As college admissions decisions start to arrive, high school students across the country check application portals and email inboxes with nervous anticipation. Acceptances lead to shouts of joy, celebratory hugs, and excited social media announcements. On the other hand, notifications of college rejection leave many students feeling heartbroken.
So, how can you deal with the disappointment of college rejection? What are the next steps if you don’t get into your top school(s)?
At first, it might feel like your hopes and dreams are crashing down around you. But there are hundreds of colleges filled with brilliant professors, amazing opportunities, and wonderful people waiting to meet you. In this guide, we’ll explain how to recover from the heartbreak of college rejection and fall in love with a new school.
How Likely Is a Rejection Letter?
The odds of receiving a rejection letter from a college depends largely on the competitiveness of the school. Ivy League schools and other prestigious universities have extremely low acceptance rates. For example, only 4% of students who apply to Stanford get in. That means 96% of applicants are rejected.
Even high-quality state schools get competitive. The University of Florida accepts fewer than 40% of applicants, so more than 60% of applicants experience rejection.
The point is that you’re not alone. (And if it feels like you are, that’s because rejections aren’t usually announced on social media.) Most applicants who apply to top schools don’t get in. College rejection is a common experience, and this is especially true for applicants who aim high and apply to highly selective colleges.
Plus, you’re in good company. Steven Spielberg was rejected from his top choice film school, the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinema Arts. He ended up going to California State University Long Beach before becoming an Oscar winner and household name. Tom Hanks, Tina Fey, Barack Obama, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin experienced the sting of college rejection too.
So, your rejection letter might feel like the end of the world right now, but your future is as bright as ever. You can still go on to become a super famous director, the founder of a multibillion dollar company, or even the president of the United States. You’re not alone in this experience, and it’s not going to define the rest of your life or limit what you can accomplish.
Don’t Take It Personally
Considering the statistics referenced above, it’s clear that college rejection is not personal. Are 96% of Stanford applicants unqualified? And 60% of applicants to the University of Florida? Of course not! Colleges receive thousands of applicants from accomplished, talented, and highly involved students every year.
There are simply far more applicants than seats. In fact, more students are applying to colleges than ever, but the number of available spots isn’t increasing. College admissions is a numbers game. Receiving a college rejection doesn’t mean you’re not good enough, or that the admissions officers didn’t like you or your application.
In addition, keep in mind that numerous factors go into admissions decisions. Maybe the college had already filled the number of seats for your high school or your state. Or they had gaps to fill when it came to specific qualities, interests, or talents. These decisions are based on so many factors that are beyond your control.
You’ll never know exactly why you didn’t get in, so don’t dwell on the “why” or the “what ifs.” You can rest assured that it wasn’t because you’re not intelligent, hard-working, or worthy of the opportunity.
Give Yourself Time to Process
Even though you know you’re not alone and the decision wasn’t personal, rejection stings. It’s normal to feel disappointed, hurt, angry, or a range of emotions. Acknowledge your feelings and give yourself time to process them.
Talk to your family members and close friends. Commiserate with other students who were rejected by schools they loved. Treat yourself to something that cheers you up, cuddle with your pets, walk or run it out, or cry if you need to. Watch a movie that always makes you laugh while eating your favorite snack. Allow yourself a few days to feel whatever it is you’re feeling.
Then, pick yourself up and consider what’s next. When it comes to colleges, there are plenty of other fish in the sea.
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Celebrate Your Acceptance Letters
After you’ve processed your emotions, turn your attention to the schools you did get into. These schools chose you over many other qualified applicants. They saw your potential, and they want you on their campuses. That’s exciting, and it’s an honor! Celebrate your accomplishments.
When people ask you about college admissions, start talking more about the doors that have opened instead of the ones that have closed. If you received physical acceptance letters in the mail, hang them up in your room. Check out message boards or groups on social media for newly accepted students, and celebrate together.
Get Excited About Possibilities
Now, you’re ready to get excited about other schools. Even if you had your heart set on a particular dream school, you applied to other colleges and universities for a reason. Think about why these colleges attracted your attention in the first place.
These schools have a lot to offer too! They probably even have classes, activities, or opportunities that your dream school doesn’t. Maybe they have a better location with more entertainment or potential internships. And you’ll certainly meet amazing people you wouldn’t have met at your dream school.
Not sure what to get excited about? Do some research. Browse the school’s list of extracurricular activities and read through the course catalog. Learn about the city the school is located in and what there is to do in the surrounding area. Ask current or former students what they love about the school. Browse photos and videos of campus, and take a tour (or a virtual tour) if you haven’t visited yet.
Start imagining yourself on campus. Think about the classes you’ll take, the organizations you’ll join, and the fun activities you’ll do. What unique opportunities are available? How will you continue exploring your interests and passions? What is life like on campus and in the dorms, and what particularly appeals to you?
For every acceptance letter you receive, make a list of the school’s benefits and the ways you’d like to get involved if you enroll. Let yourself get excited about the possibilities available to you. One day, you might actually feel grateful that you didn’t get accepted to that one school after all!
Keep Following Your Passions
Even if you don’t get to attend your dream school, you have the opportunity to continue pursuing your passions. The same hobbies and dreams that brought you joy in high school can continue to motivate and sustain you in college, no matter where you end up.
Instead of wishing you were somewhere else, focus on finding happiness where you are. What organizations, activities, and events does your school offer that are related to your personal interests? Figure out how you can stay close to your passions, then get involved.
You’ll start to feel happier and more at home, and get excited about your new school. Plus, following your passions will lead you to people with similar interests and hobbies. Once you find your people, college becomes one of the most memorable and enjoyable times you’ll ever experience.
In the long run, the name of your alma mater isn’t what matters. It’s all about the people you meet, the experiences you have, and the skills and knowledge you acquire to prepare for a successful career.
Consider Other Options
What if you’ve received several rejection letters and are feeling nervous about your future? Or you simply can’t get excited about your fallback plans, no matter how hard you try?
You have a few other options to consider:
- Apply to schools that offer rolling admissions. It’s not too late to apply to a few more colleges. Some four-year colleges offer “rolling admissions,” accepting applications throughout the year. Schools with rolling admissions include the University of Alabama, Penn State, Michigan State, Arizona State, and the University of Pittsburgh. Each school handles rolling admissions differently and has different timelines, so it’s important to research their individual processes.
- Attend community college for two years. Attending a community college is a great way to boost your academic record while also saving money. Consider spending two years at a community college completing your general education courses, then transferring to a four-year university to finish your degree.
- Take a gap year. Taking a gap year means delaying college for a year while you volunteer, pursue an internship, travel, or work. After the gap year, you can reapply to colleges or apply to other schools you hadn’t considered before. A gap year can provide you with experiences that strengthen your application and help you in the field you want to major and work in.
- Remember that you can always switch schools later. When you enroll in a school, you aren’t required to stay there for all four years. Transferring is always a possibility. So, attend a different (and also great) school you got into, knowing you can transfer if it’s not right for you.
Don’t feel defeated or hopeless, even if you’ve received a few rejection letters. There are always alternatives and nontraditional paths to achieving your goals for the future.
Look into schools that offer rolling admissions and see if any of them interest you. If you’re considering community college or a gap year, talk to your parents about these possibilities. And if you decide to enroll in one of the schools that accepted you, as most students do, feel reassured by the option of transferring if it doesn’t work out. At the same time, stay optimistic—you’ll probably fall in love with your new school, with any idea of transferring becoming a distant memory.
Final Thoughts: How to Deal with College Rejection
College rejection might feel like the end of the world, but it’s really a door to new possibilities. Your dream school might not have been the best fit for you after all. Give other schools a chance, and you’ll eventually feel relieved that college admissions decisions led you right to where you are.
But first, you’ll need to move past college rejection. Here’s how:
- Remember you’re not alone, and don’t take it personally.
- Give yourself time to process your feelings.
- Celebrate the acceptance letters you receive.
- Start researching the schools that accepted you, and get excited about the future!
- Wherever you go, remember to follow your passions. They’ll keep you happily motivated and lead you to your people.
- If you’ve experienced several rejections or are struggling to accept your backups, consider options like community college or a gap year.
You experienced college rejection, but that’s okay. Remember, so did Steven Spielberg and Barack Obama. Who knows? This could be the turning point that leads you to your brightest future.