How To Handle College Rejection Letters

Every spring thousands of students receive rejection letters from colleges and universities. While it is disappointing, particularly when a top choice school sends a rejection letter, there are steps students can take to manage upsetting news and move forward in the admissions process.

Acknowledge Disappointment

It is upsetting. No one wants to get a rejection letter. When a student has put time and effort into vising a school, submitting an application, and picturing him or herself on campus, rejection is hurtful. It is okay to spend a day or two grieving the loss of an opportunity. Students who acknowledge their feelings of disappointment, anger, frustration, or loss are better able to move onto new possibilities than those who try to ignore their feelings and end up lashing out at family and friends unexpectedly.

Reevaluate criteria and priorities.

Once the initial shock and disappointment wear off, get back to the big picture of finding a college that is a good fit. This means letting go of the option that is no longer available and getting into the mindset of finding the next choice. I’ve worked with students who ended up with no options by the time they graduated because they refused to get past the disappointment of a rejection and move on to “Plan B.”

This step goes hand in hand with attainable admissions standards. Sometimes rejection letters force students to face unpleasant facts. This is often where good (and great) students are told they are not exceptional enough to gain admission to the ultra-selective colleges on their lists. It is a time to look for great schools with friendlier admissions policies. Reevaluating the initial criteria for selecting colleges can help refocus on the overall goal.

Evaluate Other Acceptance Offers

Hopefully students will have developed lists of potential schools so that they will have other offers of admission. Focusing on the positive acceptances and the possibilities of each can help students handle rejection. This is why I have moved away from the term “backup school” because I want students to see all options as good choices and not feel they have to settle if they aren’t accepted at their top choice school.

Even if all top choice schools sent rejection letters, a student can still find a positive alternative. It is as if a student finds she won’t get a new luxury car, but will receive an economy car. Seeing the benefits of the new car, even if it is an economy model rather than a luxury one, can help. Other acceptance offers are better than no acceptance offers.

Apply to Other Schools if Necessary

If a student has been rejected from all schools to which he or she applied, it may be necessary to submit applications to additional colleges. Students who have reason to believe they will not receive any letters of acceptance should look for schools with easier admissions standards than the ones they applied to before.

I know application deadlines have passed at many schools, but there are still options. Schools with late spring application deadlines or rolling decision options may accept applications as late as May or June for fall registration. These new schools may have friendlier admission criteria, but don’t assume students will get in without trying. (In other words, don’t underestimate these colleges. Later deadlines doesn’t mean they accept everyone; put effort into those applications.)

In May colleges evaluate how many students have enrolled and how much space, if any, they have available in the incoming class. Students in need of a backup school in May, June, or July should contact their counselors to find out which colleges and universities still have openings for the fall semester.

Move On

The final step and handling college rejection is moving on. After a week or two of lamenting the lost opportunity, students need to move on. Accepting rejection, whether from a college, employer, or potential date, is part of growing up. Learning to handle rejection in a mature calm manner will help students avoid potentially embarrassing situations in the future and open their minds to new opportunities.


When highly-selective universities have admissions rates below 10 percent, even valedictorians are denied admission. What students do in the days and weeks following will determine if they are successfully able to handle rejection and move on.



Tips For Finding Quality Backup Schools

Last week we passed the January 15 application deadline.  Most high school seniors should have submitted their college applications and now is the time most families wait to hear back from all the colleges on the list.  It is also the perfect time to make sure your child has at least one quality backup school on his or her list.

I stress the word “quality” because many families assume that the ultimate backup will be the area community college.  While community and junior colleges serve a great purpose, most of the students I know who applied to four year universities see these schools as unacceptable alternatives.

A quality backup school is one that is seen as acceptable to everyone in the family, meets the basic criteria (location, major, etc.), and would be viewed as a good alternative if all other plans fell through.  I encourage every student to plan for a financial and admissions backup when they develop their college list.

The financial backup is there in case none of the scholarship possibilities work out or family finances take a downward turn due to the economy or job loss.  The admissions backup is the school that will admit that student.  The state schools in Texas publish automatic admissions numbers, so many of my clients are encouraged to find a school from that list, but I’ve also had clients who have added at least one four-year school with open admissions policies, meaning they accept all applicants.

Part of college planning involves preparing for the worst-case admissions scenario.  I think it’s human nature to think “it will never happen to me.”  I think back to a former student who came into the high school counseling office one spring day.  She had just received her final college admissions notice and the news was not good.  Denied!  She applied to five schools and received five rejection letters.  She was stunned.  This was a good student in the top of her class with plenty of activities and personal strengths.  But she also had a list of five very competitive universities with no backup schools.

We sat down and started brainstorming options.  I suggested a number of universities where the application deadlines had not passed.  Each time she said, “I’d rather go to Columbia” or “Brown or Swarthmore are better.”  I kept reminding her that those ideal dream schools had sent her rejection letters; they were no longer options.  She insisted that she didn’t want to apply to any state universities and she didn’t want to “settle for less.”  It took a couple weeks and a few more meetings before she was ready to develop a better backup plan.

Ideally, students will plan ahead and incorporate quality backup schools in their college list in the fall.  Here’s what seniors can do this spring if they need to add some additional options:

  1.  Reevaluate criteria and priorities.  Get into the mindset of finding the school that would be the next choice if all the others sent rejection letters.  This doesn’t mean settling for less; it means finding a school that offers strong opportunities, but maybe be less well known or have easier admissions standards.  (Think “If I can’t drive the new Mercedes, would I still be happy with a new Honda Accord?”  Personally, I’d rather have the Honda than ride the bus.)
  2. Look for schools with late spring application deadlines.  I’m familiar with the schools in my state that have late spring admissions deadlines.  I also use the Common Application Deadline & Requirement chart.  Keep in mind that schools with rolling decision may not list a final application deadline, but once they fill their incoming class, they stop accepting students.
  3. Take applications seriously.  Just because a school may be a backup doesn’t mean students should assume they will get in without trying.  I encourage my clients to take the same approach they did with all other schools – send quality essays, take time to review and proofread, and send in optional supporting materials.
  4. Check the “space available” colleges.  In May colleges evaluate how many students have enrolled and how much space, if any, they have.  If you are in need of a backup school in May, June, or July, contact your counselor to find out which colleges and universities still have openings for students.

It is best to plan ahead and start thinking about alternatives junior year, but even in spring semester of senior year, students can take steps to add quality backup schools to their list.


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College Admission: Can We Beat The System?


My son is applying to a bunch of state schools in Texas, but Texas A&M is his top choice. He is not in the top 10%, so won’t be automatically admitted.   He wants to apply to engineering, but it is so competitive at A&M. Would he be better off listing his first choice major in engineering and his second choice in another less-competitive field?  (We were thinking agriculture.)


This is a popular question. Essentially it boils down to whether or not students who are applying to a competitive school can game the system by choosing a particular major. In other words, this parent is asking if it would it be easier for her son to get into A&M if he chose a major other than engineering.  Would it increase his odds?

First, a word of caution, at some schools it’s very difficult to change majors. There are some universities where it is almost impossible to transfer into a popular major if you are not initially admitted into that program.  Some students trying to find ways around competitive admissions standards find themselves stuck in a program they don’t like.

One example…I was touring North Carolina State University two years ago. One of their most competitive programs is Elementary Education. At the time they were admitting 60 students per year and the only way you could transfer into Elementary Education was if one of those 60 people left.

Be very careful in applying to things that aren’t really your intention with the idea of being able to increase your odds for admission.

Second, schools are going to look at a student’s first choice of major and if that student doesn’t qualify, they will offer another department before rejecting the student.  Going back to the question, if the son doesn’t qualify for engineering at A&M but A&M would have him in another department, they will make an offer of admission.  In other words, the school will say, “We don’t have a place for you in engineering but we do have a place for you at the university in general.”

For years I’ve heard rumors generated by students looking for short-cuts. Some of them are just laughable. When I worked as a school counselor I heard students strategizing about how they would get past their lower class ranks and gain admission to the University of Texas.  One said,  “Man, you’ve got to apply to UT as a nursing student. They don’t get a lot of applications from guys in nursing. You’ll be in.”   I didn’t want to interrupt their conversation as I was eavesdropping, but the school of nursing at the University of Texas is pretty competitive. True, they do get more women applying, but they still get a number of very well qualified, very interested, young men. That strategy was not going to work!

Most often when you hear the latest way to get around challenging admissions standards, it isn’t true.  If you are torn between different majors and aren’t sure what to list on your application, give the university an honest answer based on your top choices at the time.  If the student from this question is honestly interested in both engineering and agriculture, it would be fine to list engineering first and agriculture second.  When in doubt, you can always call the admissions office and speak to a counselor.

As my grandfather always told us, “When you tell one lie, you have to tell 100 more to keep covering it up.”  Don’t play games with your college applications.  Answer honestly.


Do you have any questions about admission rumors you’ve heard?  Want to share some of the crazy strategies people are discussing in your area?  Leave a comment below.



College Admission: Getting In Doesn’t Matter If They Can’t Stay In

Rice University

It can seem like getting into college is the biggest challenge these days.  Unfortunately, getting in is only the beginning.  The real challenge is staying in and graduating.

Years ago, I had a student, J.P., who graduated in the top quarter of his high school class.  He was thrilled to be accepted by a number of colleges and he selected a small liberal arts school about three hours away from home.  At graduation, everything looked perfect.  His future was just as he imagined.  But when I saw J.P. in October, things were different.

After sitting down in my office, J.P. began explaining that he had been expelled from college for drug problems and he would be enrolling in community college for the winter term.  J.P. wasn’t involved with drugs in high school and his father was a prominent doctor in the community.  How could this happen to a good student?

J.P. admitted that he wasn’t ready for the sudden freedom and responsibility he had in college.  He also wasn’t prepared for the extremely liberal and permissive culture he found at his college.  He quickly fell in with a drug-using crowd, justifying to himself that “everyone is doing it” and “this is just part of college.”  Within the first month of school he had a few encounters with campus security.  And by mid-October he had been arrested, charged with drug offenses, and asked to leave the college.

I know students can have trouble adjusting to college life.  I understand sudden freedom can be too much for some students.  I just never expected a good student like J.P. to be one of the first of his graduating class to have to drop out.

As the excitement of high school graduation is behind us and students are enjoying the summer before heading off to school, it is essential to plan ahead for the challenges of college life.

J.P.’s situation stands out in my mind because it was so unexpected.  I’ve had a number of former students with more predictable college problems.  As you are in the college planning process, watch for these foreseeable issues:

  • In over their heads.  Some students are thrilled to be accepted at one of their “reach” schools only to find themselves struggling to keep up academically.  Other schools can put students in over their heads socially.  Look for a good fit in all areas.
  • Not ready to live independently.  Some students just aren’t ready for the responsibility of living on their own.  Other students, especially those who finished high school early, aren’t ready for some of the social dynamics on campus. In these situations a year or two at a community college may help.  Some students do better living at home and attending a university within driving distance.
  • Academically unprepared.  Unfortunately, a high school diploma doesn’t indicate readiness for college-level work.  Some students skated by in high school without learning foundational material and they need remedial classes before they are ready for university work.
  • Financially unable to finish.  Too often I’ve had parents tell me, “If he gets into ____, we will find a way to pay for it.”  The family that can barely afford the first year of college is often unable to keep up with tuition increases.  I’ve seen too many students who had to leave their dream schools after one year because they were unable to afford it.
  • Lack of motivation or purpose.  Yes, some unmotivated high school students find their purpose and passion in college.  Others seem to drag out the process – changing majors, dropping classes mid-semester, and making excuses for lack of performance.
  • All fun; no work.  I think we all have heard of some kid who partied his way out of college.  It happens more frequently than parents like to admit.  Sometimes good kids fall into a party crowd at college; other students are a party waiting to happen no matter where they attend.
  • Bad fit.  I’ve worked with students who insisted on applying to schools that didn’t fit — academically, socially, politically, geographically, financially, etc.  As much as these students tried to make these schools work, a bad fit in any area makes it very difficult to stay.  A great student at the wrong school will be unhappy and unproductive.

Try to identify potential problems and avoid them in your college search process.  Keep in mind “fit” isn’t just about finding a school that will admit you based on your scores and grades; it is about finding the college where you will be most successful.

J.P. had to struggle through the resulting legal troubles related to his drug arrest, but he was fortunate that he learned his lesson early and was able to get back on track academically.  After finishing his freshman year at community college, he was able to transfer to a state university where he finished his degree.

Remember, getting into college doesn’t matter if you can’t stay in.