is how focused and flexible and energetic these people are.

Frank Bruni

7. Let your teen be romanced.

Many schools, once they have accepted your teen, will fall all over themselves to get her. They will send materials by mail and email and even hold Admitted Students Days or weekends where they try to romance the students they want to see on their campus the following fall.

Give in to being wooed. Being wanted is nice and when your student takes a good hard look at the colleges that have accepted him, he may discover a highly desirable option.

8. Social media can make this a gruesome process.

It’s time to take a bit of a social media vacation. Step away from Facebook and have your kids tune out Snapchat and Instagram. Social media will still be there when you return but in the height of accept/reject/waitlist season it might be a good idea to take a break.

Social media is a place to brag and few people advertise deferrals and rejections. Once your child is settled, once she had looked at her options, found her new love and is on her way, it is safe to return to social media.

9. Transferring is a possibility.

Remind yourself that few things are immutable. If it turns out, after your teen gives their second choice school their best shot (and it will need to be their best grades) they still long for that other school, most colleges accept transfers.

10. Find older teens and their parents to speak with.

Sometimes the college admissions process can feel like our own personal hell. But, in reality it is a hell with lots of great company. When you or your teen are feeling the pains of rejection find other students who, in previous years, had a similar experience and are now thriving.

There is nothing as inspiring as listening to a college student talk about how they too were rejected from what they once thought was their first choice only to realize that now there is no place they would rather be than the college they attend.

11. You will never know why it happened, and it doesn’t matter.

We can all speculate why some kids got into certain colleges and others didn’t. Sure, there are the cases of the mega stars and the unqualified, but most of our kids fit in between these two.

Why did a college take one teen and not another, who on the face of it look almost the same (or the rejected student seems even more qualified)? This is truly unknowable and hours of speculation, days of wondering won’t get any closer to an answer. Stories abound of students who are accepted to schools that are more selective and rejected by a seemingly less selective school. It is one of the mysteries of the universe and it is best to just shake your head and walk away.

Dwelling with your student on why they were not accepted keeps them, and you, from moving on to where your teen’s future lies.

12. And so begins adulthood.

For many of us, a college rejection is the first time we will watch our teens experience a very real adult disappointment. We all know there will be more. But, if your teen handles this well, if they suffer their brief frustration, regroup, look at their options and throw themselves headlong into the other opportunities offered, as a parent, we can breathe a tiny sigh of relief knowing we have prepared them well for life.

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About Lisa Endlich Heffernan

Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan is the co-founder of Grown and Flown, the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author.
She started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and is co-author of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

Read more posts by Lisa

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