The R-Word: Rejection Letters and Advice from a College Counselor

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By Ryan Luse

The dreaded R-word. I am not talking about a rat or a rattlesnake. It is something far worse. Everyone has experienced it, especially in high school. It can be dark, painful and downright unfair. When it comes to college selection, the R-word is – REJECTION.

I truly love my job as a college counselor. I’m fortunate to work with students from all over the state, from all walks of life and academic rigor, with the goal of finding the right college fit. I help navigate the often confusing waters of the college selection process by guiding students to destinations that work academically, socially, geographically and financially. Touring campuses – from the urban, bustling Boston colleges to the beaches of LA – I learn about the unique offerings at each college and consider what kind of student would thrive in that particular environment. Sometimes I’m awed by a college and sometimes disappointed, but stumbling upon an undiscovered gem or finding the perfect fit for one of my students back home always makes my job exciting and rewarding.

Even when a student and a college appear to be a match made in heaven, there is a finite reality and a complex system to college selection and college decisions which may result in rejection. The R-word knows no rules and can be sneaky and snarky. My heart takes a punch every time a student experiences the R-word. Occasionally, it is not too big of a deal, but more often than not, when the R-word rears its ugly head, it’s a traumatic blow. The college is a perceived “Dream School,” and what a student thought was his or her true destiny is suddenly no longer attainable. Yes, the R-word is the ultimate Debbie Downer.

Rejections are never easy: not for the student, not for the parent, and not for me, the college counselor. I have received that dreaded call from a student, in a barely audible, shaking voice, “I just opened the letter from Columbia… They do not want me, sniff sniff bwaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” I have gotten the email from a parent that reads like a cryptic riddle with the subject line, “Rejected from USC today,” and no content. And then there’s the jarring text in all caps, “I DID NOT GET INTO NORTHWESTERN WTF!” (Pardon my student’s French.)

As a college counselor, the R-word is definitely not one of the perks, and to keep it to a minimum, I take the same three important steps with each student embarking on the journey:

  1. Create a list with a focus on great fit. This preliminary list can be quite long in my practice. The final college destination may be straight from the first list, but like life, the list always changes and evolves. There are nearly 2,000 colleges in our country, but I am interested only in where my student is going to be happy and thrive, which I believe ultimately leads to success.
  2. Aim for a balance in selectivity. The key is to create a list which reflects a happy mixture of “reach, possible, and likely” schools. If a student excels academically, then highly-selective schools (“reach schools”), like Harvard and Stanford, may be on the list. However, I never include a college that is unattainable for a particular student. Doing so would only feed the R-word monster, and I wouldn’t have a job. While the list usually includes some reach schools, it also needs to include colleges that are possible for admission, and some that are likely. Sure, many of my students have a first choice, but if the R-word happens, great alternatives exist.
  3. Be diligent with your college research. During junior year (or even before), sign up on mailing lists to demonstrate interest, tour campuses, and engage in dialogues with admissions counselors. In the spring or summer before senior year, my students narrow down their preliminary lists into official apply lists. An apply list of 10 is a good number. Each student casts a wide enough net to include plenty of acceptances, even with the unavoidable R-word in the background. A parent once suggested a list of 50, but with required essays and application fees, that would have been stressful, time-consuming and just plain silly.

After the essay-writing and application process, the letters start to roll in. Now it’s college decision time! This, of course, is a roller coaster of emotions with the highs (I’m accepted!), lows (the dreaded R-word) and everything in between (the waitlist). I believe an element of destiny is tied to the final college decision. Most students are extremely happy where they end up. So, if you are rejected, brush it off and realize what is beyond your control. The “Dream School” may have been looking specifically for a quarterback or a tuba player, and you’re happy simply being you – somewhere else. As much as I try to minimize the R-word with my students, rejection can actually become something beautiful. I am talking about a new R-word – REFLECTION.

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