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No College Early Decision? It Will Be OK

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Portrait of sad teenage boy reading message on his phone.

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens wasn’t talking about college admissions, but it certainly applies.

By late December, the Early Decision answers have come in. If you were blessed, your student will be on cloud nine being accepted to their first-choice college. If you are like many parents and students, the lack of an admissions offer will be devastating.

A friend of mine experienced the bad news last year right before Christmas. It rocked her world because her son was a legacy and had impeccable test scores and grades. But it was a competitive college and the ED applicant pool was huge and filled with candidates just as good or better than her son. They felt their world was ending. You may find yourself in this same predicament.

Parents have dealt with their kids facing rejection throughout their lives, but there is no greater disappointment than losing what you feel is your dream: getting in to your dream college. “Everything happens for a reason," or “I know how you feel," or “They didn’t appreciate you,” will fall on deaf ears. The reality is, all the platitudes in the world aren’t going to remove the disappointment.

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Once the dust has settled, however, it might be good to offer some words of wisdom. When the emotions subside, and your college-bound teen is ready to talk, show them these words:

Paul Hemphill is a noted college admissions counselor and an expert in marketing college-bound teens to colleges and helping them win merit awards. Here’s what he says:

Because you are so talented – and this statement is for those who were rejected by their first-choices – you will be successful with your life. Like cream that rises to the top, so will you. Thousands of executives of major American corporations attended colleges no one has ever heard of, or dropped out; Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerbrrg come to mind. But what did they do? They focused on their dream, on what they wanted to do with their lives, just as you will. … What’s the take-away here? All through your life of achievement, which is a winning habit you have already started with the success you’ve had in high school, no one – NO ONE – will ask, “Where did you go to college?”

In a 1968 article in the Saturday Evening Post, author Joan Didion published an essay on being denied admission at Stanford University. It’s timeless commentary on dealing with rejection and the complex feelings stirred by that bitter pill many applicants face at some point in the application process. In it, she addresses the reality of college admissions:

Getting into college has become an ugly business, malignant in its consumption and diversion of time and energy and true interests, and not its least deleterious aspect is how the children themselves accept it. And of course none of it matters very much at all, none of these early successes, early failures. I wonder if we had better not find some way to let our children know this, some way to extricate our expectations from theirs, some way to let them work through their own rejections and sullen rebellions and interludes with golf pros, unassisted by anxious prompting from the wings. Finding one’s role at 17 is problem enough, without being handed somebody else’s script.

What’s the lesson here?

There is a path for every student. It could very possibly be another college on your student’s list that had gone unnoticed. It might be two years of community college and transferring to a four-year college. It could be a trade school and on to a successful career. It might be the military and college afterwards. Or it could be taking a gap year to discover a passion that leads to another college choice.

What happened to my friend’s son? He researched other colleges, applied regular decision, and is now attending college and has found his home. Last year at this time he was defeated and discouraged. Now he has finished a semester of college and has a bright future ahead of him. You just never know where your student will find a home; but one thing is for certain, even if it takes nine years like it did with my son, they will find their path in this life.