College Rejection? Here’s What to Do

Rejection is an inevitable, and painful, part of life.

College application season, in particular, brings numerous opportunities for rejection.

For some students, getting turned down by their dream college(s) will be the most consequential form of rejection they’ve had to face. This rejection can be especially difficult to navigate for students who have applied Early Decision or Early Action.

What’s more, many universities are getting more and more selective as application numbers increase, meaning that college admissions, on a whole, is getting more unpredictable.

We wish every single student could be spared the pain of rejection letters, deferrals, and wait-list notices, especially if these come from colleges at the top of their lists.

Yet, since rejection isn’t something we can avoid, our best option is to learn how to cope with it. Developing this kind of emotional resiliency is something that anyone can benefit from — not just during college application season, but throughout the rest of their life.

To that end, here are some strategies we recommend for navigating college rejections (including what to do about your college list).

1) Acknowledge the pain.

Scientific research, including a University of Michigan study, has found that rejection activates the same part of the brain that physical pain does.

In other words, we humans actually experience rejection and physical pain the same way. And, just as some people feel physical pain more strongly than others, it’s likely that some people feel emotional and psychological pain more deeply as well.

This can be tough to acknowledge. After all, it means that that rejection pain is very much real. As such, there’s no real way to avoid feeling it when that rejection letter arrives from your dream school. However, thinking of rejection pain as similar to physical pain helps us understand it. Understanding this pain gets us closer to processing it.

This is important to note, as many students choose to acknowledge rejection pain by, well, panicking! It’s not uncommon for families to feel the need to revise college lists, common application essays, and more following a wait list notice, defferal, or rejection.

Before this panic sets in, and before you make any decisions like these, take some breaths. Acknowledge the pain, respect the work that you’ve done, and allow yourself the emotional space to process the impact of that letter.

2) Don’t lose sight of academics and activities.

If you’ve applied Early Decision or Early Action and received anything other than a resounding “yes” from your college(s) of choice, it may be tempting to lie in bed binge-watching Netflix and forgoing assignments and extracurricular engagements.

However, colleges do care about how students finish out their senior years, especially from an academic perspective. As challenging as it may be, it’s vital to stay focused on your classes and activities to keep your application strong.

Now is actually a great time to channel that rejection pain into a new activity or pursuit, such as an independent study, volunteering activity, or elective. Colleges love students who take initiative and demonstrate that they are not daunted by setbacks or perceived failures.

If you’re achieving anything less than your desired grade in certain classes, now is also a fantastic time to discuss with your teachers about certain ways to bolster flagging marks.

3) Make sure your college list is balanced and appropriate.

Many students inevitably return to their college lists after an early deferral, wait list notification, or rejection. They may be tempted to add or subtract certain schools from this list. Yet we encourage all of our students to evaluate their lists mindfully before making any significant changes.

We encourage our students to consider their college lists from two perspectives:

  • Quantitative
  • Qualitative

Viewing schools from a quantitative perspective means considering the following:

  • Average standardized test scores of accepted applicants
  • Average grade point average of accepted applicants
  • Any other numerical consideration (i.e., class rank, AP test scores, academic rigor, etc.)

Assessing schools with a qualitative perspective means ensuring the following components align with a student’s interests:

  • Resources and opportunities for the student’s desired career path / major
  • Location and size
  • Career preparation
  • Study abroad opportunities
  • Undergraduate research opportunities
  • Curriculum (including rigor)
  • Faculty 

We also encourage students to have a balanced mix of the tiers of schools on their list. This often means a healthy proportion of the following three types of colleges:

  • Reach (ambitious schools given the student’s background)
  • Likely (probable acceptance given the student’s background)
  • Safety (definite acceptance — “backup” schools)

It is important to emphasize that just because you don’t get into one “reach” school doesn’t mean you won’t get into another. However, this doesn’t mean that your college list should include all “reach” schools!

We also recommend that students to consult their guidance counselors about college lists following any wait list, deferral, or rejection. These professionals will help students take the right steps for continuing the application process.

4) Understand what colleges are looking for in applicants.

Here are just a few statistics about the reality of the selectivity of U.S. college admissions processes. This data concerns 2018 fall entering classes:

U.S. College / University  Acceptance Rate for 2018 fall entering class 
Stanford 4%
Julliard School 6%
University of Chicago 7%
United States Naval Academy 9%
Pitzer College 13%
Barnard College 14%
Colorado College 15%
Tulane University 17%
New York University 20%
Lehigh University 22%

Source: US News

How can we explain these numbers? Well, to a certain degree, we actually can’t.

We’ve written about how admissions officers read college applications in a past post, which we strongly encourage all of our families and students to check out.

It’s also worth noting what college admissions officers actually look for in college applications. We discuss this in depth in this post here, but we want to emphasize that test scores, transcripts, and essays are only parts of an application.

Every college has what we like to call “institutional priorities” that they keep in mind when reviewing applications. These are impossible to predict or identify, and they are largely what’s behind those deferral, wait list, and rejection letters.

If there’s anything to learn from a college rejection, it’s this: there’s no guaranteed formula for admission.

A Word About Gap Years and Transferring

Some students decide to take a gap year following unfavorable outcomes in the college admissions process, assuming they can use this extra time to reapply to the schools on their lists.

We strongly caution students against this, as gap years are designed to further student growth, rather than to be used as a second application season. What’s more, re-applying to select schools doesn’t necessarily guarantee admission.

Students do have the “last resort” option of transferring to a secondary institution down the road following one or two years of undergraduate work elsewhere. While this may not feel as favorable to some students, it is a possibility; in fact, many elite institutions–including Ivy Leagues–accept transfer students.

Next Steps

Receiving a college rejection, deferral, or wait list notice can be devastating, especially for Early Decision/Action applicants.

Yet we want to emphasize that rejections and deferrals do not mean that you’ve done anything wrong or that your college application is in any way sub-par. True, you may not be able to pinpoint exactly why a college rejected you, but rejections don’t merit a comprehensive re-evaluation of your college application.

They do provide an opportunity to inspect college lists to ensure they align with a student’s qualitative and quantitative aspirations. A balanced list of reach, safety, and likely schools is the first step towards finding that institution that is right for you.

Best of luck!

Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.