On an unseasonably warm day in December 2006, I opened my mailbox to find a dreaded “small envelope” from my top choice college. My dad, who was standing on the front porch, watched me deflate as I processed the news.
In the months leading up to that moment, I had created an elaborate mental narrative of my life as a student at this college. Everyday, I imagined myself eating in the dining hall, studying in the majestic library, and proudly telling others that I attended school there. As soon as I discovered that I had been rejected, my narrative totally evaporated.
The rejection did not only force me to give up on a detailed story that I had fashioned over the course of many months; it also caused me to question my intelligence and personal worth. Had all of my hard work in high school been worth it? Was I now doomed to a life of mediocrity? Most importantly, what was I going to tell my friends?
Years later, my dad and I still recall this ill-fated trip to the mailbox as a particularly painful experience. I will admit that I did not truly “get past it” until several months into my freshman year of college, when my actual professors, friends, and experiences started to feel more meaningful to me than the life that I had imagined at the other school. I remember the joy of this realization just as vividly as I remember the pain of my dream school rejection. This is just one example of how both pain and joy continue to shape us throughout our lives.
In the coming weeks of December, many seniors will receive admissions decisions from the colleges where they sent early applications. Some of these decisions will include rejections. Even so, I am confident that all of the seniors will reach the same point that I did: the point when they feel satisfied with the way that their post-high school life is working out. In the meantime, though, how can we (as parents, teachers, and peers) support seniors as they deal with the short-term sting of a college rejection letter?
First, it’s important to remember that entering into the admissions pool of any college requires courage and risk. We applaud the seniors for believing in themselves enough to take this risk and put their applications forward. Even if they do not receive a favorable decision in the end,
they have still gained self-awareness and strength from the college process.
Secondly, we should keep in mind that admissions decisions are not personal. Of course, this seems totally counterintuitive! College applications, which include thoughtful essays, activities lists, and letters of recommendation, are highly personal documents from start to finish. Admissions decisions, on the other hand, have more to do with the needs of a specific college than the worth of an individual student. Due to the increasingly competitive landscape of colleges in the United States, many well-qualified applicants are rejected in each admissions cycle. I advise seniors against “justifying” their admissions decisions, or trying to search for reasons why they were or were not admitted. Indulging in this kind of conjecture is not productive.
Above all, please encourage seniors to look for reminders of their self-worth. In a recent letter that Mrs. Taylor and I wrote to students and parents, we suggested that seniors re-read their peer reference. This letter is an honest and valuable account of their finest qualities. Re-reading it will offer a boost. If that boost is not enough, Mrs. Taylor and I will be happy to share a true example of something positive that we heard someone say or write about each senior during the college process. Just stop by our office! We are also happy to help seniors to reframe their college lists for the regular decision round.
I am so proud of how this year’s seniors have handled themselves in the college process so far. In the midst of life’s acceptances, rejections, and everything in between, we should all remember that we are capable of "doing anything good."