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Rejection Hurts: How to Handle a College Not Accepting You

Whether it’s your first choice or your safety, a school’s “no” is a crushing thing to hear after a long, difficult process. Here's how to cope.

College rejection hurts.

Whether it’s your first choice or your safety, a school’s “no” is a crushing thing to hear after a long, difficult process.

But one former alumni interviewer says you shouldn’t take it so hard.

In a recent LA Times op-ed, “Why I won’t re-enlist as a Yale alumni interviewer,” Ivy graduate Ben Orlin writes about the very opaque way that college admissions offices make their decision.

Special report: Get tips and advice about college at the Freshman Year Experience

“With so many qualified students, top colleges don't — as you might expect — look for the very best. They don't even operate on a single, well-defined notion of what “best” means. Instead, they go for balance. They're just trying to fill their campus with a diverse cohort of freshmen,” Orlin wrote. “Consistency and fairness — whatever that would mean — have nothing to do with it. It's like making trail mix. You don't care whether this particular peanut is more deserving than that particular chocolate chip. You're just choosing high-quality ingredients that go well together.”

This very impersonal rejection, Orlin reasoned, should be no more heartbreaking than “getting swiped left on Tinder.”

Related: College Applicants' SAT Scores Delayed Due to Electronic Snafu

That may be true, but to a teen who is presenting very personal information to strangers for evaluation for the first time, coming away with an intact spirit in the event of a rejection is easier said than done.

And many high school seniors are putting themselves out there now, as early decision and early action deadlines loom.

“To suggest that 16 and 17-year-olds aren’t going to take this to heart is unrealistic,” said Lisa Sohmer, director of college counseling at The Garden School in Queens, New York. “It is disappointing, and it is a rejection. And in high school, all of the rejections mean more.”

As colleges become more selective than ever, thanks to an ever-growing pool of applicants to each program, high schoolers should certainly steel themselves for some tough emotions.

Related: These Are the Colleges That Accept the Fewest Applicants

But how? For starters, remember these tips from the pros.

Rejection doesn’t mean you’re not good enough.

“These highly selective, highly competitive schools couldn’t possibly take all the qualified applicants,” Sohmer said. “Being denied at one of these schools does not mean the student is not qualified, does not mean they couldn’t do the work there, and be really successful there. But they simply, because the supply of qualified kids is too high for them to accommodate, have to start looking at things other than pure academic qualifications.”

Maybe you’re just not the cellist they need this year.

“Colleges are looking for students with grit and passions,” said Dr. Kat Cohen, founder of IvyWise, an admissions consulting company. “They want a well-rounded class made up of specialists, and it is important that the applicant show a school where he or she might fit into the social and academic fabric of the college. Students can’t control what a specific school is looking for in a given year — an astrophysicist, a choir singer — but they can demonstrate how their passions, grit and perseverance make them unique.”

It’s kind of like the Powerball.

“When only 1 in 10 or 1 in 20 applicants get admitted, it is closer to a lottery,” said Jim Jump, director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Virginia. “As a counselor, my advice to students and parents mirrors the Serenity Prayer. Focus and worry about the things over which you control, and not over those you don’t. Getting into a particular school is one of those.”

Try to keep it all off social media.

“Everything now is so public,” Sohmer said. “(Our generation) could go home, get the envelope, cry into our pillows, go to school the next day and not say anything, as opposed to everything being on Facebook and Instagram with pictures of the letters. Don’t post too much about how this is your first choice, because if you wind up enrolling in School "A" rather than School "B," everybody’s going to ask you why.”

Remember that life goes on.

“They should be able to try, with the help of their families, colleagues, friends, counselors, to understand that they have options, that this the beginning of something and not the end, and that their parents and teachers and friends are going to feel the same way about them whether they get into school X or not,” Sohmer said.

Think beyond the big brand name.

“Sure, it would be exciting to be admitted to Harvard, but that is not the only good school in the country,” Cohen said. “Do research, analyze what it is that is appealing about Harvard and find those qualities in other schools that may be less of a reach.”

Parents: Remain calm.

Even the chillest high school senior will get worked up over this, said Sohmer. Parents should not. “(Kids) do get caught up in the frenzy. and sometimes what a student needs is a calm, sage advocate to help keep the balance going. Somebody has to be calm, and it’s not going to be the 17-year-old.”

Allow time for mourning.

“But don’t dwell and let it overshadow successes,” Cohen said. “Stay positive. At the end of the day, they put in a lot of time and effort to make it to this point, and should focus on the exciting journey ahead filled with tons of new opportunities come fall.”