Though almost everything about our kids’ lives has changed over the past year, one thing remains the same: High school seniors are finding out this month which colleges have accepted them. This can be a time of elation, dread, hope, and disappointment. As a parent, you may be feeling those emotions right along with them, especially if your child has been dreaming about attending this specific school for months, or even years. But guess what: If your teen didn’t get into their dream school, it may be a blessing in disguise.
Brittany Maschal, college counselor and owner of Brittany Maschal Consulting, explains to SheKnows that “sometimes, things just happen to work out exactly as they should, especially when it comes to college admissions.” Even though your kid may have had their heart set on one school in particular, there’s probably a good reason they didn’t get in (if your academics aren’t strong enough to get into Harvard, you probably don’t want to end up — struggling — at Harvard after all). And more importantly, there’s likely a million more fitting choices just waiting for them around the corner.
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Understanding the rejection
Maschal tells SheKnows that “most students decide on a ‘dream school’ by evaluating many factors; some students care only about academics and prestige, while others focus more heavily on location or cost. Almost all students also take into account the school’s selectivity — and their own academic profile and likelihood of getting in.”
But sometimes, students apply to a school even when they know (or have been advised by counselors) that they lack the grades, résumé and/or test scores the school requires. They may assume that dynamic essays or a family legacy will gain them entrance to their dream school, but this isn’t usually what happens. “Our culture really pushes that we should all go for our dreams,” Maschal explains. “And that is the truth in many life scenarios, but college admissions may not be one of them. In fact, by going for your dreams in that way, it often does not work out.” Even students who do have all the credentials a school is looking for aren’t guaranteed acceptance in today’s ultra-competitive admissions environment.
Was the school really a good fit?
Applying to college should be about finding the best fit for the student. But many students confuse “best fit” with “best rank” and thus focus their sights on attending the most difficult school they can possibly get into. But “focusing too much on brand or prestige when it comes to college selection is never a good idea,” Maschal says. Of course, “it’s hard for many students to choose otherwise — because as a society we place so much value on these attributes.”
College counselor and educational consultant Missy Rodriguez tells SheKnows that far too often, “kids have their hearts set on their ‘dream’ college, and yet they can’t pinpoint what exactly makes it their ‘dream’ school. Their opinions are often based on intangible things such as a winning football team or it’s the school where their parents attended — neither of which means it is actually a good fit for them.”
Parents may be just as under-informed as students about what schools really have to offer — beyond just their name and rank. Lower-ranked schools may still have exceptional programs geared toward specific areas of interest, and yet students and parents won’t even look at that school due to its lack of name recognition. “Parents want what is best for their student and are often are willing to go great lengths to see that ‘best’ reached,” Maschal says. “The problem is that parents are defining ‘best’ — and not the students themselves.”
If a student has been rejected from a certain school, it might be for the best. Perhaps at that “dream school,” they would have felt lost or overwhelmed — especially if they only got in because of legacy or a connection or even some luck. Maschal points out that she has met many students who get into their dream schools only to realize when they get there that the school isn’t a good fit after all. It might be that the student Is better off having been rejected; now, they can attend a school that better suits them, and at which they can truly succeed.
Striving for practical dreams
Allow your student to be disappointed — even to feel like they “failed” somehow. Listen to them and support them as they get over the loss. Maschal tells SheKnows: “It’s important to remind students that the rejection was not of them personally, but of their application — and what they had to offer in relation to what the school was looking for at that particular time.”
After a few days, help them to look at their other options and get excited about the schools they were accepted to — if they decide they still want to go to college at all, that is (because not attending college is a perfectly acceptable option, don’t forget). “I believe not getting into your dream school can be a blessing in disguise,” Rodriguez explains, “because now the students are forced to really examine what makes a place a perfect fit. When students look at other schools with an open mind, they often find an even better match than their original dream school — because they have time to examine the curriculum, explore the extracurricular activities, and visit the campus.”
Students may find that in the end, they are happier than they thought they would be. “Most high-achieving high school students who don’t get into their dream school and attend a school that is slightly less selective tend to see that they are just as challenged… Some even relish being near the top of the class.”
In her experience, Maschal has found that there is not just one dream school for most kids — but also a dream school #2 and most likely a #3, #4, and #5 too. “I have found that students land right where they are supposed to,” she says. “They get to school and realize, Wow, college is awesome, and they don’t look back.”
Remember: Whether a student is accepted or not is up to the college admissions department. What your student does once they get in, though? That’s up to them. And with a positive attitude and hard work, the possibilities are endless.
A version of this story was originally published in 2019.
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