You Didn’t Get into Your Top Choice College: Now What?

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For most of us, the end of March signals the end to a long, dreary winter, and the beginning of warmer, sunnier weather (although here in New York, we’re starting to doubt that…).  For high school seniors, however, April ushers in a period fearful anticipation, as college admissions officers make their decisions and determine the next four years of life for a new crop of rising college freshmen.

Regardless of whether you found out your admission status via e-mail subject line or envelope thickness, anyone who has been rejected from a school can recall the pit-in-your-stomach feeling that accompanies having your dreams crushed.  Rejection – be it by a college, a job, a group of friends, or a crush– hurts, both physically and emotionally. The pain is unavoidable for two reasons. First, because rejection itself, in some form at some point, is inevitable. And second, the pain is what tells you how much you care.

In a tough situation, the good news is that you are well poised to put some of your cognitive behavioral therapy skills to the test. These strategies can help challenge your initial assumptions by looking at the data, put things in perspective, and in some casese, to move from unproductive worry to problem-solving mode.

If you’re currently feeling the sting of college rejection, know that you’re in good company. Tina Fey, Tom Hanks, Barack Obama, Steven Spielberg, and Warren Buffett are a few of the many successful individuals who were turned down by their dream school. Their stories demonstrate that your happiness or success in life is not determined by how many rejections you get, but how you respond to them.

Remember the Big Picture

Many schools saw their acceptance rates hit record lows this year, as more students than ever are applying for college admission.  Harvard and Yale accepted less than 5% of applicants into their class of 2022 (compared to acceptance rates of 7 and 8%, respectively, 10 years ago).  Meanwhile, UCLA and UCSD both received over 113,000 applications this past fall. To put that in perspective, you could make a small city out of UCLA’s applicant pool.

Admissions officers at various universities repeatedly state that they could fill their class two, even three times over with the number of qualified students that apply, but they simply don’t have the space to accommodate the tens of thousands of students they could admit.  What decides one student’s admission versus another student’s rejection can come down to factors as random as what types of extracurriculars they pursued or even geographic location. Admissions officers are choosing among thousands of applications to curate a diverse class that fits with a school’s unique culture.

Put another way: a rejection letter does not necessarily indicate that you weren’t good enough for the school. Reframing your thinking away from “I’m a failure because I didn’t get in” to “Even though I wasn’t the right match for this school, I have a lot going for me as an applicant,” can be a powerful tool to get over a rejection in a healthy manner.

It’s Not All-or-Nothing

So maybe you didn’t get into your #1 choice, or even your #2 or #3. But what about the schools you did get into? Presumably, you applied there because they offered something that interested you, whether it’s their location, a specialized program you’re interested in, or they seem to have a healthier campus culture. Practice shifting your focus towards the options you do have, rather than the ones you don’t.

When you get an acceptance letter, go on that university’s website, read the promotional materials they sent you, and sign up for their accepted students’ day to start getting excited about the potential of enrolling there. Make a list of the qualities that drew you to your top choice, and see how much it compares to the schools you did get in to. Chances are, you’ll find a lot of similarities.

Remember, many people don’t get into their top choice schools and wind up loving their college experience.  Conversely, there are others who go to their “dream school” and end up not enjoying it as much as they thought they would.

It’s OK to Break with Tradition

What if you didn’t get in anywhere? Or you are having a lot of trouble feeling connected with any of the schools you did get into? Does that mean you should just give up on going to college at all? Absolutely not! In fact, the majority of college students don’t complete their Bachelor’s degree within four years. Here are just a couple of the many alternatives available:

  • Consider taking a gap year, or apply to start in the spring semester if your school allows it. Taking time away between high school and college can be a great way to give your mind a break from academic stress, focus on recovery, and pursue a hobby or interest you care about (this could include volunteering, traveling, taking a course you’ve always wanted to try, etc.) Depending on what you do, your gap year experience could even make you a more competitive applicant if you decide to re-apply. If you think you might be interested in taking a gap year, check out the American Gap Year Association’s page for a list of programs and tips on how to plan one.
  • Get started somewhere, see how it goes, and keep the option to transfer after a year or semester on the table. Most schools will take transfer students, and doing well in your classes at a community college or local university demonstrates that you are capable of handling the demands of a college curriculum.

Keep an Eye on Your (Mental) Health

No matter where you are in your eating disorders recovery, the college admissions process is one of those stressors kicking off a prolonged period of transition. As you process the emotions that you’re feeling, remember to be especially mindful of unhealthy behaviors and thought patterns that may set your recovery process back a few steps. You may be tempted to go on a long run or walk, skip a meal, or binge eat to cope, but this is an important moment to test out your relapse prevention skills – tracking potentially problematic behaviors, being kind to and taking good care of yourself, and most importantly, talking to others you trust about your experience.  Venting to your therapist, your parents, or your friends can be a great way to overcome rejection. If it’s hard for you to see the big picture, appreciate the nuances, or identify all the potential options, borrow perspective from people you trust.  You are not alone in your sadness, and now is a better time than ever to utilize your support systems.

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