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How to help your student cope with college rejections

The average college-bound student applies to several schools. In some instances, students may apply to eight, 10, 12 or more colleges — their selections being balanced between safety, target and reach schools. However, it’s unlikely that every application will result in an acceptance letter.

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As February turns to March and colleges begin to notify applicants of their decisions, you may find your child facing the thin, dreaded envelope of a rejection. When this happens, it can be helpful to know how to respond to this disheartening development, as well as what to do next. Consider this three-step game plan to minimize uncertainty and upset.

1. Consider your own reaction to the rejection letter

As every parent with a high schooler soon realizes, applying to colleges involves a tremendous investment of time and money, often on the part of the entire family. A rejection letter can spark a range of emotions, from anger to panic to sadness, again on the part of the entire family. If you are upset, your child will be, too. You may understandably worry about the future in private, but try to present a calm front for your student. All she may need to rebound is a show of support and a belief in her abilities. Just as children learn from their parents when they are young, they may mirror your reactions at this crucial juncture in their lives.

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2. Reposition the rejection letter

For many students, a college rejection letter can seem like a cruel missive that states one of two things: “This school doesn’t want you,” or “You aren’t smart enough.” In truth, college admission is a complicated process, and schools pass on applicants for a variety of reasons. A college or university may feel that your child will flourish elsewhere, given her academic, extracurricular and social interests — even though her grades and participatory record are both strong. Given this information, one of the best things a parent can do is reposition the rejection letter as a new opportunity for the student to find her best-fit school. While a rejection can be difficult in the moment, it can later seem like everything happened for a reason.

3. Explore the remaining possibilities

If your child has received responses from several colleges, set aside any rejection letters and instead focus on her acceptance letters. In some instances, you and your student may wish to speak to alumni of these schools or take a campus tour if you have not yet done so. Enthusiasm for an interested college can quickly erase lingering disappointment over a rejection from another one — but what should you do if your child receives no acceptances? In this case, it is even more important to remain calm. Acknowledge that this is a setback but not an insurmountable one. Then, with your student leading your joint efforts, research academic summer experiences, gap-year programs or schools with rolling admissions deadlines. Whether your child ultimately begins college in the fall, spring or a full year from now, all is not lost.

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