What We Learn From Kids Who Don't Get Into Their Dream College

02/03/2017 11:45 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2018

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"Deny" was the most spoken and written word in my vocabulary when I worked in selective college admissions. "Waitlist" was second, with "defer" not far behind. The least likely word I used for the greater part of my career was "admit." It's only gotten more competitive since I left that side of college admissions. Nowadays, some elite colleges have admit rates in the single digits. As sobering as this process is, it has allowed me to learn just as much from students who don't get into their dream college as those who do. 
 
This admissions process is far from fair.

There are millions of smart, good, genuine kids who have everything going for them except they are not special enough in the eyes of colleges. They aren't blue chip athletes, nor do they have the connections to give them the added push they need to get admitted. These high achieving "untagged" students are sometimes too strong for the college to deny them. They often get deferred from the early round or get waitlisted only to be passed over for more tagged students in the end. 
 
Some might argue that life isn't fair and when well-deserving students get denied, it prepares them for the rest of their lives. I see it a little differently. I tell students there are still colleges, people, and opportunities that reward the high achieving, unconnected students. The secret is to be open to them. 
 
Teenagers have youth on their side. They bounce back from setbacks faster than adults do.

When I worked as a college counselor at a high school, I saw the wide-ranging emotions teenagers experience in this process. Even the most devastated student who got denied from their dream school was able to regroup, apply to more schools if necessary, and realize their own value. While they didn't want to give up on their dream, they started to see that there were more colleges out there to explore and consider. 
 
My own student blogger this year has been the model of resiliency. After getting deferred from his first choice, he realized how many other colleges could be "the one." His most recent blog is a reminder to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back to being yourself--or better yet, a better version of yourself. There will be colleges wanting that better version if you give them a chance.

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My student blogger this year also serves as my co-host for Facebook Live events. If that college that deferred him could see him in action, I bet they'd admit him.

Getting passed over can provide a source of great motivation.

Rejection can either make or break us. For the students who respond with greater motivation, their trajectory can help them surpass all expectations. While our egos may want more, we just need one single college acceptance to serve as a stepping stone for more to come. And, if the student isn't happy where they enroll, they can double down and earn the highest grades possible their freshman year and focus on transferring. The transfer process usually yields much better results for that well-deserving kid. 
 
Most colleges don't spend enough time getting to know students. And, that's a shame.

Interviews matter less and less these days. Applications are read quickly--sometimes in just a couple of minutes. And the "tagged" world of college admissions has left little room for admissions officers to admit the students they want to admit. 
 
The most unfortunate reality is that elite colleges are distancing themselves from the human element of the process. Admissions officers at elite colleges are rarely listed on the admissions website anymore. They now ask students to communicate through a computerized portal. One elite college even tells deferred students that they can only make one update to the portal after getting deferred. Too much contact with the college can negatively impact a student's chances of admission.
 
The admissions process at a college is a window into what it's like to be a student there. If a student finds it difficult to connect with an admissions staff member or feels like they are going to be overlooked, they should consider other colleges. Acceptance is more than an offer of admission; it is knowing that you will be valued. Without it, that offer of admission is a lot less fulfilling.    
 
I am lucky to have stayed in touch with many of the students whom I helped to admit in the college admissions process. Most of them were deferred, waitlisted, or even denied in the process before they actually were admitted. I learned so much more about their family, their hopes and dreams, and their humility. It was rare for these treasured details to make their way into the initial application. It taught me that if we don't invest time in our youth--especially the ones that get passed over--we will truly miss out.