The college sophomore who babysits for my family went silent a few weeks ago. She ignored my text messages, didn’t show up for her research position, and didn’t even update her status on Facebook. I worried. Susie’s been a part of our family for the past 5 years, and this behavior wasn’t normal. Eventually, she resurfaced, with a flurry of apologetic emails; she had failed a major exam, panicked, and, unaccustomed to failure, started a small downward spiral before she sought help.
Susie’s plight isn’t all that different from that of many of the high school students I work with. These students are high achievers. They’ve earned top grades and commensurate test scores. They’ve landed competitive internships; they speak five languages. They write computer code in languages I can’t even name. Should these students be applying to some of the most competitive colleges in the country? Yes. Will they be admitted? I hope so, as each would bring something unique to their campus of choice. But I’m well acquainted with the statistics and the strength of the applicant pool. For some of my students, who have never received a “B,” a “no” from a top choice college will be one of their first academic setbacks.
I agree with Sue Biemeret, as she wrote for The Choice in “Bracing Students, and Parents, to Hear ‘No,’” the thin envelope isn’t as much a rejection, as it is not being accepted. It’s not a failure. It is not a tragedy. It is a disappointment. But, by any name, it hurts. In the best of circumstances, it becomes a learning experience that the student can carry with them into their college career. Some high schools name dozens of students Valedictorian, but very few will retain that type of honor as they conclude the next step in their educational path.
Frequently, I’ve asked a student planning to submit a single Early Decision application how he will feel if he isn’t admitted. In some cases, based upon the colleges to which the student is applying, he will wait four long months between the initial rejection and some good news. Some students are emotionally prepared for that, others claim to be, and a few determine that an early plan application isn’t for them — primarily because they don’t want to deal with that tense wait.
The college application process is a long one, and it isn’t entirely about the admission decisions themselves. For many families, it brings to the forefront many issues that parents and teens must face as students move onto the next phase of their lives. For students aspiring to attend the nation’s most selective colleges, the process may culminate with one of the few setbacks that these accomplished students have met to date. With practical planning, and a balanced list of college options, they will find themselves happily moving forward next fall.