05/15/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The College Insider: Admissions Freak-Out Countdown #14: Acceptance, Rejection, and Coping -- a Parents' Handbook of Good Behavior

Now here's a fantasy dinner party: You, your rejected high-school senior, the late comedian Lenny Bruce and his equally late film biographer Bob Fosse, and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of the 1969 "On Death and Dying."

What on earth will you talk about?

Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief, perhaps. You have about two weeks left in which to hone your spin-doctoring skills, because some of you are going to be the ones to whom a disappointed senior turns, with both anguish and accusation in his or her voice, to ask, "Why me?"

Or, more accurately, "Why not me?"

The parent of a college-bound teen may spend most of senior year wearing a dunce cap, at least in your child's eyes, but come rejection time you will be expected to have a smart answer to that unanswerable question.

Most of you know about Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief either from her book or from Fosse's skewed and skewered film versions: Dustin Hoffman delivering Lenny Bruce's monologue in "Lenny," or Fosse's alter-ego cracking wise as he stares lady death in the face in "All That Jazz." For the uninitiated, the five-step program to facing apocalyptic bad news includes:


Kubler-Ross had in mind mortality, but when you're 18 a big college rejection can feel like the end of your life. So get ready, because it's a parent's job to work through the first four stages before your child ever opens the thin envelope or clicks on the email. Use your imagination now, before time runs out - because you need to reach Acceptance before they get the actual bad news.

Don't feel crazy if you experience any of the following symptoms.

Denial: This is the phase when you pretend that there must be another child somewhere with the same name as your child, and that kid was rejected, not yours. A variant on this involves an assumed typographical error in a Social Security number.

Anger: What do you mean, you don't want my kid? Common accompanying revenge fantasies include a reputation-bending scandal at the rejecting school, or a mass defection by the incoming members of the freshman class, all of whom suddenly decide to enroll elsewhere.

Bargaining: In the upper echelons, this can be literal bargaining, as in, what kind of deal can we strike if I suddenly decide to build a new wing on a building? For the rest of us, it boils down to useless private chats with our deity of choice: If this is a mistake, if we get a call tomorrow inviting our senior to enroll, we will never again a) snipe at people who talk in movie theaters, b) pretend we're busy when certain relatives call, or c) apply make-up or shave while driving.

Depression: The realization that nothing you considered doing or saying during the first three phases will make any difference. No is absolute. Wait-lists may be a painful purgatory, but at least a wait-listed candidate is still in play. Rejection, on the other hand, is the death of hope.

Acceptance: The goal, here, is credibility. You cannot say, "I never thought that (fill in the name of an Ivy League or League equivalent here) was the right choice for you," because you'd be lying, and your child would know it. You cannot say,"It's their loss if they didn't see that you're the perfect choice," because for at least a year you've been saying that this is the best school on the planet, which implies a competent staff.

More important, you cannot say anything that casts a single mini-aspersion on your child or his or her life-choices - no dissing their commitment to modern dance, no questioning whether the school newspaper was a strategic move. One, it's too late for second-guessing, and two, they already feel rotten enough; they don't need to hear that their parents would have rejected their application.

No, acceptance has to be real, which is kind of like asking a car that's going 50 miles an hour to stop on a dime. You've had aspirational momentum for years; it's hard to shrug and smile and focus on the acceptance from school number two or five or 18 on your family's preferred list; it's hard to behave instead as a source of comfort and support and perhaps even perspective.

Suck it up and do it. A rejection is not a rejection, not in this super-heated atmosphere. It's a crapshoot. The space between taken and not taken is stuffed, these days, with all sorts of variables that you can't do anything about. Need-blind financial aid has developed a certain myopia; some high schools practice grade inflation that creates straight-A students who are nowhere near as smart as your child is; or maybe this year the school of your child's dreams drew an amazingly impressive pool of candidates and a senior who might have been accepted last year or next year just didn't make the cut.

It's not a referendum on your child, and you need to make sure they understand that - without pushing, of course, because then they'll accuse you of over-compensating because you secretly think that they're losers.

Next: Admissions Freak-Out Countdown #15: Reality.

Karen Stabiner's latest book is a comic novel about college admissions, Getting In.

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