Preparing for College

Thin Envelopes & Thin Skins

As I write this, we're now within a few weeks of Early Decision and Early Action results. Tensions are running high for both applicants and their families. The mail carrier is fast becoming a VIP. This is one of the most agonizing times for applicants. What will the mailbox reveal? Hopefully, not the dreaded thin envelope.

Getting a rejection letter from a college or university doesn't make you a bad person. Unfortunately, some high school seniors see themselves in a less-than-positive light when they read the bad news from a highly desired institution. Dealing with rejection is difficult. Most high schoolers tend to take being turned down by a college or university on a personal level. They seem to think that the letter from the admissions office is really saying something like, "You are deficient and we don't want to have anything to do with you." Nothing could be further from the truth.


The truth is that in a lot of cases some rejected students could have done as well, if not better, than those who were accepted. This isn't a rationalization or sour grapes. At schools where there is a significantly larger number of applications than seats (schools whose acceptance rate is 50 percent or less), there just isn't room for all the qualified applicants. This fact is borne out by the so-called Wait List. A wait list is a group of "in-betweeners" who haven't been rejected but haven't been admitted. They will be offered admission if the number of enrollments doesn't meet expectations for the incoming freshman class.

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One famous dean of admission said that his institution received so many outstanding applications that he didn't have the heart to send rejection letters. He noted that placing these fine young men and women on the wait list was his way of saying, "We should have admitted you, but we didn't have room." Such is the case with many good colleges. Everyone who is good enough to get in isn't always offered admission.

Take a little time to feel disappointed about not getting into your most-desired school(s). It's perfectly natural to feel bad. Don't dwell on it, though, and, by all means, don't develop an obsessive attitude about it. Don't hate that school from this moment on. Don't view successful candidates as elitist snobs. Accept the fact that you didn't make the cut--for whatever reason--and get on with your life.

Whitney Bruce, writing in the International Business Times, has some good thoughts about application denials:

The college sophomore who babysits for my family went silent a few weeks ago. She ignored my text messages, didn't show up for her research position, and didn't even update her status on Facebook. I worried. Susie's been a part of our family for the past 5 years, and this behavior wasn't normal. Eventually, she resurfaced, with a flurry of apologetic emails; she had failed a major exam, panicked, and, unaccustomed to failure, started a small downward spiral before she sought help.

Susie's plight isn't all that different from that of many of the high school students I work with. These students are high achievers. They've earned top grades and commensurate test scores. They've landed competitive internships; they speak five languages. They write computer code in languages I can't even name. Should these students be applying to some of the most competitive colleges in the country? Yes. Will they be admitted? I hope so, as each would bring something unique to their campus of choice. But I'm well acquainted with the statistics and the strength of the applicant pool. For some of my students, who have never received a "B," a "no" from a top choice college will be one of their first academic setbacks.

I agree with Sue Biemeret, as she wrote for The Choice in "Bracing Students, and Parents, to Hear 'No,'" the thin envelope isn't as much a rejection, as it is not being accepted. It's not a failure. It is not a tragedy. It is a disappointment. But, by any name, it hurts. In the best of circumstances, it becomes a learning experience that the student can carry with them into their college career. Some high schools name dozens of students Valedictorian, but very few will retain that type of honor as they conclude the next step in their educational path.

Frequently, I've asked a student planning to submit a single Early Decision application how he will feel if he isn't admitted. In some cases, based upon the colleges to which the student is applying, he will wait four long months between the initial rejection and some good news. Some students are emotionally prepared for that, others claim to be, and a few determine that an early plan application isn't for them -- primarily because they don't want to deal with that tense wait.

The college application process is a long one, and it isn't entirely about the admission decisions themselves. For many families, it brings to the forefront many issues that parents and teens must face as students move onto the next phase of their lives. For students aspiring to attend the nation's most selective colleges, the process may culminate with one of the few setbacks that these accomplished students have met to date. With practical planning, and a balanced list of college options, they will find themselves happily moving forward next fall.

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So, then, what's the bottom line from where I sit? Embrace those schools that have embraced you. Select the one that best suits your needs and prepare to have a great higher-education experience. Yes, indeed; there is life after rejection.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.