How to deal with denial and handle disappointing news

Photo by UNC Greensboro

Last week was a tough one for many high school seniors.

Students have now heard from all the schools where they applied, with either joyful acceptances, confusing wait-lists or disappointing rejections.

This year saw a perfect storm for lots of rejection letters with high demand from a large and tremendously talented applicant pool and a stable college supply. Tougher competition at the most selective schools has a trickle-down effect to less selective schools. So, everyone is feeling the burn of rejection.

Consoling rejected students is a tough role for parents. That rejection is even tougher for most kids who had to face their peers back at school the day after the big releases. Social media only adds to the disappointment as they see their friends and their friends’ parents boasting and posting of their successes.

The entire college admissions process often echoes teenage relationship drama. Students flirt with a college, they visit and show interest. Colleges tease them with mailings, emails, etc., to encourage them to apply. Then, the tables turn.

When students are applying, they need to demonstrate their love and commitment, and the colleges sit in the power seat, wielding control of their fate. Then comes the break-up, i.e. the rejection or the deferral, with the worst part being that it’s public and impersonal. The colleges aren’t returning the students’ affections, and now the students need to fall in love with other colleges right away.

How can parents help?

  • Don’t discount their sadness, but at the same time don’t encourage them to wallow for more than a few days. Parental platitudes abound here from the semi-spiritual – “things happen for a reason” – to several of the all-knowing, such as, “You can’t always get everything you want,” or “This is one of life’s lessons, and it’s good to learn it now,” or “It’s not the end of the world. It will be OK.” These aren’t what they want to hear, but you need to be supportive.
  • Explain that colleges are responding to institutional priorities, and rejections should not be viewed as personal failure.
  • Don’t encourage appealing rejections. It almost never works.
  • Be enthusiastic about the other colleges where they’ve been accepted and where they’re wanted. Attend the “Accepted Student Days” and emphasize why these schools represent a good fit for them.

A new option to check out: flexible admissions

See if any of the schools where your student has been wait-listed has a summer or January admit program.

Frequently, colleges will offer programs specifically for their January admits, such as study abroad. While students may be a semester behind, they can still usually graduate with the rest of their class if they have AP credits or take classes over a summer.

The pros are that students get to attend a college they are excited about, and for the January admit they may have four months to work, travel, intern or volunteer. If they start in the summer, they’re the experts when the masses of students arrive in August.

The cons are that many students find social connections are made in that first semester and it can be tough to break in. It might also be more challenging to register for courses because many are sequenced beginning in the fall semester.

For many students, just being able to attend the school of their choice is all that matters. But they really need to evaluate how they think they’ll adapt starting during the summer or mid-year.

As important as college selection is, the truth is that what students do once they’re at college – any college – is what makes them happy and leads to successful careers.



Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions