5 Things You Can Do When Your Dream College Says "No”

By Julie Carter, Episcopal Associate Director of College Counseling

As college admissions decisions are released in the coming weeks, thousands of high schools seniors will have to face the reality that sometimes, no matter how hard you try and how badly you want something, the answer is still “no.” It’s how you work through and handle the “no” that matters and can set the stage for the possibility of many more opportunities for “yes.” Here are five things you can do to reframe the decision and move on to discover that the best, truly, is yet to come.

Allow yourself to grieve.

You’ve invested a lot of time, energy, and emotion into this process. Being turned down from your dream school is a form of loss and often feels like a violation of your very being. In a lot of ways it may feel like your entire high school career – every class, every game, every service hour, every club meeting – was wrapped up in the applications you sent out to be evaluated and measured in the competitive and subjective admissions process. You’ve done your best for years to do everything right — and still the answer may be “no.” It’s no wonder the decision feels so personal.

It’s natural to feel sad, angry, and disappointed. Allow yourself some time and space for those feelings. Let them come. Speak to yourself like you would a trusted friend. But, admissions decisions are not an evaluation of your future success or potential, nor are they a criticism of your character or ability. Remember, YOU have a lot to offer. YOU have loads of potential and talent.

Know that it’s not you. It’s them.
Admissions is not fair. Admission is not guaranteed. At highly selective schools (those with admission rates 33% or less) it’s often the case that the majority of applicants were “highly qualified” and “could have gotten in.” Those schools are often denying two, three, or even ten times as many students as they admit. It’s not about fairness. Admissions offices are tasked with selecting a class that aligns with the school’s mission and vision. A college’s mission and institutional priorities are factors you have no control over and that can change from year to year. Add to that the simple mathematical equation that many schools simply do not have room to accept all the qualified students who’ve applied.

Shift Your Perspective.
Try (as best you can) to reframe things.

  • You haven’t been rejected. You just haven’t been selected. It’s still disappointing and can hurt. But, it goes a long way toward accepting that the admissions process isn’t personal and isn’t a statement on your value or your potential for success.
  • See the decision as proof that you’re pushing the limits. You are willing to take risks and put yourself out there. Keep following your passion and giving your all, in spite of the “no.”
  • There are many different paths to success; there’s not just one “right” way to get where you want to be. What you do in college – how you engage and the initiative you show – matters more than where your school falls in the U.S. News & World Report rankings.
  • Don’t let this shake your belief in yourself. Remember that you’re in good company: World War II hero Douglas MacArthur was denied appointment to West Point twice, despite being high school valedictorian. Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg was denied admission to the University of Southern California School of Cinema Arts. He went to another school and applied himself fully to his craft. Former President Barak Obama was denied by Swarthmore College, a selective liberal arts school near Philadelphia. Instead, he went to Occidental College and then transferred to Columbia University.

Redirect your dream to the schools that want YOU.
The schools that admitted you chose YOU from among thousands of applicants. Colleges don’t admit every student. So, your offer of admission means they want you and think you can add something valuable to their community. Celebrate that! Thoughtfully research the schools that have admitted you. Explore the possibilities and opportunities available to you. Remember the factors that shaped your list of colleges to begin with – small class sizes, school spirit, accessible faculty, etc. Make a list for yourself of the things that matter most to you now and focus on the positive.

Embrace the Possibilities.
Your hopes and dreams live within YOU, not within the walls of any specific college or university, no matter how ivy-laden or highly ranked they may be. To paraphrase Georgia Tech Director of Admission, Rick Clark: Instead of looking for the perfect college, you need to be looking for the perfect mentality.

Once you’ve grieved the “no,” it’s time to explore all the amazing things that can happen — and not only, can, will. Google “college rejection” and you’ll find numerous stories of seniors whose dream schools denied them — changing their lives forever for the better. Make your dreams a reality at the college or university that feels lucky to have YOU. In the end, what matters most is what you do and how you succeed when you get there, no matter where that “there” is. There is not one perfect school out there; make the one you decide to attend perfect for YOU.