Unexpected College Rejection & What You Can Do About It

I’m always encouraging families to plan ahead and strategize for all possible outcomes. In the past 20+ years of helping students with test prep and college admission, I’ve seen a wide range of situations from the foreseeable and preventable to the unexpected, tragic, and downright bizarre. 

As much as I work with clients to plan for the uncertainties inherent in today’s world of college admissions, there are times when even I am caught off guard by unexpected rejections.    Sometimes there is nothing to do but learn from mistakes, but some situations can be improved if you know what to do. 

Preventable Rejections

Many years ago, when I was working as the college counselor in a large public high school, one of my students came in to my office in the late spring shocked by her rejection from a state university. According to the university’s policies she should have qualified for automatic admission based on her class rank and test scores. But she was denied admission. 

I verified her rank and ACT scores then picked up the phone. I spoke to the admission representative assigned to our high school and explained the situation. Did they make a mistake? He pulled up my student’s file and explained that the student would have qualified for automatic admission based on the ACT score I mentioned, but she only sent her SAT score when she applied and it was not high enough. The deadline for admission had long passed, so they would not consider her higher ACT results. 

It was a day for hard lessons: colleges can only evaluate what you submit, so it is essential to verify receipt of all information before the deadline. 

Most colleges make it easy. Once you submit your part of the application, complete with payment, you will gain access to their admissions portal where you can double check receipt of key information such as

  • SAT / ACT scores
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Transcripts / school reports

Seemingly Inconsistent Rejections

One of the hardest parts of my job is explaining the seemingly inconsistent nature of college admissions to disappointed parents and students. You might get into “harder” schools and still be rejected by one you thought would be “safe.” A classmate with lower test scores or GPA might be admitted while you are not. It feels unfair. 

There is also a big difference between the analytical and the emotional side of rejection. In the fall it is easy to look at the highly selective schools, those that admit 20%, 11%, or 5% of their applicants, and say, “We understand it will be tough, but we want to apply.” In the fall it is an analytical assessment supported by the hope of a favorable outcome. But rejection feels personal. Even if you submitted the application knowing the odds of admission were slim, it hurts. 

I know I keep making analogies to casting a Broadway show or drafting a fantasy sports team. Colleges are looking to admit an entering class to fill all the “position” needs at their school. They have more applicants than open spots, so some highly qualified students will be rejected. If your kid participates in a competitive, but subjective activity, you know how it feels. You’ve shared in disappointment and said maybe you will get the part / win the debate / earn better scores next time. But with college admission, it doesn’t feel like there is a next time. 

I’m not sure anything I say can soften the blow of disappointment. Maybe the best I can do is remind you that the process can seem inconsistent and even unfair. Parents, be ready to manage your own frustrations as you help work towards the next best opportunity. 

Mistaken Rejections

Sometimes the mistake is on the college’s end. 

I had an example of one of these last week. A student was admitted to the university, but not to her first choice major. I was surprised and couldn’t explain it, but sometimes certain schools or programs change from year to year and become much more competitive. I suggested the family call the admissions office and ask what happened. It turns out the university misread her transcript and thought she failed to meet the requirements for her first choice major. They are now working with her high school to get things straightened out. 

If you are truly puzzled by a rejection and think the university might have made a mistake, call and ask. Calmly explain that you are looking for more information. Was there a specific reason for the rejection? Is there a way you can appeal the decision? 

Keep in mind, you may not get the answer you want. When I was a school counselor, I remember calling one of our state universities with one of my students. She had gotten into many of the schools on her list, many considered “better” or “more selective” than the state university. I knew she was ranked just outside the cut-off for automatic admission to this particular school, but she had top test scores and an exceptional resume. The admissions representative explained that it had been a particularly competitive year; while my student would have clearly been admitted in previous years, she just didn’t make it. No means to appeal. No change in decision. 


Rejection is disappointing at any age. No one wants to be turned down for a job or date. But we will all face rejection at some point. 

In the realm of college admission, it helps to be prepared and informed. Take time to double check your applications to avoid preventable rejection. Understand that most students will be rejected from one or more of the schools to which they apply. (Yes, even perfect score valedictorians will be rejected!) If you are truly puzzled by a college’s decision, ask for clarification. Manage your expectations and try to buffer disappointment with a well-developed college list that provides plenty of good alternatives.

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