The Best Advice When Colleges Say No

From Patrick J. O’Connor, Ph.D. on the NACAC ListServ:

School counselors know the real March Madness begins next week, when some of the nation’s most selective colleges release their admissions decisions.  As a pre-game warm-up, let’s stick with the facts we’ll need to comfort the Class of 2011

  • Most selective colleges are reporting a huge increase in the number of applications.
  • This increase is due in part to more American students applying to college, and colleges seeking out more students from overseas.
  • Since this also happened last year, many colleges enrolled too many students last fall.  They’ll have to make up for that, so many colleges will be admitting fewer students this year…
  • …and wait-listing more students.  This increase means fewer students will be admitted from the wait list come May—and if they are admitted, financial aid will be scarce.

If none of that does any good, then just say this:

  • 850.

No, this is not the high score on some new version of the SAT, and while it may indeed be the number of times Charlie Sheen appeared on TV last week, that (happily) has nothing to do with college.

850 is the number of valedictorians rejected last year from one of America’s most prestigious colleges.  These students represented the best in their high schools; they did everything they were “supposed” to do—and yet, they didn’t even get to the wait list. 

Once you share this with your students, ask them how these 850 students felt when they were rejected.  Sooner or later, the right answer will come forward—“They probably felt like they put in all of that time and effort for nothing.”

And there is the teachable moment.

It had to be hard to be turned down by a school they loved—but did all of that preparation really lead to nothing?  Given everything these students had learned, the many ways they had grown, and how they overcame adversity and embraced creativity in making Plans B, C, and Q, did they really get nothing out of it?

If so, they have every right to be unhappy, but not with the college. They should be unhappy for letting the sun rise and set 1307 times from the first day of 9th grade to the day the college said no, never once appreciating all that each of those days had to offer in and of themselves. 

They should hang their heads a little to realize, just now, the difference they’ve made to their classmates, their teammates, and the people they served in the soup kitchen.

And if they look back with a little regret on the many times they blew off a compliment from a parent or a teacher because the goal of college wasn’t realized just yet, that’s more than OK.  They now know it was at that moment that the goal of fully living each day was conquered with a flourish—and understanding that will make each day all the richer at the wonderful college that had the good sense (and room) to take them.

It isn’t easy to watch wonderful students work through the dismay and disappointment college decisions can bring, but if we remember the most important part of our work has nothing to do with who gets in and everything to do with who gets it, the disappointment will fade faster than the memory of the teams we had in last year’s NCAA pool, and students can move forward with a better sense of who they are, and what really matters.  Now that’s college counseling.

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