University of Rejection: College Decision Time

How to take down the pressure when everyone else is freaking out

The madness starts in mid-December and lasts through the spring of high school students’ senior year.

It is a time in which neurosis commandeers the souls of students and parents. Few are able to think straight. Reach schools become the obsession, but as rejections start coming in, psyches are shattered. Both students’ and parents’ self-esteem are in free-fall — and everyone begins to panic.

Where a student goes to college will not necessarily make or break him, but it is difficult for students not to become overwhelmed in the moment.

As someone who has guided hundreds of families through the process, I can share several insights to help keep you and your child relatively sane.

Keep a Healthy Perspective
An open mind is essential throughout the process. No one is predestined for a specific college. Hollywood is not writing a script for you. Parents who have pushed their kids to their alma mater since birth are doing everyone a disservice. Rejection from the family school can make a child feel like they let down the entire family. Stay balanced and flexible.

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Remember Independence
Students need to approach each college as objectively as possible, and apply to schools they connect with strongly. While admission to college is the beginning of massive expenses, parents need to provide as much independence to their children as possible. Students who are allowed to apply to schools on their own tend to deal better with rejection.

Have Realistic Expectations
Reach schools are reaches for a reason. If your child does not get into an Ivy League college, recognize that he or she is not alone. Your child, in fact, makes up the supermajority. Keeping your perspective intact throughout the admissions process is critical.

Know Your Admissions Etiquette
If your child is admitted into his dream school, there’s no need for him (or for you) to post it on every social media outlet. Keep acceptances and rejections as quiet as possible to the outside world. People eventually will find out where your child is heading. There’s no need for virtual boasting about your child’s collegiate business.

Maintain a Little Distance
Parents must do their best to keep some separation from the college process. When rejection letters start coming in (and they will), parents will be able to comfort their children more effectively if they’ve kept a healthy distance. I have heard many stories of parents walking around town openly crying as a result of a rejection letter. Such behavior can impact a child’s self worth and put even greater stress on that student.

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When rejection letters arrive, parents need to be present, but say very little. High school seniors are extraordinarily resilient. Some will cry it out for a few minutes and then be fine. Others may experience acute self-doubt, but that, too, will pass. Parents just need to be in the house, within shouting distance. If your child wants to talk to you, he will. And please don’t share your own rejection stories with your child at this time. The process is about your child, not you.

Avoid Clichés
With real life comes real feelings; inadequacy is prevalent. Parents must avoid delivering clichés to their children. No adolescent wants to hear, “It’s the school’s loss.” Parents should keep quiet unless the child wants to talk. Teenagers are not interested in learning a life lesson at their emotional expense. Let your child organically come to terms with the rejection. Do not force the issue.

Live by Example
Parents tend to be the ones who fuel the fire of admissions neurosis. To quell this obsession, do your best to talk about other things with neighbors and friends. Recognizing the elephant in the room is OK, but quickly move on. There’s no need for a parent to share his child’s college track record with others in the community. Parents should treat their child’s college acceptances and rejections the same way they treat their salary.

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Consider the ‘Grit’
Remember that Warren Buffet was rejected from Harvard, and he did OK. A recent Wall Street Journal article said financial firms prefer Penn State grads to Ivy League alumni. Employers want grit. Getting rejected from a dream school helps form that grit. Excelling at a college that’s bigger than your child’s hometown develops even greater grit.

Return to the Basics
Family dinners are a great way for high school seniors to decompress. Traditional around-the-table meals are not necessary. As long as everyone is together, eating on the couch is OK. It is incredibly cathartic for the child to have everyone around him. If he wants to grunt, talk, or just scream, that’s par for the course during this time.

Get Pumped
Getting rejected from college can motivate a student. While there’s no need to feel that a specific college is “dead to me,” proving to yourself that the college made a mistake can be incredibly powerful. Success is the best revenge.

Daniel Riseman, founder of Riseman Educational Consulting in Irvington, New York, has been counseling students and working with families for 16 years on every aspect of the college admissions process, including tutoring students for SAT and ACT tests, selecting schools and majors, and writing essays.

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