Helping High School Seniors Cope with College Rejection

It’s a time of anticipation for high school seniors everywhere. With the support of their parents, they have toiled over ways to jam the essence of their lives into a single page statement, visited schools, imagined themselves as college students, and walked through the gauntlet that is standardized testing. For some, the anticipation is nothing more than a waiting game; nothing to worry about. For others, it seems as though their entire lives are held to an appraisal of pass or fail, accepted or denied.

Most seniors will encounter at least one rejection, so it’s a good idea for parents to be poised to provide the right kind of support when this occurs. There is a great span of diversity in the way that seniors anticipate decisions from colleges, and the same is true for their reactions to those decisions. It might seem obvious that you would want to be supportive, but it’s the how to be supportive that’s not always clear.  

The parent of a child with learning differences may face additional challenges. These students tend to apply to the narrower group of colleges that can provide helpful supports and accommodations. You can imagine the excitement and relief they must experience at the thought of a school full of kids “just like me,” so it also makes sense that their rejection letters would have an even greater impact. They might interpret a college rejection letter to be an indication that higher education isn’t a viable option. Or they could view it as the latest “no” in a long string of “you can’t” or “you will never” or “that’s not something you should consider.” They could easily interpret one rejection letter to mean they might as well opt out of the college scene altogether. What’s a parent to do?

Support comes in many forms, but it should always follow the same basic guideline: take your cues from your son or daughter and mirror back their feelings. If they feel wounded, you feel wounded with them. If they feel angry, you should feel angry with them. The same goes for sad, indignant or even ambivalent. It is no doubt hard to watch your child hurt from rejection, and even harder to feel it with them. It may help to remember that each difficult experience has a beginning, middle, and an end, and, unfortunately, there’s no way to short-circuit that process. This may seem like common sense, and perhaps it is, but many well-intended forms of support fall flat or even worsen the situation for teens. Here are a few pitfalls to watch out for:

  1. Minimizing.

Minimizing is a psychological strategy for managing distress. You tell yourself, “I’ll be better off in the long-run.” Whether true or false, the thought helps diffuse the impact of rejection. It’s a helpful strategy when used in moderation, but it does not pass easily from one person to another. It can be tempting to convince someone that her hardships are not as bad as they seem. “Hey, come on you didn’t really want to go there,” or “That school wasn’t right for you anyway.” It’s a gesture that comes from the right place, but minimizing someone else’s pain often worsens the situation by invalidating his or her feelings.

  1. Taking the rejection personally.

College rejection hurts you just as much as it does your child. After years of encouragement, nurturing, hand-holding, crying, running around, spending money, and of course a fair bit of nagging, you’ve got some real skin in the game. A whole lot of seniors will be rejected from schools that would have been a perfect match; perhaps even schools they are too good for! It can make you want to call up the admissions office and tell them they wouldn’t know a good student from a pile of rocks and they can take their acceptance letters and go – well, you get the idea. Meanwhile, your son or daughter still has to pick up the pieces and move on to the next good thing. If you want to be there for your child, you have to remind yourself that it’s not about you.

  1. Avoiding or sticking to the subject.

Adolescents send mixed messages. Sometimes they want to be nurtured like little kids, other times they push you away. All the while, you are trying to help them cope. Should you talk about it or shouldn’t you? The only way to know is to ask: “Do you want to talk about it?” Simple, yes, but so often overlooked. You know your kids so well and so intimately that your mind is ready and prepared to jump into action. Your experience may tell you that your son or daughter needs to talk about it, or maybe you know that time will heal if you just let it be. You might be right, but family members are always better off when they take ambiguity out of the situation and just ask.

In basketball, a good defender looks at the hips of the oncoming offensive player and moves accordingly. She takes her cues from the other player and lets go of any assumptions that could lead her astray. The same is true when helping your kids cope with rejection. Effective support is less about knowing the right thing to say and more about having the right attitude, specifically, one that is pivotal. You go where they go, and in time, they’ll be ready to move on.

Image Credit: Caro Wallis

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