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How Collegebound Students Can Profit From Rejection

Article appeared in Worcester Magazine, January 2005

It's a parent's worst nightmare. Your high school senior has sorted through piles of college viewbooks, weighed his credentials against those of previously accepted students from his high school, and dutifully submitted applications, essays, recommendations, SAT and ACT scores, and application fees, only to be rewarded with a mailbox full of rejection letters.

This is the season when college admissions committees across the country, knowing little or nothing more about your child than what is contained on a few sheets of paper, are making a decision about the next four years of your child's life. Inevitably, some of those decisions will lead to the dreaded, "We regret to inform you..." letter. No amount of "so many well-qualified applicants" or "we know you will be successful elsewhere" encouragements can dull the impact of the rejection letter. It just hurts.

As adults, we have all experienced rejection, whether we were seeking a job, a relationship, or an invitation to join a club. The rejection may have been disappointing, painful or even crushing. We may have grieved our loss, rationalized it away, or denied that it even mattered at all. In time we drew strength from our previous successes, mobilized the coping skills we had developed during other difficult times, and moved on to Plan B.

Seventeen-year-olds applying to college, however, have a more difficult time accepting rejection. They are likely to view their application to college as the most significant competition they have endured in their life and believe that an acceptance to a particular college validates their competence. If they are not accepted at the college of their choice, they may view it as a public indictment that they are not smart enough. Society has conveyed the message that the college a person attends will have an irrefutable impact on both his professional and personal life. Many young people believe that if they attend the "right" college they will be successful. The corollary, of course, is that if they attend the "wrong" college they are doomed to a life of failure and despair.

As parents and teachers, we have worked to raise children with confidence and a good self-image. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to link pride in achievement with external rewards. When every eight-year-old on the soccer team ends the season with a Most Valuable Player trophy and no one notices the irony, we teach children that it is not acceptable to be second-best. When a high school senior does not gain acceptance at a highly prestigious college, he may have trouble feeling good about the wonderful colleges that do accept him. His self-esteem is diminished. "If I had gotten into Yale everyone would know that I am smart."

As they attempt to instill confidence and self-esteem in their child, some parents are reluctant to teach their child that they may not achieve or attain what they want. The message, "You can be anything you want to be" is empowering, but it is not completely accurate. A more accurate message would be, "You have the power to work hard for whatever you want to achieve." The reality in college admissions is that many more well-qualified students apply to each college than can be accepted. Each student needs to have worked hard to earn consideration for admission, but some hard-working students will be rejected for a variety of reasons.

Complicating the student's attempt to deal with college acceptances and rejections is the fact that the arena in which high school students are applying to college is a public one. Students wear their college sweatshirt to school, check the status of their application online in the computer lab, and keep tabs on which friend is waiting to hear from what school. Some high schools post a list of acceptances or decorate maps with push pins to indicate where their students have been accepted. Students just can't escape the feeling that good things are happening to others, while they sit and wait. To make it worse, everyone knows who the people are who are sitting and waiting.

In some high schools, students do their best to avoid talking about college acceptances. This arrangement offers a measure of privacy to the students, but the pact tends to be breached by parents who seek solace by comparing notes about each other's children. A parent who finds herself in the midst of such a conversation might want to model polite avoidance. "Where has Suzy been accepted? Well, the letters are just starting to come in. What a pretty sweater. Is it new?"

Parents can help their child deal with the frustration of the college application process by shielding them from public scrutiny. It is appropriate to enforce daily college-free hours. What a relief it is to know that there will be a set time when no one will ask about deadlines, SAT prep classes or essay topics. These college-free hours should definitely apply to events that include people outside the immediate family. Sunday dinner at Grandma's is not the time for your child to have to protect herself from questions about why she isn't going to attend Grandpa's alma mater.

Parents should understand that a student who is rejected by a favorite college is experiencing true loss and grief and, in some cases, diminished confidence about his value to other high-quality schools. It is not helpful to remind the student that the school that rejected him was an unrealistic reach, or unlikely to have offered enough financial aid to allow the student to attend anyway. The student needs time to grieve and heal from his loss.

While in need of consolation and support, the student who has received a mailbox full of rejections also needs to understand the reasons for the disappointing outcome. As a result of poor advice or an unrealistic self-evaluation, the student may have applied to schools that were not appropriate for her ability or level of achievement. If the student applied to schools that were inappropriate, a non-acceptance letter from the admissions committee is a gift. More than 25% of college freshman either fail or transfer out of school before graduation. Clearly, many of these students would have been happier and more successful at other schools.

Students need to understand that changes within a college impact its selectivity and the likelihood that a particular student will be accepted. In 1996 Northwestern University in Illinois, long known as an academic powerhouse but as the athletic doormat of the Big 10, went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 47 years. The following year applications soared. Specifically and unexpectedly, there was a 30% increase in applications to the music school from applicants who hoped to play in the marching band. Had Northwestern's already excellent music program become 30% better? Not likely. However, students who would have been accepted in 1996 encountered higher standards and a significantly lower acceptance rate the following year.

A student who is trying to understand why he was not accepted at a particular college should review his application to see if it adequately and effectively demonstrates his accomplishments. At the height of application season, admissions counselors read up to seventy-five applications a day. The application speaks for the student. It must be focused, clear and complete. It is not uncommon for students to review their application after it has been submitted and find that they have omitted important information or have failed to complete one part of the application.

The student should be sure that his essays support and expand his presentation. Every essay, no matter what the question, is an opportunity for the student to tell the admissions committee something about himself and the contribution he will make to the college. A question about the student's favorite author is not asking for a critique on the work of Maya Angelou. Rather, it is asking about the impact that Maya Angelou's work has on the student, the questions the student has about Angelou and her writing, and why the student reacts with tears or longing as he reads Maya Angelou's memoirs.

Short essays are often most significant as admissions counselors know that students tend to work harder and receive more assistance on the longer essays than they do on the seemingly simple short essays. Therefore, admissions counselors see the short essays as especially indicative of the student's ability to think and write. The student should remember that there are no simple questions. "Why do you want to attend this college?" is a thought-provoking question requiring the applicant to demonstrate that he understands ways that this college is different from the one down the road and that he has thought about why this college is a better place for him than every other similar school.

The application is not the place for the student to be humble, nor is it the place for the student to inflate his experiences and achievements. Admissions officers are rightfully skeptical of the student whose accomplishments imply that the applicant hasn't slept more than three hours a night for the past four years. The applicant who presents his family's vacation cruise as his own personal contribution to the survival of the Rain Forest has created his own private cloud of suspicion.

An effective applicant demonstrates that she knows herself, has thought about why she wants to go to college, and is ready to both contribute to and benefit from this particular school. She can assess the impact of her actions on others and has thought about how she wants others to evaluate her. She knows her strengths and weaknesses and uses her essays and personal statements to share them with the admissions committee.

By the time the student begins to work on her applications, there is little she can do to improve her test scores or class rank. Joining another club or squeezing in a few extra hours of community service are unlikely to impress the admissions committee. What the student can do, however, is ask herself probing questions and let her application reflect her well-considered answers.

The student should be sure that her application is complete. Did the college receive appropriate test scores, recommendations and supplemental information? Does the application present a true picture of who the student is and what makes her special? The student who lists "production crew, junior class play" when, in fact, she designed all the scenery and lighting and rewired the sound board when it blew out at the end of the first act is underselling her achievements.

Does the application tell the reader how your child came to be the person she is? If your child works every day after school in the family bakery, her application should say more than just "Sam's Bakery - assistant baker." You may need to help her realize how significant her work is to the family. If appropriate, the counselor's recommendation should explain that this family obligation prevented the student from participating in extracurricular activities. Consider encouraging your child to think about what it means to contribute to the family's financial security or how it feels to work closely with her parents every afternoon. Your child may need your encouragement to think about why this gives her a dimension that not all students have.

For some students, the process of reviewing their own application is an important part of recovering from the disappointment of not being accepted at a favorite college. Looking at the application that they have not seen for several months gives them a new perspective on how others might have viewed their work and disabuses them of fantasies they may have as to why they were not accepted at a particular college. This can be an important part of letting go of the desire to attend the college that rejected them and beginning to develop a connection to another school.

If your child is one of the rare students who receives rejection letters from all the colleges to which he has applied, there are some steps that your family can take to rectify the situation. Allow your child to feel awful for a day or day. Help him to see that he is still loved, that you admire him for going through this process, and that you are confident that there is a wonderful school somewhere that will feel lucky to have him as a student.

Encourage your child to review his applications. While college certainly remains an option, your child will benefit from knowing that there are other valuable learning opportunities if he decides to take a year off before beginning college. Make sure that he understands that this 'gap year' is a standard practice for students in many European countries and is encouraged by highly prestigious American colleges such as Harvard.

The next step is to contact your child's guidance counselor. Ideally, the counselor has been involved with your child for several years and has worked with your child through the application process. The counselor should be familiar with the colleges to which your child applied and may be able to give some insight into the decisions that were made. He should have information on schools which will meet your child's needs and which are accepting late applications. Although this is the first time your family is faced with this dilemma, it is not the first time the counselor has dealt with it.

You will also want to check the web site of the National Association of College Admission Counselors (www.nacac.com) which lists vacancies at two and four year colleges. This list is available in early May of each year. It is a good idea to return to your child's original working list of schools. There were reasons why your child originally selected that group of schools. After looking at how she made her final choices, she may find that these early considerations are as good as - or better than - the schools to which she ultimately applied. What looked like second best in December may look very appealing in May.

Although they are under no obligation to do so, most admissions directors will speak with a student or parent who requests information about the committee's decision. It is appropriate to ask what factors in the application kept your child from being admitted, what would be necessary in order for the student to reapply the following year, and the school's policy on transfer students or students who take a year off before beginning college. The director may offer thoughts on postgraduate prep school or alternative programs if your child is considering delaying college. You should certainly let the admissions director know if there is new information or circumstances that might impact on the student's candidacy. On rare occasions an admissions director will reconsider an application based on new information.

Whatever the outcome, your child is in a position to gain new insights and understanding, and to begin again to plan a successful and fulfilling academic experience. From adversity comes opportunity.




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