How Can You Help Students Cope With Getting College Rejection Letters?

woman with book on head looking frustrated
Let ’em be sad.


This question originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

Answer by Bruce Epstein, technologist and college counselor:

As colleges announce their final decisions, most homes are roller coasters of emotions. Spring is a time of elation, depression, and often both. I’ve helped dozens of students apply to colleges and grad school as a college counselor. Most people focus on the “college” part, but the “counseling” part is just as important. Here are some tips for handling the ups and downs of college decision season.

Have a Plan B. Most importantly, the student should have applied to a range of schools, including some with a high likelihood of admittance. You need only one “yes” to lessen the sting of the denials.

Denial is not rejection. Language can be toxic. A typical student categorizes an adverse decision as, “I got rejected from Columbia.” Yes, your application may have been denied, but that is not a rejection of who you are as a person. At the most selective colleges, nine out of 10 highly qualified applicants will have their applications denied.

Facing adversity. Hopefully you haven’t coddled your child their entire life, and this probably isn’t the first disappointment they’ll face. If it is, this is a good time to develop coping skills. Ironically, colleges want resilient students, and businesses want workers who can overcome obstacles, so practice dealing with adversity now.

Be careful what you wish for. There is an old saying, “Put at least as much effort into the marriage as you did the wedding.” Being admitted to a college does not solve every problem in one’s life. The more competitive the college to which a student has been admitted, the harder they have to work once they get there. Students who think being admitted is the hard part may be in for a surprise once they arrive at college.

It’s their party. Hopefully you are not living vicariously through your teenager. For most teens, making it your problem just worsens their problem. You may be inadvertently adding to the pressure. Your teen may be more worried about disappointing you than dealing with their own disappointment. Don’t make your baggage into their problem. Understand how empathy is different from sympathy. See this video about how to actually help another person going through a rough time.

They can cry if they want to. Don’t try to solve their problem or even address it the day they receive a denial notice. Follow your teen’s lead. Give them space. It will all seem OK in a few days or weeks. If waiting solves the problem, then wait. If they fall into a deep, prolonged depression, then consider other options, such as seeking medical help. But being sad is OK. They’ll survive it. As a parent, it is hard to ignore the situation entirely, but you can refuse to engage is self-pity. The sooner you communicate to your teen that it is their problem and not yours, the better you’ll all be. Just say, “I’m sure you can handle it,” and change the subject or walk away. When the time comes (not the day they get the denial letter), you can make positive plans. This may include (should include) visiting the colleges where your teen admitted. By then, you may find they are newly excited.

Your teen may be worried she will be the only kid like her at her new college. When she arrives for a visit, she will find kindred spirits and also be wooed by the school that does want her. I’m not saying to aim low, but, by definition, your student is going to be admitted to a college where other admitted students are similarly qualified.

Did you know that—depending on how you count them—there are 3,000 to 4,500 colleges in the U.S. alone? And yet, the conversation almost always focuses on 30 or 40 colleges (the proverbial “top 1 percent”). The truth is that there are hundreds of great colleges in the U.S. Colleges that you never heard of a generation ago are now fabulous institutions packed with highly talented students who (surprise!) also did not get into MIT.

Don’t give up if they have no admissions yet. There are some great colleges that accept applications later than you think (I’m talking to you, Pitt). Some colleges accept applications as late as August!

If your teen has been hyperfocused on one college, he has two choices ahead of him: Move on and embrace another college, or dedicate the next four years to positioning himself for grad school at the desired university. Transferring is yet another option, but I advise against starting one college with the intent of transferring. Give the first college a real fair chance. (The exception would be if a student is shut out of four-year colleges, in which case transferring from a two-year college makes a lot of sense.) Yet another option is to take a “gap year” and reapply to colleges again the following year. This is not something to be undertaken lightly. It is the wrong choice if you think that waiting a year will magically increase your chances at Harvard. A student would have to work her butt off during the gap year to improve her chances, and most students are better off enrolling in colleges to which they’ve been accepted (even if it is a community college).

Your teen may have been waitlisted at one or more colleges. In my experience, most teens lose momentum at this point and accept admission at the “best” colleges to which they have been admitted. But there are some strategies for pursuing waitlists, and a small number of students will be offered admission off the waitlist between May and July. (Regardless, you’ll usually need to submit a deposit by May 1 to secure a place at another college.)

In extremely rare cases, some colleges will entertain an appeal of their decisions. In most cases, admission decisions are final, with no exceptions made. However, many colleges will allow students or their counselors to call the admissions office for feedback. In some rare cases, an administrative error might be uncovered, but don’t count on it. Recent history tells us that it is much more likely that students were accidentally admitted than accidentally denied admission.

Talk to your teen’s high school guidance counselor. He or she will have good general advice and maybe offer some specific guidance pertaining to your child’s situation. He or she may even be able to make a phone call to help get a student off a waitlist. Or make an appointment with an educated professional (college counselor) who can advise you of your options.

Good luck. This too will pass.

How can you help your daughter or son adjust to the disappointment of not getting into the college of his or her choice? originally appeared on Quora. More questions on Quora: