An article about planning for college rejection may seem counterproductive to having a positive outlook on life’s circumstances. Yet, the reality is that getting into the college of your choice is not an absolute guarantee. Even students who are the most academically qualified face stiff competition. In the past few years, increasing numbers of applicants combined with some of the lowest acceptance rates on record mean that more students than ever are getting rejection letters from their first, second, and even third-choice universities.
Getting passed by from any one of your top choices can be harsh. In the world of college admissions, there is a certain amount of pressure on acceptance. After all, you have been taught since middle school that your entire education has been pruning you for this moment. Historically, the expectation has always been that excellent performance and grades would be the golden ticket to the school of your choosing. Yet, rarely does anyone talk about what to do when you are not accepted.
If you are unfortunate enough to receive a rejection envelop this spring, know that you are not alone. Thousands of students will also be walking to the mailbox and getting similar bad news. While your dreams and goals are unique only to you, there are many with similar dreams that will be equally as crushed. It may be hard to swallow, but what happens next is more important than the rejection itself. How will you handle this disappointing news?
“Sometimes I wonder if the cost of my dream is less about the efforts to achieve it and more about disappointment I’ll experience if it doesn’t happen. But then I remember that the nature of a dream is such that it is worth dreaming even if it never comes true.”
― Craig D. Lounsbrouggh
Are You Having a Hard Time Coping With College Rejection?
Getting rejected from one of your choice colleges can be a major disappointment. For many people, it can feel like a devastating loss—perhaps one of the first major losses of their lives.
You had high expectations for something that did not go the way you wanted it to at all. Now you are faced with an outcome that is not satisfactory, and you are miserable. This feeling is disappointment. You are let down. Maybe you even feel defeated.
Disappointment feels bad because you are caught between the thought of what could have been and what actually is. For many students, getting a rejection letter is downright unacceptable. The vast majority of them will wallow in these feelings, believing that the world is an unjust place and they have been treated unfairly. Others will turn their thoughts inward and become disappointed with themselves.
“I will never be good enough, no matter how hard I try.”
“Nothing ever works out for me.”
“I don’t know why I bother.”
Do these phrases sound familiar to you? If you notice, the thought comes prior to the feeling of depression and despondency and not the other way around. If you had been accepted, these thoughts would not be playing in your head, but you are caught in a loop of negativity and self-pity. Although it is extremely uncomfortable to feel this way, it is quite normal.
Help Is on the Way
If you have suffered several disappointments in a row, you may find yourself overwhelmed by these debilitating emotions and get stuck there. Understand that being stuck in this uncomfortable place is what prevents you from moving forward and living the life you want. You likely already know this at some level, yet you may feel helpless as to how to proceed. In the next part of this article, we will go over some practical steps you can use to take these negative feelings and use them as a catalyst for change. Grab a cup of tea or coffee and pay close attention.
“It was one of those times you feel a sense of loss, even though you didn’t have something in the first place. I guess that’s what disappointment is- a sense of loss for something you never had.”
― Deb Caletti
4 Steps for Coping With a College Rejection Letter
Our emotions are a normal part of being human and are there to guide us through what is happening externally and internally. The negative ones don’t feel good, but when they are interpreted correctly, they can help us clarify what we need to do next to make ourselves feel right again. It is actually not as hard as it might seem to use emotions to your advantage instead of letting them dictate the course of your life. However, it takes practice.
Before you even begin working through these steps, it is important that you have had time to process your emotions. For many students, the rejection of their college application is devastating news. Depending upon the initial expectations, some will take it harder than others.
Sadness Is a Normal Human Emotion
You should know that there is no wrong or right way to feel. If you are miserable, let yourself feel all of your painful feelings of grief over this disappointment. Cry, talk to a friend or advisor, or simply rest and accept that you aren’t happy with the situation.
If your feelings of devastation are unbearable or you feel depressed or anxious beyond normal, it is important to get help from your counselor or someone you can trust. Some people may need extra help when working through their emotions.
When you are ready, we suggest you grab a pen and a notebook and work through these steps one-by-one, thoughtfully answering the questions in each section. This can help you understand why you feel the way you feel and what you can do about it. There are no right or wrong answers—this is an exercise in self-exploration for your eyes only.
One more thing: You will get through this. When you do, save the notes you have made. Learning to handle rejection and disappointment is a skill you will need to master going forward. The next time you are feeling despondent, you can look back at your notes and remember that you got through it just fine and you can do it again.
Step 1: Acknowledge Your Feelings
If you are feeling crappy about a college rejection, it is possible you are walking around in a terrible mood without truly acknowledging how you feel about the situation. While it may seem obvious, genuinely naming your feelings and how they affect you is the very first step in getting back in the game.
Ask Yourself How You Feel
- Are you angry? What are you the most angry about?
- Is your disappointment with the school or yourself?
- Do you feel depressed? What would make it go away?
- If you are anxious about your future, how do your fears manifest themselves?
Remember to admit all of these thoughts and feelings honestly and openly, writing them in your notebook. Ask yourself what happened to get you to this place and what you feel should have happened instead. On a scale of one to ten, how upset are you and why?
While it may seem obvious that you are disturbed about not getting into the college of your choice, this is not the real reason you are experiencing these awful feelings.
Sarah was always a great student who graduated with honors. For the past two years, she had been making college plans with the help of her parents and guidance counselor. She had visited several colleges and sent out four applications, but she had her heart set on going to the University of Pennsylvania. Sarah had the grades for it, plus she had scored extremely well on her entrance exams. She had a portfolio of achievements and several excellent letters of recommendation. Her essay was perfect, and the application had been sent well in advance.
Sarah’s parents were incredibly proud of her. Her close-knit extended family of relatives all knew of her plans to attend the University and assumed that is where she would be going in the Fall. Her father had even bought her a thick purple sweatshirt with the University logo on the front. She imagined herself wearing it to the first football game of the season.
When the letter came one April morning that she had not been accepted to the University, she thought at first there must be a mistake. Yes, she had sent out other applications but that was more of a formality. She never considered that she would be rejected. As it slowly began to sink in, Sarah got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She would have to tell her parents, who would then tell all her relatives. She would feel like a failure. What should she do with the sweatshirt now? This was humiliating! All she could do was sit on her bed and stare at the wall. She felt like her life was over and she was barely 18.
If we walk through the questions above in this circumstance, we can easily see that the rejection letter from the University of Pennsylvania is not the actual reason for Sarah’s feelings. In fact, Sarah had only visited the college once and did not know anyone else planning to attend. The size of the campus was intimidating but she figured she would get used to it. As for the sweatshirt, she didn’t even like football.
Sarah’s real problem was that she was afraid of the reactions of other people and of their potential to reject her rather than the blow of rejection from the college. She thought about how happy her parents were and felt she had let them down. She imagined being embarrassed at the family reunion and having to tell people she wasn’t accepted. Lastly, she felt that all of her hard work did not pay off and she was disappointed in herself.
When we take Sarah’s real thoughts and feelings into account, it paints a very different picture. One that is much easier to work with. Sarah’s loving family will not reject her and it is unlikely that anyone will be talking behind her back about her failure to get into the University of Pennsylvania The harsh reality is that only 7.5 percent of students who apply there are accepted, a fact that may help Sarah take it a little less personally as she processes the loss and regroups.
In any circumstances where you are overrun by negative feelings, your thoughts about what is happening are actually the key to overcoming them. It is these thoughts and your reaction to them that lead to your responses and feelings. Once you pinpoint the real reason you are upset, you will see what’s really going on.
More Questions to Ask Yourself
- What were the first thoughts you had when you saw the rejection letter?
- Did you blame myself or others?
- Do these thoughts help you or hurt you in your efforts to reach your goals?
Once you have narrowed down your own thought process, you will have something solid to work with. Congratulations! You’ve just learned a valuable life skill they don’t teach in college.
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” – Aristotle
Understanding what you feel and why you feel it is the first step in getting unstuck.
Step 2: Question Your Expectations
Now that you understand your own thoughts a little better, it’s time to look at the expectations you had about getting into the college of your choice. Did you, like Sarah, assume that you would be accepted or did you already know it was a long-shot? Had you considered how you would feel or react if you did not get accepted into your first-choice college? Did you formulate a plan B in case that happened?
Understanding Acceptance Rates
Lastly, did you already know the acceptance rate when you applied? A surprising number of students do not realize the most recent statistics on college acceptance rates. In the above example, Sarah was among a group of students in which 92.6 percent of applicants were rejected this year. It’s safe to say that the expectations of both herself and her parents should have been a bit lower to avoid setting themselves up for an unhappy surprise.
As you consider each of these questions, you might realize that your expectations were a bit unrealistic or that they should have at least been more flexible. It is also important to understand if your expectations were ones you placed upon yourself or if your family or teachers had a bigger role to play. Maybe it was a little of both. In either case, high expectations resulted in a strong mental blow when they were not met, and the disappointment of the circumstances not meeting the expectations determined how you felt.
If you had gone into the process with no expectations, it is unlikely you would have had any strong feelings of disappointment. Knowing this, you should ask yourself a final question about your expectations:
- How can I alter my expectations next time so I don’t have to endure these uncomfortable feelings to this degree again?
Unrealistic expectations can set you up for a hard fall but recognizing that you had them is the way to move forward gracefully.
Step 3: Take Time to Regroup
Now that you have examined why you feel the way you do and have assessed your expectations, it’s time to figure out how to move forward again. You have accomplished so much just by making it through high school and going through the many tedious preparations for college. There is no reason to let this situation break you. You are strong and capable and while you can’t change what has happened, you can take everything you can from this experience and use it to your advantage. Ask yourself:
- What have I learned about myself by getting rejected from the college of my choice?
- How have I learned about others through this experience?
- What do I know now about the college application process that I didn’t know before?
- Have I discovered anything about my expectations?
- How can I change my expectations and my approach so this does not happen again?
As you answer these questions, you may begin to see new possibilities and perspectives open up before you. Things may not be as bad as they seem. And yes, it sounds corny, but this may just be a stepping stone to something better. Once you choose to think outside of the box, you begin to get some mental clarity you didn’t have before. It is this kind of focus that can help you figure out your next steps.
As you move forward and leave negative thoughts behind, remember that this in itself is an accomplishment that can give you the confidence you need to tackle many of life’s challenges in the future.
You are a brilliant and capable human being and you have already accomplished more already than many people ever do. Be confident in your abilities as you move forward.
Step 4: Take an Inventory of What Happened
At this stage, you are probably feeling strong enough to look at the predicament objectively and figure out what (if anything) went wrong. It is important during this step to separate actions that are within your control and actions that are not within your control.
Actions within your control are things you would have the ability to change if you had to do them again. For example, if you sent your application in late and a missed deadline was the cause of the rejection, clearly, you will need to learn to be more punctual if you don’t want the same thing to happen again.
If low test scores were the issue, the answer is obvious. If you plan to reapply at a later date, you will need to study harder and retake the exams if you want to increase your chances of acceptance.
However, there are probably many things that are not within your control that lead to a decision not to admit you. Maybe the school had already filled the quota of students from your demographic. Perhaps they were looking for students who played instruments or spoke foreign languages. There can be dozens of reasons you were not chosen that you have no control over. What you need to remember is that it is never a reflection on who you are as a person. Ask yourself:
- What strengths do I have to help me make the most of this predicament?
- Who can I talk to that can help me get back on track with my goals for college?
- What skills do I possess that can help me choose another school?
- What do I really, truly, want for myself?
You may find that you want to carry on with the same goals at another school. You also may be surprised to discover that you want to change directions entirely and try something completely different. Whatever you decide to do, understand that you have used critical problem-solving skills and creativity to get this far, and by remaining flexible, you can achieve whatever you want.
You are in the driver’s seat of your life but you can’t control the other drivers on the road. Make the most of your own unique journey.
“When you establish a destination by defining what you want, then take physical action by making choices that move you towards that destination, the possibility for success is limitless and arrival at the destination is inevitable.”
― Steve Maraboli
Getting Stuck in Your Negative Feelings
If you find it too difficult to go through the four steps above, or you feel stuck and unable to get past your feelings of disappointment, you may need more time to process your emotions.
One of the dangers students face during the college application process is that they tend to place all of their self-worth on an acceptance letter. You may have been told that you have excellent test scores or that you will “definitely” get into a particular college. The adults around you may become overzealous about your achievements and make suggestions about what colleges would be good for you to attend. While their opinions are probably well-intentioned, they likely have no idea what college admissions professionals decide to do with a pool of applicants on any given year. They may be going from their own experiences or by information they have heard.
Coping with the reality of college rejection might take a little longer in some cases. If your feelings are interfering with your ability to function, these tips might help.
Sit With It
Nobody has a right to tell you how you should feel or when you should stop grieving. Make no mistakes, the disappointment of college rejection can feel like a loss of one’s dreams and even the future. Grief is a complex emotion that takes time and you have the right to acknowledge the pain you are experiencing. Feel all of your feelings. Watch movies, eat ice cream, sleep in, and generally comfort yourself.
Experience the full range of feelings and thoughts you have without judgment. Once you let yourself feel authentically, you can start to heal. There is no timetable for this. Eventually, you will find relief from the intensity of your feelings. The only way out of most of life’s heartaches is to go through them. Not processing feelings and experiences is a primary reason why people stay stuck in negative emotions for years and even whole lifetimes. Don’t be that person.
“Your pain is trying to tell you something. It is not an accident, a curse, or an inconvenience. Pain is a form of self-communication.”
― Vironika Tugaleva
Accept Help From Your Parents
Seeing the pain of their kids is never pleasant for parents, and they likely hurt for you as well. Talk to them and share your concerns. Be open about your fears of letting them down. You will probably be surprised to learn that they only want you to feel better. Even though you have been spending the past few years becoming more independent of them, your parents are there to love and support you and this is one of those times where their help is needed. Let them help you through the process.
Ask for What You Need
If your parents are not available, you may need to be more assertive in asking for what you need. Understand there are other people who can also be helpful to you during this time. A teacher, friend, therapist, clergy member, or another relative may welcome the opportunity to give you a shoulder to cry on. Listen to their advice and communicate to them what you need. It can be hard to ask for help, but it is all part of self-care. Recognize that you are important and deserve help as much as anyone else.
If the people in your life don’t understand where you are at, you may hear things like “cheer up” or “it’s not so bad”. Nobody means to hurt you with invalidating statements like this, they usually just don’t know what to say or how to help. Ask for what you need by being specific. There is nothing wrong with saying something like “I don’t want to think about it right now, can you just hang out and watch some movies with me?”
“Refusing to ask for help when you need it is refusing someone the chance to be helpful.”
Don’t Judge Yourself
The college acceptance process can bring out some strong feelings towards your peers, especially if another senior was accepted to the school you have been rejected from. Anger and jealousy are normal feelings even among people who love each other dearly. If you have negative feelings towards your friends, you probably feel guilty on top of it. Accept the way you feel without judging yourself as a bad person for having those feelings. If you have to avoid someone for a time, that is OK. The feelings will pass eventually and things will return to normal.
Don’t Wallow in Self-Loathing
Unless your rigorous self-examination is going to provide you with some useful information about why you were rejected, there is no reason to blame yourself. Even if it was something you did have control over, it will probably not make you feel any better. Practice radical acceptance instead. The situation is what it is. Getting into a particular school does not make you who you are. Being rejected from college does not mean you are not good enough, smart enough, or worthy enough for a higher education. An institution should not control your happiness or self-esteem. For that matter, nobody but you has that right.
What to Do Next
If you are ready to get back in the game, now is the time to refocus on your options and reconsider everything from a new angle. This time, you are armed with some information you didn’t have before. You have examined your feelings and motives and looked at your expectations versus what actually happened. Hopefully, you have had some time to lick your wounds and care for yourself so you have the energy to get back to the drawing board.
If you are still waiting on admissions letters from other colleges, don’t let worry overtake you. Distract yourself with activities you enjoy and let your mind take a break from the anxiety of college acceptance for a while. Just be you. Go shopping or to the movies with friends, take a day trip, or go to the gym. Enjoy your life exactly as it is. Be here now.
Avoid the temptation to keep checking the mailbox or your email for word from the remaining colleges. The old saying “a watched pot never boils” is true in this case. Plus you will drive yourself crazy with this time-wasting compulsion. Learn how to relax and set your worries aside.
If you need more information about why you were rejected, you may be able to speak with admissions representatives about their decisions. However, it is unlikely you will get the answers you are looking for. It is not unusual for a school to provide boilerplate answers to questions about their denial letters. The review application process is highly subjective. If you already know you did your absolute best, you won’t gain much by finding out the reasons why. In some cases, you wouldn’t want to know.
Remember too that more students than ever are applying to go on to college, yet schools have not increased class sizes to keep up with the demand. In the past decade, American universities have seen an increase in attendance of around five million students. Ultimately your rejection probably has more to do with a numbers game than anything within your control.
Focus on the Prize
If you have been accepted at other schools, remember the reasons you were excited about applying to them to start with. Obviously, they had some redeeming qualities that made you think about attending. Further, be proud that they have chosen you to be a part of their community. While your second or third choice may not be as prestigious or fancy, you may find it will be the best experience of your life.
You can solidify your new decision further by visiting the school again to familiarize yourself with what attracted it to you in the beginning. It will also help to visualize yourself in this new place. Even though your plans have changed, it does not mean they can’t be as good or better than your original ones.
Consider Taking a Gap Year
Taking a gap year before attending college is also an option to consider. It is possible that you are not as ready as you think you are. If your resume is a little lean on extracurricular activities, this could present the ideal opportunity to beef it up a little more.
Take advantage of volunteer opportunities in your city or town. Working at a shelter, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or working with your town’s beautification committee are all great ideas. Sites like Volunteer Match have hundreds of positions just waiting to be filled. Volunteering for a worthy cause is something that is personally enriching. Plus, it shows prospective admissions representatives that you are a capable and purpose-driven person who would make a dedicated student.
A gap year can also give you some extra time to pursue new interests and develop new skills. Maybe you want to learn a language or practice public speaking. Perhaps you want to master yoga or take a cooking class. The list of things you can do for personal enrichment is virtually endless. Not only will this provide enjoyment and relaxation, it can help you to learn more about yourself and your passions.
Traveling is one of the most popular reasons for taking a gap year before college starts. Once your education begins, it can be harder to find the time to visit abroad. A year of travel before starting classes can be a mind-opening and refreshing experience. The opportunity to see new sites, meet new people, eat things you have never tried, and immerse yourself in different cultures is priceless. It can help you to not only learn more about yourself but about how you want to benefit the world at large.
Some students take a gap year for some extra time to improve their grades. If you know you could do better on your college entrance exams, this time will offer you ample opportunity to retake them. It also gives you a chance to improve your study habits and master any subjects that present a challenge to you.
“Sometimes it’s important to work for that pot of gold. But other times it’s essential to take time off and to make sure that your most important decision in the day simply consists of choosing which color to slide down on the rainbow.” —Douglas Pagels
Getting a College Rejection Letter Is Not a Closed Door
If you had your heart set on a particular school, there is nothing stopping you from trying again. Maybe you can look into transfer opportunities by acquiring some credits at a local community college and then re-apply when you are ready. You can also start from scratch and apply at schools similar to your first choice. Perhaps you missed a gem during the first search you did.
While choosing a place to call home over the next four years is overwhelming, believe in your heart that you will end up in the best place for you, that all things work in harmony within the universe and that nothing happens by accident. Knowing that you will be OK no matter what can make all the difference in how you approach things going forward.
Your life in college is ultimately going to be a success if you make it a success. Very few people follow an educational or career plan to the letter. Circumstances, tastes, and preferences change. New opportunities arise that were never there before. College is a time to explore those opportunities. How you take advantage of them with your own effort, motivation, and unique skills is what will matter far more than the diploma you get in the end.