10 ways to cope with college rejection

Photo by Daniel Herron on Unsplash

It’s almost April and we all know what that means: thousands of young people across America are hearing back from the colleges they applied to months earlier. This was a record year for college applications (global pandemic, anyone?) and while many college applicants will receive acceptance letters, even more will rejection letters.

Being told “no” is simply a part of life, but college rejection represents the first big rejection many young adults experience. And I’ve witnessed the ensuing emotional devastation firsthand. I remember the day the graduating senior class at my high school received their answers from the UCs (Universities of California). They had all gotten acceptance or rejection letters via email, during school hours. I remember walking through the hallway, seeing half the senior class sprinting and skipping with joy, while the other half were sprawled out on the floor in tears, heads buried into their backpacks.

That mental image has stayed with me for years, and for a long time, I have wanted to write a blog post on how to cope when you didn’t get into the college you wanted. Here are ten ways to cope with the sting of the big answer being “no.”

Give yourself time to feel your feelings. It will take some time. Let yourself feel disappointed, sad, heartbroken, rejected. What you resist persists, so if you don’t face/feel the feelings, you won’t be able to process them. Write in a journal. Vent or cry to a friend or family member. Throw the tantrum on the kitchen floor. Do what you need to do (stay legal of course!). Then, when you know it’s time, pick yourself up and begin again.

Nip the negative self-talk in the bud. Let me be the first person to say it: You’re not a “loser” and there’s nothing wrong with you. If you’re personalizing the rejection (“This means I’m unlovable/stupid/I did something wrong”), comparing yourself unfairly to others (“Leah got into XYZ university because she’s so much better than me”), engaging in black and white thinking or jumping to conclusions (“I simply won’t be happy at any other school”) (“If I don’t go to XZY university, I’ll never be the person I want to be”), thought records can help you interrupt and challenge these distorted thoughts. Read my post explaining how to use thought records and get a free thought record template emailed to you here.

Familiarize yourself with stories about people who didn’t get what they wanted…and it turned out to be just fine. Or better. Like the Rolling Stones song goes: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well, you just might find you get what you need.” Steven Spielberg got rejected from USC film school, and we all know how his film career turned out in the end….without them. (They brought him back for a honorary doctorate years later!) Walt Disney’s first animation company in Kansas City went bankrupt, but if it hadn’t, maybe he never would have started over in Los Angeles and became a huge success. Sometimes I thank the heavens for the things I thought I wanted that I didn’t get. With time and perspective, I usually end up feeling that I dodged bullets that I either didn’t see or didn’t want to see at the time. The same could be the case for you.

Remember who you are. “I know that no matter where I go, I’ll still be me. I’ll still do well. I’ll still be awesome.” These words were spoken to me by an eighth grader I worked with who was applying to private high schools. Her parents were freaked out about the possibility of her not getting in to any of them and having to go to the local public school, but she sat there in confidence that no matter what happened, she was still going to succeed, because that’s the kind of person she is. Take inventory of your unique strengths and and remind yourself that no matter what , you have what it takes to do well and be happy. The college you end up attending won’t make or break your entire life. It doesn’t have that kind of power over you. Only you have that power. Chances are you’ve already overcome some form(s) of adversity in your life, and maybe you’ve also had some pretty amazing triumphs. Remember your power. Remember who are you are.

Appeal (with care). If you want to appeal the decision to the admissions department, go ahead and do so, but with a reasonable amount of caution. You know yourself best. Is appealing going to put you in the space of keeping all your eggs in one basket, or can you appeal while being realistic about your chances while warming up to other possible options in the meantime? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for advocating for oneself. As a psychologist, however, I can also see how choosing the appeal process might result in a repeat of what you’ve just been through emotionally. In addition, it could end up stalling your grieving/acceptance process. We’re only human after all, and humans tend to attach to specific (desired) outcomes. Be honest with yourself, and weigh if appealing is worth the emotional tab you might have to pay later on.

Identify what you liked about your top choice(s) and see if you can create or find it someplace else. “What did you like about them?” is a question I ask clients in therapy when they experience romantic rejection/break ups, and it applies to the college application process as well! What specifically did you want out of that college? Was it the name/prestige? Getting to live in a big city (or a tiny farm town)? Was it the parties, the Greek life, or their amazing Art History program? Like I said, be honest and get as specific as you can. Now ask yourself: “Can I find this elsewhere?” With a tiny bit of flexibility, the answer could be yes. After all, as I talk about in my new book on college students and mental health, colleges are businesses that know all about supply and demand.

Dealing with rejection is preparation for life. Use this moment to build the muscle. We envy people who seem to get everything they want exactly when they want it, but they don’t get to build the skill of bouncing back from failure and rejection, which is the key to succeeding in life. I used to take rejection really, really hard. In fact, I believe it kept me from going after things I wanted when I was younger. Nowadays, I get rejected for something I want nearly every week, but I’m happier because I’m chasing the things that matter to me. I still feel discouraged from time to time, but the feeling moves through me a lot more quickly. Being able to bounce back from rejection is a life skill. This is the perfect time to practice it.

Give yourself credit for trying. In life, having the guts to show up and try are what matters. To quote Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Or, as Lana Del Rey puts it:

Keep perspective. If you just got rejected from college, I’m assuming you are most likely on the younger side. I know this feels like a huge deal and in some ways it is! But trust me: you have so much time ahead of you. Remember when you were, say, in fifth grade a kid in your class made fun of your nose? You probably felt like it was the end of the world. Maybe there was an adult in your life at the time who said: “Listen, in five years you aren’t even going to remember this kid’s last name.” I work with middle schoolers and one truth I’ve found about being that age is that everything feels like the BIGGEST DEAL EVER (TM). But it’s not. Keep in mind that with time, this rejection is not going to feel like as big of a deal as it does today.

Here’s a secret: A lot of people don’t care where you went to college. Of course, certain names do carry prestige and matter to some people, but in my adult life experience, where you go to college doesn’t actually matter all that much. I’ve learned that if a potential employer or graduate school likes you (your personality, your ability to get along with others, your work ethic, your work, etc.) the fact that you also went to a “good school” is just icing on the cake. And think of it this way: Would you really want an employer who is so status-obsessed that they only care that you have a fancy degree from some fancy school and not at all about who you are and what you bring to the table beyond that? Sure, a big name might open some doors, but are those the only kind of doors you’ll ever care about walking through?

***

At the end of the day, I know you will get through this. It will be hard and painful for awhile, but your life will go on and you will adapt. Maybe you’ll even be happier than you ever thought you could be. Maybe not. But, like relationships, things tend to go much more smoothly when the desire from both parties is equal and mutual. You deserve to go to a college that can’t wait for you to set foot on their campus, who has been waiting for an applicant just like you.

Hey, current and soon-to-be college students! Check out my new book After the Acceptance Letter: Seven Healthy Mindsets for Emotional Wellness in College. It’s all about how to manage your mental and emotional wellbeing during the college years. It’s a quick read with fun stories and interactive exercises – perfect for those of you who realize that good mental health is a hallmark of feeling great, inside and out.

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This site is for informational purposes only. It isn’t intended to diagnose or treat any mental health problems and is not intended as psychological advice.
© 2021 Gina Davis, PsyD. All rights reserved.

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