For weeks, your daughter has anxiously checked her account on College X’s portal. She refreshes her email several times each day and even treks out to the snail mailbox to see if her fate has been delivered there. She is hoping for an acceptance to her first-choice college, one that was chosen carefully after an exhausting college search. Your daughter has studied hard throughout high school. She has put her heart and soul into academics, skipped evenings out with friends to prepare for tests and gone into school early for extra help. She has taken difficult courses and achieved, even in subjects that aren’t her favorites. Her activities list is impressive. College X may be a bit of a reach, she deserves this.
The letter arrives. She was rejected. Now what?
Pat yourself on the back for encouraging your daughter to shoot for the moon. If your daughter took a risk in the application process by applying to a reach college where she was not a “slam dunk,” then you have likely raised a confident young woman who will learn from this experience and continue taking chances until she succeeds. Many female applicants are only encouraged to apply to colleges where admission is virtually assured because parents do not want their daughters to feel hurt by rejection. As a society, we tend to protect our daughters from the time they are young by teaching them to be cautious. We allow our sons to fall down and dust themselves off, but tell our daughters to be careful so they won’t experience disappointment. Your confident, smart, talented daughter took a chance with her college application. She may not have won this time but being the type of person willing to put her hat in the ring assures she will have the chance to win the next time.
Realize that the rejection is not about your daughter personally or her ability to be a successful college student. In most cases, rejections are based on institutional need and a competitive applicant pool. Competitive colleges do not have enough space for all qualified applicants and must send rejection letters to top-notch students. Why did they reject your daughter and not someone else? It is impossible to know for sure. Perhaps it is because the college is trying to diversify geographically and your daughter is from a state where they have enough applicants. Maybe it is because she is a violinist but the orchestra just graduated a cellist and the college chose a student who filled that need over your daughter. If your daughter applied a different year when the mix of institutional needs was slightly different, she may have been accepted.
Don’t overreact and don’t underreact. When your daughter was learning to walk, she fell down many times and looked to you as a model of how to react. Even though it was very hard to see your child wipe-out, you did your best to regulate your emotions. By doing so, you allowed your daughter to learn that falling is just part of the process of learning to walk and she could stand up and keep moving forward. In the same way that your daughter looked to you for how to react when she fell down as a toddler, she will look to you for how to react to this rejection. If you get upset, insist the college made an error, call the college, call the school counselor and generally make a big fuss, you will send a message to your daughter that College X is the only path that will allow her to move forward and have a successful and happy life. This is just not true. It is also important not to underreact or make light of the disappointment and hurt your daughter feels. As your daughter’s first choice, College X became a tangible goal that represented the reward she would reap for the effort she put into her studies. Additionally, it is important to remember that identity development is a significant task of adolescence. Between the time that your daughter chose College X as her favorite and she learned that she was not being offered a place in the freshmen class, she tried on the identity of being a College X student and even a College X alum. She did this in her imagination and each time she shared with a friend, family member or acquaintance that College X was her first choice. It is confusing and painful to be forced to let go of a preferred identity and choose a new one. While your daughter is processing this loss, make sure you empathize with her feelings. They are real and not trivial.
Trust that your daughter will bounce back. The stress and anxiety that she feels by being rejected from College X is not necessarily a bad thing. Stress and anxiety can serve as motivators. After the initial disappointment and hurt of not being accepted to College X lessens, your talented and motivated daughter will naturally move into problem solving mode. She will discover that this rejection is also an opportunity to redirect and pursue another path forward. As she engages in the process of selecting a new “first choice,” she might want to visit additional colleges, add a few colleges to her list or plan a gap year experience. If College X remains her goal, your daughter might even plan how she will transfer into College X after she spends a year at another college. You should encourage this exploration.
Students do find a way to put a college rejection into perspective and move forward. Your daughter is the same successful, talented and confident young woman that applied to College X. She will take these attributes and skills to another college and find success and happiness.
Michelle McAnaney is the founder of The College Spy, a full service independent educational consulting firm that assists students and families across the US and internationally with the college selection and application process. Prior to founding The College Spy, Michelle was a guidance counselor and educator for more than 15 years, including serving as the Director of Guidance at two high schools, an adjunct college professor and a GED tutor. Michelle holds a master’s degree in school counseling and a bachelor’s degree in human development. She completed UC Irvine’s certificate program in educational consulting and is a MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) Certified Practitioner and a NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Master Practitioner. Michelle visits over 40 colleges each year so that she has first-hand knowledge of the colleges and universities her clients will be considering. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and on The College Spy Podcast.