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Patrick O'Connor Headshot

Working With Students When Colleges Say No

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The slow trickle of college decisions builds to a rushing stream this week and gains tsunami proportions by the end of the month. Predictions are for a record number of college applicants, which most likely means a record number of students going to college in the fall...

... but students don't always see this bigger, better picture if one of their top colleges turns down their application. Not every student who was waitlisted or turned away asks for advice, but these three concepts can help you support and encourage those who do:

Your first job as a counselor is to listen. It's all too easy to overreact to a sobbing senior holding a rejection letter in his hands, or the student who keeps staring at her phone, reading the same text over and over again from a college that has said no, blank expression on her face. These tell-tale signs clearly indicate some college-induced disappointment -- but they don't provide a single clue about why the student feels the way they do.

Enter your counseling skills. Your office provides the space far away from fist-pumping admitted students and "You're in" text messages, and gives a student the chance to gain perspective, poise, and the words to describe what they're thinking. The quietude of your office gives them the right place to try out how they're feeling, with only a question or two from you to guide them. Never assume you know why the decision makes them unhappy; create an atmosphere that encourages them to tell you.

Watch out for the silent majority. Not all students treat college decisions like the end of the Super Bowl -- in fact, most students have heeded your counseling advice and are calmly happy with the admission offers they've received from other colleges. At the same time, some of these reserved students may need help understanding what their college decisions mean; they just don't want to call attention to themselves by seeking you out.

The most important work you can do as a counselor is sort out the quiet, happy students from the quiet, questioning students. Wander the halls, walk the cafeteria, talk to your teaching colleagues and ask how the students are doing. Good teachers know the difference between a quiet student who's working well and one who's working through a challenge; count on them to find the students who most need the help, even if the student can't find the words to ask for it.

Always point them forward. Exploration of why a college made a certain admissions decision can help heal the past, but it does only so much to help the student to face the future with a sense of purpose and expectation, key qualities to a successful college transition. That's why it's vital that the end of any exploration of what has happened to a student's college plans ends with a discussion of what will happen with a student's college plans.

The next step may be a small one -- how to break the news to Mom and Dad, how to decide among the colleges that offered admission, or even how to organize their homework for the next day -- but every step forward reinforces the underlying message of all college admissions counseling: College decisions aren't character indictments; you are the same complete person you were this morning; what happens tomorrow is largely determined by what you do with today's opportunities.

Regardless of what admissions offices send out this month, accepting these key premises is the best college decision any senior can make. Guiding them to that acceptance is the privilege of our work.