College Rejection Letter

Dear Dr. Linda,

Please put in the column you wrote about college rejections because it helped us get through a very difficult time. I’m happy to report that Kim is doing well and is extremely happy! I’ve included the email I sent you.

Happy Parents

“Our daughter Kim, applied early decision to Cornell, and was just rejected. I graduated from Cornell, and therefore thought she had a good chance at getting in because of legacy. However, we did not rely on legacy alone. She worked hard! She took every AP course offered, her SATs were high, she’s on the varsity soccer team, plays the flute, etc. We’re in shock. My husband and I can’t figure out what went wrong. Do you have any idea what happened?” Perplexed Parents

Dear Perplexed Parents,

I wish I could tell you exactly what “went wrong,” but that’s not possible because you probably did everything exactly right and, even if you didn’t, it probably has nothing to do with why Kim was rejected.

Over the years, I have seen a student who was second in his class rejected by a prestigious college while the student who was fifth in his class was accepted. I’ve seen students get into Harvard with 1400s (out of 1600s) on the SAT and others who scored 1500 or above not get in.

It all depends on what a college is looking for at the time. The school may have enough students from a particular geographical area and so they accept a student from a different area. They may need a tuba player or a top-notch lacrosse player so that student is accepted over one who spent his weekends helping the underprivileged. One college admissions counselor once told me that when they have to choose one student and have two with essentially identical qualifications, they basically flip a coin.

It’s just a fact of life—colleges can’t accept everyone who applies. After your children have spent years building their resumes with extracurricular activities, studying for hours to keep their GPAs high, taking every course offered to ensure that they do well on the SAT and/or ACT, and volunteering for years at the animal shelter on top of it all, it’s disappointing not to get into the college they dreamed of going to.

The best gift you can give Kim, however her journey turns out, is to help her learn how to deal with rejection without feeling like a failure. Rejection is a part of life—we all suffer rejection in one way or another. If you take these rejections as indications that you somehow failed, Kim will feel like a failure too, when, in fact, none of you did anything wrong.

There’s no point in wasting your time going over and over the disappointment. Instead, rejoice in the acceptances. Once the acceptances come in (and they will if she applied to “safety” schools, too), visit those colleges before making a final decision. If you’ve already been, visit them again. Make sure Kim knows that if after she chooses, she feels she’s in the wrong college for her, she will always have the option of transferring to another college. And as long as she’s doing well academically, as I would expect she will, she can reapply to Cornell—and have a much better chance of getting in as a transfer student.

Remember that for most students and most majors, what you do at college, what you do after college and what graduate school you attend matters much more than the name of the undergraduate college you attend. This is backed by much research. In addition, the research does not say that a high-level college will necessarily help you get a better job and earn more. It’s all up to the individual and things he or she can control.

As everything else in life, timing and luck often get in the way of the best laid plans. So be sure your daughter learns that if things don’t go as she planned, she needs to get up, dust herself off and regroup.

Dr. Linda

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