College Admission Disappointment: A Parents' Guide To The Holidays

12/16/2017 08:38 am ET
Artwork by Samuel Barnard

I can viscerally remember the excitement leading up to Christmas day as a child. My wish list to Santa would be drawn up and refined well before the first snowflake fell. Inevitably there were big-ticket items that I dreamed of, and even though I was aware of my slim odds of receiving these gifts on Christmas morning, the anticipation and hope always lingered just the same. I lacked the ability to manage my expectations to the extent that by Christmas dinner, I would often slip into a deep funk, despite the many wonderful gifts I had received. Somewhere in the excitement and yearning, I had lost perspective and overlooked the meaning of the tradition.

This cycle of expectation and disappointment is not unlike the college admission process—in fact, as the holidays near, many high school seniors are receiving decisions from their early applications. With any luck, they have developed a list of colleges that runs the gamut of selectivity and reason. Typically there are one or two colleges that are well beyond a student’s profile and the phrase resonating in the hopeful applicant’s mind is, "yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." Sadly (spoiler alert), more often than not, the reality is that even if this jolly St. Nick exists, it is unlikely that even he can work magic with the highly selective college admission elves.

It is human nature to want to believe. This is the season of miracles, and a belief in beating the odds fills the air. Whether it is a light that burns for eight days on one days’ fuel, a baby being born of a virgin mother or a large man in a red suit managing to fit down the chimney with the iPad we have been yearning for, tradition would have us look beyond factual evidence. Likewise, college applicants want to believe that admission officers will make an exception for them—even though intellectually students know the likely outcome, there is always that glimmer of hope that somehow it will be different. It is this hope that is so difficult to reconcile when months of expectant waiting ends in despair.

How do we help our children deal with disappointment? On Christmas morning when an iPad is not to be found under the tree, it is not helpful to hear, “sorry, but you might get a calculator or even a kindle for your birthday.” Nor do disparaging comments about Apple products seem to offer comfort. The point is, for one reason or another, we felt that we wanted an iPad and somewhere in our hearts and minds, we wanted to believe it might be possible. Words or explanations do not easily soften the power of unmet expectations. It is not consoling to be reminded that we should be happy about all the other great gifts we received. The disappointed college applicant doesn’t want to be told how he or she will be better off elsewhere. In fact, rarely do students want to hear any explanation at all. Despite our desire to fix our children’s feelings of letdown, the best gift we can give is that of listening, holding and understanding. What more can we do when the iPad or acceptance letter fail to arrive? Here are some suggestions:

The best offense is a good defense: Though it is too late if your student is being denied by a college this week, the ideal strategy for confronting disappointment is raising children who are resilient, confident, accepting of themselves and proud of their strengths. This greatest gift we can give is not to be disappointment averse. Whether a coveted Christmas present or a college acceptance, it is good for kids to hear “no”. In fact, I tell my seniors that my hope for them is that they each get turned down by at least one college. It is a good life experience and encourages them to take risks and aim high. Dealing with disappointment is a muscle that needs lots of exercise. Better to develop these skills early rather than facing it for the first time when they don’t get a job or a marriage proposal goes south.

Pop the cork: We must encourage them to let their emotions out rather than bottle them up. Whether a primal scream of anger, tears of sadness or other demonstrations of frustration, allowing these feelings to flow and not needing to judge or reconcile the emotions for them will provide the space to process disappointment.

Relate don’t abate: Resist the urge to minimize or negate their hurt, but rather empathize and acknowledge the pain of feeling rejected. Often in our eagerness for our children to be “happy” or free of pain, we neglect to validate their experience. The best thing we can do is name the hurt and sympathize with it.

Don’t buy the college sweatshirt in your size: Manage your own expectations and reactions. As parents we become so invested in our children’s lives that it can be difficult to separate their disappointment from our own. If they feel they have let you down, this will complicate and intensify the blow of being denied.

Time out: Disappointment is not like a busted toilet or burned out light bulb. Rather that immediately becoming Mr. Fix-it, pause and allow time before you launch into “plan B” mode. When a child is still processing disappointment it will be difficult to think of next steps.

It’s not personal: It is easy to internalize disappointment and point to things we did that lead to being letdown. “I didn’t clean my room” or “I hit my brother” and because I am “bad”, that is why I didn’t get the iPad for Christmas. “I am not smart enough or athletic enough” and that is why I was “rejected.” As much as they are willing to hear it, we need to remind our children that outcomes are not a value judgment on them as an individual.

Onward: Once a student has had the opportunity to absorb the initial blow and process the disappointment, it is helpful to brainstorm about resources available and ways to overcome discouragement and regain a feeling of control.

In the name of love: The bottom line is that our children need to be reminded of our unconditional love and the pride we have in them as individuals. This quote from a recent Derryfield School graduate tells it all:

“Everyone told me they were proud. That is truthfully the best thing any young person could be told. People have this idea that being called beautiful or pretty or whatever will make them feel accomplished. But having someone say they are proud of you can spark this inner happiness like nothing else. It's a really beautiful feeling hearing the word proud. That's the way to help people feel less disappointed. To help them realize that success is totally unique and individual and being told that someone is proud of them, there's no feeling like it.”

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