I know from the subject line that the email is about disappointment.
“Our First No,” it reads. It’s from a mom whose son is in the midst of getting his college notifications. For the last five years, I have spent part of each year as a college essay advisor, assisting high school seniors on crafting their college admission essays. I work with kids who are fortunate enough to have parents that can pay me. I also volunteer at local high schools and for organizations for students whose parents can’t. Rich kid or poor kid, student or parent, rejection from a college is hard.
This mom, let’s call her Jane, is reaching out to me. She knows me not just as her son’s college essay consultant but also as a friend and a mother who has also put a kid through college. She writes that her son received an email from one of the universities he had applied to, thanking him for his application but rejecting him all the same. She writes me about the college rejection letter, “It was tough on the guy. A little tough on the moms, too…. Any sage advice would be greatly appreciated.”
Of course, this is not her son’s first no. Jane, herself, as a mom, has spent years telling him NO. No candy, no TV, no more video games. But college applications and particularly, the college essays, can represent the first time for most kids that they have tried to delineate and proclaim out loud both who they are and who they wish to become.
To put their greatest desire (and sometimes their biggest shame) in words and send them to complete strangers for anonymous evaluation. Her son’s honesty and vulnerability come back to me, “I want an opportunity to let my personal visions influence and be influenced by my peers….(I) hope to one day be judged not by who I am, but what I create.”
That first “No” of a college rejection letter can cut deeply.
As I read Jane’s plea, I relive all the tidal emotions that swept my own house when my daughter was going through the same process four years ago. After all the hard work, the high stress of the application process, the pressure to keep up those grades for that final year – come letters and emails, accepting or rejecting our kids.
I counsel students and parents not to take rejections personally but still, they do. So much goes on behind the scenes at each college and university to which we will never be privy. Each admission director has the crucial job of composing a class from a vast pool of applicants that will thrive in that school’s particular academic and social environment. From all these talented students there are many considerations – first, gender; this many young men, this many young women, then, legacies, athletes, performing artists, applicants from in-state, applicants from out state.
All of these variables are considered to create a class that will succeed at each college and university. Also, the popularity of schools and programs vary from year to year, so that which once seemed a sure thing, can now be out of reach. I tell them that to parents and students, but of course, it doesn’t matter, rejection just feels like well, rejection.
“This is simply a hard time,” I write back. “The waiting, the anticipation, then happiness and disappointment. The time that you imagined would only be about joy can sometimes be the worst time in a very hard year. The best thing you can do is to hug your boy.”
These notifications feel like the coda on an emotional roller coaster year for both parent and teen. The student questions, am I good enough and moms and dads worry, did I do enough? A teenager imagines that their entire lives depend on these rejections and acceptances. Parents hold their breaths and fret, as if all the love and energy of their child-rearing, every parenting decision they ever made, is being weighed and measured at this moment.
I lay out the hard facts for Jane – her son will have rejections – not just this school, but from others. After the bad news, I remind Jane that her son will also have acceptances. There will be letters that start with “Congratulations!” In the end, her son will probably receive more than one of those happy letters, he will be accepted to good schools, and will get to choose from one of them. This is where we, both teens and parents, must keep our focus – the joy of choices. Even if the dream school isn’t amongst them.
Then I tell Jane the other thing I’ve learned – that everything seems to work out. For most teens, the schools that accept them and those they choose to attend are the right fit. If not, if the school her son ends up at next year truly isn’t the right one, he can apply to transfer out to another school the following year. It is our job to remind our young people that their lives are not yet set in stone, the school decision is just one of many her son will make. That life has many choices and many roads and we just need to be brave enough to take that first step.
Dede Donahue lives in Southern California. A former film marketing professional, she gave up writing tag lines and TV spots to raise her family and write from the heart. A memoirist and college essay consultant, Ms. Donahue, has been published in the Washington Post, Suss, another literary journal, and featured on NPR’s All Things Considered. She is currently at work on her memoir, Meet The Donahues. Her college essay consulting website is Crafting the College Essay and you can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.