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How to help students handle disappointments

Students who have been wait-listed or rejected by a college rely on you for insight and direction on how to proceed with their college enrollment plans. Offer them the guidance they need to enroll successfully at a college that is a good fit.

Advising wait-listed students

The handful of seniors who discover that they have been wait-listed — neither accepted nor rejected — may present the biggest challenge. Do you give them hope and tell them to stay on the waiting list? Or do you advise them to move on?

The waiting list is the college's safety net: If a number of accepted students decide not to attend, the college can fill their spots, so that the incoming class will still be at capacity. Most students who are accepted to a highly selective college will attend, so where does this leave the wait-listed student?

Encourage students to give serious consideration to other options. Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid at Stanford University, advises counselors to help students who are "sitting around and wringing their hands over [being wait-listed] . . . to celebrate the places they did get in and move on."

A student who is eager to attend a particular college may decide it's worth the time, effort and anxiety to stay on the list. Share What to Do If You're Wait-Listed with these students — but make sure they know that fewer and fewer colleges are accepting applicants from their waiting lists.

What you can do

Once your students have had a chance to come to terms with being wait-listed, take the following actions:

  • Guide your students to focus on the real choices: the places that have sent acceptance letters.
  • If your students do want to stay on the waiting list:
    • Explain that colleges don't admit from the waiting list until the May 1 decision deadline has passed.
    • Encourage the students to prepare to attend another college by filling out the paperwork and sending a deposit. (If a student is accepted from the waiting list and decides to attend the waiting-list college, this deposit is forfeited.)

Advising rejected students

In some ways, it is easier to help students who have been rejected outright. Although they have some decisions to make, they are not in a state of limbo. They know they have to seek an alternative to their first-choice college.

Understanding the decision

Admission officers at selective colleges readily admit that as many as two-thirds of the students they reject are fully capable of succeeding academically at their institutions. Unfortunately, it is often a matter of too much demand for too few places.

Understanding this reason for rejection can help students and their families better handle their disappointment. Pat Rambo, a former college and career counselor at Springfield High School in Pennsylvania, says that when students realize that decisions are based predominantly on numbers during a particularly competitive year, and not necessarily on the merits of the application, it depersonalizes the decision, which helps them feel better.

What you can do

Margo McCoy Howe, a school counselor specialist formerly with the College Board's National Office for School Counselor Advocacy, suggests the following ways to help students handle a college rejection:

  • Listen to them; let them vent and acknowledge their feelings of disappointment.
  • Help them refocus by reminding them that it's not the college that really matters, but the college experience.
  • Point out that the experience they get at a different college that's a good fit may end up offering better opportunities.
  • Explain that many factors other than what college a person attends lead to success in the real world.
  • Lift their spirits by letting them know that you think the college that refused them is missing out on a great student.
  • Explain that admission trends are subject to variability and reflect institutional priorities; a rejection is not a personal indictment.
  • Be enthusiastic about the other colleges students have applied to, emphasizing that they, too, are good fits.
  • Encourage students to consider offers they've received from other colleges and to select a college that excites them.
  • Remind them that a focus on their academic work should continue into college.

Appealing a rejection

While it's extremely rare for a college to overturn its decision, you may recommend that rejected students write a letter of appeal explaining why they deserve to be reconsidered. This action will give students the peace of mind of knowing that they have done everything possible to make a strong case.

Planning a transfer

Remind students that they can try to transfer to the desired college from another college after a year or two, and explain that there are steps that can be taken now to make this easier. Advise them to:

  • Determine that the desired college accepts transfer credits for those courses taken at the college they will attend.
  • Ensure that the college they attend is a good fit academically.
  • Enroll in courses in which they can excel.
  • Take challenging courses.
  • Work hard and get the best grades possible.

The parents' role

Let parents know that it's okay for them to feel disappointment, too, but that they should keep their emotions in check. "Inevitably, parents will hurt more than their child because they're powerless to make it better," says Cynthia Doran, former director of college counseling at Oregon Episcopal School in Portland. However, she adds, "[They] need to swing into being supportive parents rather than going into the depths of despair with [their] son or daughter."