It’s college acceptance time. That means giddy Facebook posts of stationery letterhead, skyrocketing sales of college T-shirts and bumper stickers, and cupcakes ordered in college colors for graduation parties.
It also means that after 12 stellar years of mastering reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic, college-bound students must face a fourth R:
Despite the predictable media coverage of the high school senior who was accepted to all eight Ivy League colleges and universities! the reality is that most students will see at least one very thin envelope in the mailbox.
How we, as parents, respond to that rejection is more crucial to our young adult’s developing confidence than any message sent to them by an institution.
“Parents are often as emotionally traumatized as the kid, and sometimes more,” said Jim Taylor, a San Francisco-based psychologist and author of “Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child.”
That reaction, Taylor said, can unwittingly send a message to the child of “profound disappointment that you aren’t good enough, or haven’t lived up to what we want for you,” he said. “Parents might just be feeling bad because the child feels bad, but kids can’t read their parents’ minds. All they see is that my mom is incredibly upset with me.”
No wonder the popularity of a T-shirt with the message: “Don’t Ask Me About College.”
Paul Thiboutot also works with parents who may be angry or anxious. When they tell him that, clearly, a mistake has been made, his response is gracious — and surprising.
“I agree with them,” said Thiboutot, vice president and dean of admissions at Carleton College in Northfield.
“It is quite possible,” he says. “This is not a perfect science. There are people we might have benefited from having here.”
Junior still won’t be getting into academically rigorous Carleton, but Thiboutot’s response does disarm many moms and dads, and calms a disappointed Junior, too.
“One of my messages is that I hope their child has had positive news from some other place,” said Thiboutot, an admissions dean for 30 years. “If they haven’t, I’ll gladly talk to them about other options. We want to listen.”
Getting tougher all the time
Rejection is more common today because the number of applicants vying for spots at colleges — big and small, attainable and out-of-reach — is soaring.
Common applications make it possible to apply to many schools at once. Virtual tours offer students a sense of place without the expense of travel.
“There’s greater latitude for high school students to consider a larger range of options, with less restrictions on the type of school,” Thiboutot said. “Students are testing the waters. ‘Oh, Minnesota? Sounds fascinating.’ ”
The acceptance rate at Carleton ranges from 20 to 25 percent, Thiboutot said. But rejection is rarely a reflection of a student’s qualifications, he said. He drives home his point:
“How many high schools do you think there are in the United States?” The answer: About 40,000.
“How many of those valedictorians can go to Harvard?”
Ryan Luse also gears up for the fourth R at this time of year. Over the past few weeks, the college consultant with Eagan-based College Expert (collegeexpertmn.com) has had “some teary conversations.”
He has received e-mails from parents with just a subject line: “Rejected from USC today,” and one jarring text in all caps: “I DID NOT GET INTO NORTHWESTERN!”
Luse travels to colleges across the country, and encourages the 40 to 50 seniors he counsels annually to target at least 10: three “reaches,” four “possibles” and three to four “likelies.”
Rejection is still inevitable, and he sees some good in that. “For the star theater person or the student for whom high school was a breeze, some college rejection is a healthy thing because they’re going to experience more rejection in life.”
Jeff Allen, director of admissions at Macalester College in St. Paul, supports that notion.
“Hopefully, students have been advised by parents and college counselors to apply to an appropriate range of institutions, some highly selective, some moderately selective,” said Allen, noting that the acceptance rate at Macalester is about 35 percent.
“And, hopefully, parents have asked, ‘How will you respond if you are not selected by your first-choice school?’ In an ideal world, there’s been a lot of preparation for that moment.”
Allen notes a heartening, less publicized fact: The average percentage of students admitted at four-year colleges and universities, called “selectivity,” is 65.8 percent, according to the National Association of College Admission Counseling."
“There are thousands and thousands of students attending colleges that accept more than 60 percent of students who apply,” Allen said. “And they receive absolutely exceptional educations.”
The best fit
Success is largely due to finding the right “fit,” say those in the know.
“Any college is a community of individuals,” Allen said. “Most students, when they get to a college campus, can find like-minded students — students who share their passions, who might introduce them to new activities. If you open yourself to that experience, students find their way.”
Luse agreed. “If you’re at a right-fit college, that — more than anything — leads to success. My students who made sure they were at the best-fit college are making connections, they’re happy, they’re having these great, meaningful experiences.”
Ayumi Sakamoto is a stellar example. A golfer since age 7, she’s played at the Junior Worlds and was heavily recruited by many top schools. She wanted Amherst College. Amherst didn’t want her.
“It was disappointing,” said Sakamoto, 20, of Hawaii, noting that the rejection came down to a few low grades, including a C-plus in a high school pre-calculus class. “Oh, God, that really hurts.”
At Carleton, she’s playing golf, is involved in a biracial student group, and volunteers as a National Alzheimer’s buddy.
“Carleton turned out to be the best choice possible,” she said. “It’s a cliché, but whatever is meant to happen will happen.”
Nick Lemieux said it’s OK to feel “devastated” — for a while. Then it’s time to embrace a school that embraced you.
Lemieux, 19, of Eagan, had his heart set on diving competitively at Columbia University. He didn’t get in. Instead, he went to NYU, a school he didn’t like at all at first. Now he’s glad he’s there. NYU “is embedded in the city,” he said, and embracing of his being gay. He’s diving for NYU, too.
“Wait it out, get to your school,” he advised. “You’re going to be fine.”
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How to talk to graduating seniors
Whether the graduate is under your roof, or the child of friends, here are some helpful icebreakers.
Ask open-ended questions: “I have no idea what you plan to do. In an ideal world, how would you like to spend your time?” “Tell me something I don’t know about this college.” “Why did you find this a good fit for you?”
Don’t assume they’re going to college: Support those who are taking a gap year, heading to technical school or who have no idea what they’re doing past their graduation party.
Don’t play into disappointment: Don’t placate, excuse or explain away colleges that rejected them. Empathize, hug them and tell them you love them. In a few days, check in to remind them that determination and success often come from pain.