Over the next week or so, families across the country will find out that they've been turned away from the college(s) of their dreams. I say they because I know, it will feel like you, the collective family unit, as represented by your pride and joy, have been evaluated and judged, denied admissions to these glorious places of higher education.
Eighteen years ago, my parents and I were in your shoes, praying for those thick packets in the mail. Suffice it to say, our postman did deliver plenty of envelopes that spring -- but many of them were so thin you could actually flip them right over and read the rejection without even opening the letter.
Here's what I wish I could tell myself as a high school senior: college rejection is going to be one of the best things that's ever happened to you. In fact, you might even pity your friends who haven't gotten the brush off from somewhere they really wanted to go, because they're missing out on the chance to learn one of life's biggest lessons: resilience.
Parents, rejection is like skiing or speaking a second language. The earlier your child masters the skill, the easier a time they will have with it. And learning how to handle a setback with grace and authenticity is one of the keys to being a happy, confident human being.
With that in mind, a step-by-step guide for using your college rejection to the best of your ability:
Step 1: Wallow If You Want To
Being sad is a normal, healthy reaction to any disappointment. And it's always okay to show your vulnerability to your friends and your teachers.
Give yourself a two or three day window to "wallow" if you need to, and let yourself experience the emotions that accompany any kind of loss of opportunity or personal setback. Trust me guys, this will serve you well when it comes to everything from romantic breakups to med school, to Supreme Court clerkships and literary agents. In fact, some of your future bosses will want to hear about a time you failed, or they won't hire you.
And parents: do not, by any means, take it out on your child's guidance counselor (this is a great time to teach your kid civility), demand to call "someone" in the admissions office (a denial is final), or perform for friends in your social circle. A simple: "We're a little bummed Caitlyn didn't get into Michigan, but what can you do?" will signal that your family is still processing the news, and that you are in fact, a well-adjusted adult.
Step 2: Get Psyched About Your Options
After your "grieving period," one of you needs to call a family meeting to pick yourselves up and start seriously considering the schools that want you.
Sue Paton, director of college counseling at Hopkins School, and previously a college adviser at Dalton and Choate Rosemary Hall, reminds students that a rising tide lifts all boats. She explained to me, "in the current college market, schools that might have been thought of as less desirable, are now filled with students who are very qualified, and are taught by very strong professors who've faced an equally tough market for jobs."
In other words, going to a "second" or "third" choice isn't going to be a drop in quality or experience in the big scheme of things. Sue Paton suggests that families revisit the school(s) that said yes, and then figure out the best plan together.
Step 3: Hold On To The Feeling
Fast forward to moving-in week, next fall. To gain the most from your first real academic bump in the road, you've got to hold onto some of the feelings you had when you got your letters, and bring a renewed focus to your school life.
In four years, graduate programs, internships and employers will be evaluating your file once again. Some of these decisions will be capricious -- but some of the metrics (grades, community involvement, GMAT scores) are more tangible barometers, and it pays to start thinking about them now, and plan ahead a little.
Step 4: Make Sure You Get Rejected Again
Most of all, remember that rejection means you have set your goals at the right level. If you're accepted to everything you apply for, you are setting the bar too low, and you're dreaming small. So whatever you do, class of 2012, go forth and make sure you get rejected as much as possible.