Dealing with bad news

It’s mid-December, so acceptance letters (or emails, or notifications on portals) are coming in for early applicants. That means, of course, that denials are also coming in for early applicants. All denials—colleges use “denial” instead of the harsher and more emotional “rejection”—feel bad, but the first one feels the worst. It especially feels worse if it’s from an Early Decision or Early Action application and you were hoping to be done with the whole process by now. I spent an entire morning reading through web pages on “how to deal with rejection,” and most of them deal with being rejected by someone you ask out or being fired from a job. So here is my college admissions-specific advice about working through your first—or second, or twelfth—skinny envelope.

First, understand what you’re looking at: is it a no or a maybe? If you applied EA or ED and you don’t get accepted, then they’ve probably deferred your application and will reconsider it with the regular application pool. If you applied regular decision, you may be placed on a wait list rather than be denied. The good news is that a deferral or a waitlist isn’t necessarily a denial—you might still be accepted. The bad news is that it’s still probably going to be a denial in the long run. Take a few minutes to do some quick searches and see if you can find any stats or statements about that for the particular school. Remember, though, that the percentage of deferred or waitlisted students who were eventually accepted last year doesn’t mean that’s how many will be accepted this year. But it will give you an idea.

If you applied ED, then this means you need to make sure you have other applications ready to go for regular admissions deadlines, probably around January 1st. That gives you several weeks. That’s not a whole lot of time, but you should have been working on them anyway. You’ve got time to catch up.

If you applied EA, this probably doesn’t change much. You were probably already working on other applications and weren’t completely sure you want to go to this one school. Otherwise, you would have applied ED. So you’ve got emotions to work through, perhaps, but you’re on track.

If you applied regular decision and got put on a wait list, I think you should just probably tell them to bug off and not think about them any more. There are other schools that want you.

If you got bad news of any kind, you may be wondering what you did wrong. It’s normal to do this, to want to know that one thing that messed things up for you: they must not have liked my essay, or my test scores were too low, or even I know someone with worse grades who got in, so there’s something unfair going on. Let go of this thinking as soon as you can. It’s normal, but it’s not useful or productive. Holistic admissions means that there’s no one thing that you did wrong. It’s not that simple. The truth, which you may find reassuring and/or frustrating, is that you may have done absolutely nothing wrong. It may be that you did everything fine, but the school had more applicants who did everything fine than they could accept. This is why, other than politeness, they don’t call it a rejection.

If you’ve got emotions about the bad news—and you probably do—then you should work hard to name them and understand them. Work on at least one sentence that follows the “I feel _____ because _____” pattern. I feel disappointed, because I really wanted to go to that college, and they denied me. I feel discouraged, because this denial makes me question how well my other applications are going to go. I feel embarrassed, because I acted as though this was going to be my college, and now I have to find another one. You’ll probably have more than one feeling, and they’ll change over time. If you’ve got negative feelings, that’s not a problem. Don’t listen to the folks who tell you not to feel that way. But one of the most productive ways to make sure your negative feelings don’t sabotage your chances with future applications is to have a clear idea of what your feelings are and where they’re coming from. Naming your feelings is a way to help keep them from controlling you.

Remember that you planned for this. In its current form, a lot of the college admissions process isn’t based so much on people saying Yes as it is on people saying No. Colleges get a lot of credit and prestige for denying people. “Elite” and “low acceptance rate” are almost the same thing, and a low acceptance rate actually makes more students want to apply to a college. While the majority of colleges don’t operate this way—around 80% of colleges and universities accept at least half their applicants—almost all student applicants plan on saying No. If you’re hoping to have more than one acceptance so you can compare quality and/or financial aid, then you’re essentially planning to say No to someone. So it hurts to be a student who hears No and has to wonder if they’ll get into a good-fit school. And it hurts to be a school who hears No and has to wonder if they’ll make their desired yield. But being told No is part of the system on both sides, and you’re prepared for that.

The only thing left to do is take the next step. And unless you applied ED to one school and haven’t got a back-up, you already know what the next step is. Feel disappointed or frustrated or sad or embarrassed or whatever else you feel, and then finish up those other applications if you haven’t yet. Don’t decide that you need to change your list based on this one piece of bad news. Just do what’s next, and you’ll be fine.

Thanks for reading! And congratulations to everyone who has good news to deal with already! Please share this with everyone you know, or at least with someone you think will find it helpful. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn

Photo by  Zoe Herring

Photo by Zoe Herring