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The College Process: Dealing with Rejection

April is bittersweet for high school seniors. Most have a college acceptance in hand that makes them pretty happy, but many also have some denials or waitlist situations that leave them feeling confused, angry and disappointed. How can parents, college consultants, and guidance counselors help adolescents with all these intense mixed feelings?

1. Empathize. This experience may well be the first major disappointment of your teen’s young life. Unlike an adult, an adolescent does not have many data points to fall back on, in which he or she survived disappointments. He or she has not learned resilience, having not yet had opportunities to test the hypothesis that “this too shall pass.”

College denial is similar to social rejection. After your teen wrote so many passionate, vulnerable, self-revealing essays, the admissions committee still said no. Most likely they simply found a grade or test score unsuitable, but to your child, it still feels like a personal rejection. It is a decided exclusion from a community that an applicant has visited, feeling that he or she could truly belong and thrive there. It is like getting turned down for a prom date or a plum job, being excluded from the “in” clique, not making the team, or getting blackballed by a fraternity.

That’s painful. In fact, recent studies have shown that social rejection affects the part of the brain that is stimulated by physical pain. Except for the first romantic breakup, it is hard to imagine a more intense experience for an adolescent than being denied admission to his or her dream school. Parents feel the pain too. Let’s face it, we get our hearts set on certain college acceptances for our children. But let us not be so focused on grieving the loss of our own dreams that we forget about how much “bigger” these experiences can be for our kids.

2. Remember that teenagers are egocentric. I don’t mean that they are “selfish” per se (although some clearly are).  Adolescents’ brains are still developing, and they find it difficult seeing a situation from another point of view.

The great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget identified the baby’s cognitive inability to see a situation from another’s vantage point. Known as theory of mind, the ability to infer another’s perspective – emotional, intellectual, or visual – improves with age. Studies of infants, toddlers and children have documented gradual improvement in this spatially based skill.

Iroise Dumontheil at the University College London, UK,  has recently identified the first behavioral evidence showing that theory of mind is still improving even through teenage years. Her brain scan research suggests that a teenage mind toils harder when inferring the outlook of others, compared with adults. And a brain region implicated in theory of mind, the medial prefrontal cortex, continues to develop through adolescence and young adulthood.

This explains why teenagers may seem calloused to the views of others. But it also sheds light on why adolescents seem to interpret even objective external events so “personally.” Furthermore, consider the”self-esteem” parenting trends and documented increases in teen narcissim in recent decades. Social scientists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, authors of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, have studied personality inventories over the years. Their stark conclusion:  “American college students score progressively higher on narcissism between the early 1980s and 2006.”

So if your son or daughter was denied acceptance at the dream school, for demographic or institutional reasons having nothing to do with him or her, it is hard to convince your teen that it is “not about you.” Nevertheless, try to describe the factors that go into an admission decision, to mitigate, as much as possible, the “magical thinking” that blurs reality for so many teens. It is helpful to model reality-based interpretations of disappointing life events, for this is not the last one your child will experience.

3. Help your teen accept reality. Consider, and share with your teen, the many reality-based possibilities for the rejection that are beyond an applicant’s control.

Demographics are simply a hand we are dealt. It is no one’s fault that: the baby boomers had kids, creating a population explosion; our society has progressively raised expectations that more young people will go to college; and technology has made it possible for applicants to apply to more schools. Higher education has also become an increasingly global affair; for the 2013-14 school year, international students represented 4.2% of higher education students in the U.S (growing by +8.1% vs. the previous year). The top three countries of origin are the academically distinctive nations of China, India, and South Korea. It is simply a fact of life that your teen is operating in a crowded, competitive landscape as he or she seeks entry to college, and it will be the same for graduate school and the workforce for this generation.

Institutional needs are also a fact of life, driven by economic, government and organizational forces beyond an applicant’s control. Perhaps the match between what your teen had to offer and the dream school’s specific institutional needs was less than perfect. If  your student brought “only” academic merit to the table, he or she may have been at a disadvantage versus other applicants with the good fortune of being able to offer the dream school the perfect ingredients to meet its enrollment needs.

For example, admission advantages may accrue to high-performing athletes in Div I “money” sports;  early decision (“ED”) applicants who offer guaranteed yield; underrepresented minorities; and legacies or “development admits.” Schools have specific enrollment needs, such as balancing the gender, regional or international representation of the incoming class. Some up-and-coming schools are intent upon raising freshman “stats” to improve their rankings. Colleges are businesses, and every admissions department is trying to “create a class” to meet its institutional goals. Some goals are explicitly stated, others may be inside directives that could not be known by applicants.

A parent should be careful not to explain these realities in a “sour grapes” way, or it will defeat the purpose. A parent can help a young person understand that all of us are born in a certain place and time, under specific conditions, bestowing advantages and disadvantages, obstacles that build character and serendipitous circumstances that offer unique opportunities. In discussing his best-seller, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell summarized: “It’s just all a matter of getting people to move away from the notion that everything that happens to a person is up to that person.” Our lives are an intricate dance of effort and fate.

Throughout our kids’ lifetime and most of our own, we Americans have been blessed with a strong economy, relative affluence, and peace. Our kids have only recently encountered the impact of a recessionary economy. Perhaps in our own complacency, we have been deceived into believing that our children need a “perfect” environment in order to survive and thrive. Greg Esterbrook challenges this idea in The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.

As our Greatest Generation parents or grandparents will be glad to share (unsolicited), it is adversity that builds inner strength, determination, grit and character. We human beings may need adversity just as muscles need resistance to build strength and tone. When we explain life’s harsh realities to our children, we are wise to reflect that kind of positive philosophy. They take their cues from us.

4. Help your teen find the silver lining. Your adolescent may be so overwhelmed about the loss of the dream school that he or she may not notice other college choices that are actually quite good. Perhaps your kid was so in love with one option that he or she became rigidly convinced that this was the only option that could bring happiness. You can help your student break free of that all-or-nothing thinking by gently refuting the cognitive distortions involved and quietly pointing out the benefits of other available options.

Helen Keller once said, When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” Wow. How inspirational. The first deafblind individual in history to earn a bachelor of arts degree was propelled by positive, pragmatic thinking, and we can inspire our teens by modeling that kind of perspective as well.

5. Help your teen make contingency plans if necessary. If your teen truly has no appealing choices, help create a “Plan B”. Finding creative solutions to disappointing events is a key ingredient in resilient living, and your teen might as well learn how to do that as early as possible.