It’s college application decisions season—a time that high school seniors and transfer students dread.
It feels like a cosmic roulette wheel, a Hunger Games of sorts with our fellow peers/ applicants/ competitors/ fighters to the death. These yes or no decisions seem to tyrannize our life trajectories.
At the gut level, rejection really feels this way: despair, anger, & anxiety flood our system. And studies show that when we’re rejected from something we care about (like a breakup, exclusion friend group, or in our case, rejection from our dream school), our brains and bodies experience signals similar to physical pain. Scientists believe this happens because rejection, from an evolutionary standpoint, was detrimental to our survival as a species. So it’s no accident that you may feel literally “heartbroken” by this.
“At the gut level, rejection feels like like real pain.”
But, rejection during college decision season is normal, so here are some insights for handling it in a way that won’t cause you to feel badly about the situation (or worse, yourself)—and hopefully set you up for handling rejection in a positively in the future.
Read: What Will Your College Decision Letter Say?
“If you’ve been a “perfect” student your whole life, you’re at risk for interpreting rejection the most harshly.”
In a recent Modern Family episode, there’s a scene where Alex Dunphy, the overachiever of the family with a perfect academic record and years of sweat, blood & tears to show for it, finds out she gets rejected from Harvard. In response, she gets inebriated at an outdoor concert, dances wildly on the stage, then proclaims to her less-achievement-oriented sister:
“What’s the point? Get straight A’s for ten years, spend your summers building houses, drag your cello to school everyday, write the perfect essay—and for what? … I don’t care anymore! I’ve spent my entire life trying to be perfect, and where did it get me?”
To which her sister Haley replies: “You’re obviously going to get into one of those snooty schools, and sometimes you’re gonna come in second. Or fourth. Or maybe even tenth. But you’re gonna dust yourself off—maybe put on some lipstick for once—and keep going.”
I’ve spoken with students who’ve never earned a grade lower than an A. The thought of anything less than perfect, to them, is failure. It’s these students who I worry about the most when it comes to college rejection.
In the college application rat race, we in the education world have not given HS students much middle ground between excellence-at-all-costs and utter-failure. We haven’t given you—the one reading this—enough permission to try new things, take risks, and fail well.
So, when you do fail (i.e. get rejected from a dream school), you feel like you’re falling off a cliff.
Start accepting now that there IS a middle ground—an enormous, valuable, and healthier middle ground—between perfection and failure. Making mistakes, getting rejected, coming in second is real life: you won’t be stellar at everything; you won’t get accepted everywhere.
And honestly—do you really want to get accepted everywhere? Or would you rather have a school that fits you for who you are? (For inspiration on this “best fit” idea, check out this guy’s story about how he got accepted into each Ivy League school, but chose to attend the University of Alabama instead.)
Think of rejection as a sign, not an end.
It feels despairing to be told no. But what if it’s a good thing? The school to which you applied knows what it’s looking for in its student population—and maybe, instead of seeing it as them closing the door on your face, what if they’re redirecting you to a better situation?
I had to accept this when I got rejected from Princeton: I couldn't afford it, it was far away from home, and to be honest, I was only applying there because of its prestigious brand name.
“I only applied to Princeton because of its prestigious brand name.”
What's more, I hadn’t done any research on what my actual experience at Princeton would’ve been like. I know now, years later, that my time at Calvin College—a small liberal arts school in Michigan—was more what I needed because it was a better “fit” in so many ways.
Also, keep in mind that there are other options, other possibilities, for what your life could look like. Rejection, ironically, opens up those doors. Take some time to notice them!
To help, check out this hilarious and invent-ful Ted Talk from Jia Jiang, a booming entrepreneur, in which he tells the story of how he turned rejection into a game for himself. You might be surprised at what he found out.
Read: I Thought Community College Meant I Failed. I Was Wrong.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone reviewing applications.
Imagine that you’re sitting at the table with the admissions team, trying to sort through who’s in and who’s out. And there are hundreds—thousands—of applications, each with similar records, essays, transcripts, resumes, AP scores, National Merits, extracurriculars, social media platforms (that’s a thing now, apparently?), and anything else.
How could you possibly decide who to accept, and who to reject? I get anxious thinking about it.
Putting yourself into admissions committees’ shoes might help put things into perspective. Clearly, it’s not that you aren’t smart, or capable, or qualified, or worthy. These are tough decisions to make, no matter the school.
“Rejection is hard for both the rejected AND the rejector, but it happens for a reason.”
Brennan Bernard, a college counselor in New Hampshire, writes in the New York Times:
“The reality is that there are limited beds and insufficient financial aid available to accommodate the wealth of qualified applicants. This makes for painful decisions, not only for the applicant, but also for the invested admission officer who has shepherded an applicant through this process.”
Well said. It's hard to believe that college admissions committees get a thrill of rejecting students. I can’t imagine them dancing around the firelight, howling in delight as they watch the Reject Pile burn before their sadistic eyes.
“As it is often said,” Bernard continues, “college admission review is an art and not a science. Be they artist or scientists, rest assured that though imperfect, this is a well-intentioned process even if, in the end, the papacy will not be yours.”
Realize that life will go on.
You may have already gotten a rejection letter and are still wallowing. Or you might not really care that you got “rejected,” per se; you’re just desperate to know what comes next.
Either way, it’s difficult to know what’s worth freaking out over and what’s not. Right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if not getting into your dream school felt something akin to being told you’ve got no chance at life—and the subsequent disappointment and sadness that comes with it.
But perspective comes with time. It gets easier to know what’s a big deal, and what’s a normal, redeemable setback.
Take me. I’ve been rejected a lot. For example (and not limited to):
When I didn’t get into law school my senior year of college (and thankfully.)
When I pitched articles and stories to editors with a form rejection letter as a response.
When I didn’t get the summer internship I wanted.
When I never heard back from the plethora of jobs I applied to after college.
When in college I pitched a story idea (IN PERSON) to an actual editor, and he laughed and said “no, thanks.”
Every time this happened, it sucked—and I don’t think that’ll ever change. In fact, it’d be insensitive to suggest so. Like I said at the beginning of this post, a lot of our responses to rejection are hardwired—so don’t blame yourself for feeling bad when it happens.
But the good news is that our brains are also hardwired to bounce back from rejection! You're mentally equipped with everything you need to reorient yourself toward success. And in the grand scheme of things, rejection does not have to be the end of the world. (Life hint: the more you experience it, the easier it is to accept and ratify as a normal part of life.)
I have a feeling anyway that if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already used your gumption to get back on that horse.
At least give yourself credit for trying.
Putting yourself out there is a brutally vulnerable process. You welcome critique, judgment, and assessment (often by people you don’t even know.) Worst of all, you invite the possibility of failing.
However, in trying, you also open up the possibility for success.
I tell this to students all the time: by not trying something, you automatically cancel out the possibility of success. So if you want success, you can never stop trying.
Consider this quote from one of my favorite films, Little Miss Sunshine, in which Olive Hoover, child beauty pageant contestant, begins to doubt herself. In a heartfelt scene, she cries to her grandpa: “I don’t want to be a loser.”
Grandpa responds with: “You’re not a loser! Where'd you get the idea you're a loser? You know what a loser is? A real loser is somebody that's so afraid of not winning, they don't even try. Now, you're trying, right? *Olive nods.* Well, then, you're not a loser.”
This quote highlights a key reason I’m so proud of my students—and all students who undergo such a strenuous college application process. It is tough business. You have to try real hard. But to those of you who show up, ready to put yourself out there and make great things happen, a sincere tip of the hat.
Read: So You’re Under Qualified? Apply Anyway.
Finally, when rejection strikes, do something fun.
Remind yourself of what you like to do. Spend time with friends and family. Go eat some ice cream and take a walk in the sun. Read a good book. Find solace in the little things. Whatever you need to do to distract yourself and get back your center of gravity.
Yes, it may hurt, but it wasn’t wasted time. (Life hint: when you get in the habit of bouncing back, it's never wasted time.) You’re taking steps to get to wherever you’re headed next—which right now, you can’t possibly predict.
So relax, close your computer, and go be in the world. You’re worth it to give yourself a little slack.