Surviving College Rejection

Surviving College Rejection

Surviving College Rejection

As any high school senior knows, the start of spring does not necessarily call to mind flowers and warmer weather. It means a plethora of emotions such as excitement, anxiety and fear; followed by emails, envelopes from colleges, and then more emotions. Spring is “college admissions decision time” and the focus of high school seniors is on determining which college or university is best for them and how they will spend the next four years.

The reality is that acceptance is not, and is never, guaranteed, let alone acceptance to one’s first-choice school. Some sort of rejection, for many, is inevitable.

The pressures placed on getting into a college or university of choice is one that seems to worsen yearly. As a psychotherapist working with teenagers in New York City, I speak from experience when I say that students are taught, from as early as middle school, that their education is preparing them solely for this early April “moment of academic truth”.

Surviving College RejectionOne danger in the college application process is that teenagers often place their self worth in that college acceptance. They may be so focused on schools that they have learned, or are told, will be good places for them to go, the lose sight of anything else. They may be told that their test scores are high enough that a certain school will be a “safety” for them or that they will “definitely” get in. The truth is, nobody knows what the admissions professionals will decide or what the applicant pool is like on any given year.

In preparing for (or coping with) the reality of college rejection, here are some tips to get yourself or your loved one through this time:

1. Sit In It

The only way out is through. You have a right to honor and acknowledge your pain and the difficult feelings being experienced. This may mean taking time to sit in the emotion: feeling it, letting yourself cry, staying in bed for the day, eating comfort foods, isolating, etc. The key is experiencing your emotions without judging them. The sooner you allow yourself to feel, you will ultimately begin to heal and find relief from the more intense, initial emotions.

2. Ask for Help

Parents, friends, a therapist, a teacher, advisor or other family members can all be helpful during this time. Practice self-care and find someone who can be there to support you. It’s hard to ask for help, and it’s the best thing you’ll ever do to help yourself through difficulty.

3. Assert What You Need

Use interpersonal effectiveness skills when communicating to others during an emotionally sensitive time. It can feel completely invalidating when others try to support us by saying “feel better!” or “You got into (insert non-first-choice-college here): cheer up!” or “It’s their (school’s) loss!”  Although loved ones mean well, they may not know what you need. It is okay to say, “Hey, I just need you to be here and watch movies with me. I would prefer you not anything about school for awhile.”

4. Don’t Judge Your Feelings

One of the worst parts of the college acceptance process is that every senior in high school is basically competing with one another.  You’re going to deal with some strong feelings towards others, such as jealousy or anger. When we experience negative feelings, especially towards friends, we often judge ourselves. This judgment can start a spiral of shame, guilt and self-deprecation.  Accept that you are going to feel the way you feel, and that feelings are waves and will not last forever. Do some self-care to help you through it.

5. Avoid Self-Blame

Don’t over analyze the “WHY?”! Unless it will provide you with important information, try not to examine the reasons why you did not get in. Knowing this information may not actually help you feel any better. Instead, practice Radical Acceptance: what is, is what is. Getting into a certain college does not define you. It does not mean you are not smart. It does not mean you are not worthy. It does not mean you are not good enough. It does not mean you made too many mistakes. Period. Don’t give a school’s admissions department that much control over your self worth or happiness.

6. Don’t Compare Your Reaction to Others’

Your process is your process. Getting a rejection is not unlike the stages of grief. You are, most definitely, grieving a hope or dream or expectation you had for yourself. Everyone has a different time period or process to deal with this. Respect that you are feeling feelings on your own time.

7. Turn the Mind!

The job of college admissions staff is to see which applicants would be a good fit for the student body of that school. Trust that perhaps someone looked at your application and generally thought that you wouldn’t be so happy there. Trust that where you were accepted wants you and feels that you would be a good fit for the school. Trust that our biggest rejections in life may be our greatest opportunities and biggest gifts. There’s no harm in believing that, and it may be true.

For high school seniors, this time of year is full of joy and disappointment. It’s hard to know how to support others when we need to, especially ourselves. College is a time of growth; let it start now, as you choose where you’re going.


Authored by:  Jaime Gleicher, LMSW