Dr. Gena Khodos, North Shore College Consulting Essay Coach
When I was applying to college, the University of Michigan was my top choice. I submitted application for early action and pledged to the university that it was my number one choice.
A few months later a very thin envelope arrived from Ann Arbor: a rejection. It was the first university I heard back from and it was, by far, the most painful. I remember bursting into tears the second I spotted the envelope, knowing that had I been accepted, a large welcome packet would have been welcoming me to become a Wolverine. I tore open the skimpy mailing, read the letter of regret, and went running to my parents for comfort.
So many questions ran through my head: how come they didn’t like me? What did I do wrong? Did I make a mistake on my application? Was I simply not good enough?
Months later I got a full ride to the University of Iowa and decided to go there instead. And I had a blast: I double majored in English and finance, joined a sorority, worked at a local bar, played IM soccer, and had an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.
All of these memories came rushing back when I recently comforted a student who was rejected from the University of Illinois. She was absolutely despondent and couldn’t figure out what had happened. She seemed to meet all the criteria. Illinois was her dream, and she was sure that no other school would be as good a fit.
While disappointment of any kind can be hard, getting rejected from your top, or one of your top, college choices can be particularly sharp. But there are ways to handle it and move forward.
First things first? Grieve. For some students, college applications represent the culmination of many years of hard work. If you don’t get into your top school, you might feel like all of your hard work was for naught, and you may legitimately feel heartbroken. That’s okay; it’s a completely normal reaction to falling short of a goal you’ve work so hard towards. Jennifer Ann Aquino, author of The International Family Guide to U.S. University Admissions says, “It’s good to grieve and to show emotion. I encourage my students to do so. Don’t hide it or try to suppress it.”
While it’s natural to feel sorrow and the need to grieve, you can’t spend the remainder of your senior year in your bed. It may be helpful to set a self-imposed time constraint on the active grieving process. Allow yourself a few days to really indulge in self-care. Watch some movies, take a hot shower, and get takeout from your favorite restaurant. When a few days pass, though, you’ll need to resolve to move forward. You might still feel sad, but it’s time to start channeling those emotions into something productive. At the end of your self-care days, get back up and prepare to take on the world again.
Next, process the information as rationally as possible, reconsidering the unique admissions criteria for each school from all angles, and focusing on things you can control versus things you can’t. You might think that your college admissions decisions are a direct indicator of your worth as a person or as a student, but it is important to remember that this is definitely not the case. College admissions decisions are based on so many factors that you can’t control. If you did your best to control the ones you could, then you need to know that there were other factors at play.
While it may be difficult to speak to admissions representatives about your individual application and their decisions, “[s]ome schools might share the GPA and testing averages for their newly admitted students.” says Christina DeCesare, Associate Director of College Counseling at Princeton Day School in Princeton, NJ. “If a student is well below those averages, that might help provide some context as to why they were not offered admission.” With this, however, it’s imperative to remember that those data points are only small pieces of the application review process.
In fact, you may have been ruled out for reasons that have nothing to do with grades or test scores. Maybe this was the year that the Division 1 Football team lost four starting players and one of those replacements edged you out of a seat. Maybe you were up against a fourth-generation legacy whose parents, grandparents, and great aunt all donate heavily each year. Perhaps the school had already selected what they deemed as enough students from your high school, or your state. Or maybe they needed more students who play instruments or speak foreign languages and passed over your application for theirs.
You never know what other factors are at play in college admissions, so taking a rejection personally is never a good idea. Just because you didn’t quite fill the holes the school had open doesn’t mean you weren’t a worthy applicant. DeCesare also recommends understanding that while students are applying more and more to college, schools are not increasing their class sizes at the same rate, or at all. In fact, roughly 20.4 million students attended American colleges and universities last year, which is an increase of about 5.1 million since the fall of 2000. In other words, try to not be too hard on yourself. “As both a former college admissions officer and now a college counselor,” DeCesare says, “I understand firsthand how disappointing it can be for students to get denied from a school. Students should take some time to process that news, but remember that ultimately, it’s often not anything they did wrong or that they were lacking in their application(s),” she stresses.
Consider that your top college may not have been the best fit for you. While it might seem like the most perfect college you could imagine, no college that doesn’t recognize what an amazing candidate you are is going to be the best fit for you. There are hundreds of amazing colleges out there, and odds are high that you will be able to succeed elsewhere if you set yourself to attending one that’s the best fit for you personally.
Start by identifying what it was about your dream school that made it so alluring. Was it the geographic locale, a specific academic program, or another aspect altogether? If you can pinpoint a few of the most desirable qualities, you can bet you’ll be able to find those same qualities at other schools that would be happy to have you as a student.
Redirect your focus to the schools that you did get in to. Join social media groups for accepted students. Reach out to current students or recent graduates. Network to learn more about each school and get a better feel for it. Visit campus again if you have a chance. The more you know about it, the better prepared you’ll be to make an informed decision about where you do go.
Finally, get back in the game. Aquino advises, “Give yourself a couple of days, and then try your best to refocus on who has accepted you, why you’re excited about these schools, and why you applied to them in the first place. Focusing your energy on those that are excited about you and want you on their campus and in their communities is an excellent way to reenergize during the college search.” Shift your thinking to view this as an amazing chance to attend a college where you’re truly valued. If a college doesn’t want you, you’re probably better off elsewhere anyway. Some day, your alma mater will not matter nearly as much as what you made of your college experience. Will you be a dedicated student and a committed member of the community or will you begrudgingly go through your years there wishing you were someplace else? Only you can make this decision.