“Use your words!” This is a phrase that adults often employ to comfort a frustrated toddler who is having trouble expressing themselves. As parents and educators, we want the best for our children and are eager to help them identify how they are feeling and process their sometimes complicated emotions.
Anyone who works with college-bound high school seniors, or maybe has one of their own, knows just how fraught this time of year can be when early admission decisions flow in. As a school counselor, I can tell a lot about the headspace a student is in by the words they use. When an applicant is admitted, I rarely have to read beyond the subject line to experience the joy emanating from the sender. “I’m in!”, “Good news!”, “Guess what?!”, “Thank you!!”–these are just a few of the giveaways that the admission scale has tipped in their direction.
But here is the problem, it is not a scale in the traditional sense of being judged or weighed to determine worth. It can feel like one though. When the email subject line reads “Rejected from…”, I also have an open window into their emotions. An admission decision can easily feel like a referendum on who one is and what one does. Applicants wonder what they did wrong or what their application was missing. They feel discarded, shunned, or maybe even scorned.
The truth is, usually, the answer is that nothing was wrong or missing, especially in competitive applicant pools. And, it wasn’t so much that they were “rejected” but rather that they were not offered–or were denied–admission. Stanford University goes a step further and “releases” students from admission, as if they once were admitted but now have been freed or done a favor. In reality, it feels like rejection and we need to acknowledge that.
It is rarely helpful to tell a toddler to ‘”use their words” to express emotions, as they might not have the words to describe what they are feeling. Likewise, for college applicants, it only exacerbates their disappointment when the adults in their lives try to correct their language. When one’s top choice college says no, it hurts –no matter how much of a reach or unlikely it might have been. While those who support students should avoid using words like rejection ourselves, we need to allow the space for them to wrestle with their complicated emotions. Despite the urge to fix or justify, the best approach is to acknowledge their disappointment and simply ask how you can be supportive. Maybe they want to talk about it, maybe not. Let them decide. Don’t launch directly into “plan B” mode by suggesting new schools to add to the list or strategic approaches to their other applications. If you must plan, do so in advance of the admission notification and decide what you are going to do regardless of the outcome. Maybe that is a dinner out together, a movie at home, or a long walk to talk about anything but college. It is not the what, but the who.
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For some students, this is the first time they have experienced a letdown this significant. Others might not be phased by the negative outcome. We need to manage our own emotions–and our love for our children–and not project our disappointment onto them. They have enough to contend with and do not need to comfort a discouraged parent. Ultimately, admitted or not admitted is a decision made by the professionals at a college. Acceptance is a choice and one that students–and the rest of us–get to make. Let’s focus on using words of acceptance and affirmation while allowing the emotions to be as they are.