From rejection to redirection: What matters for college?

In the spring, celebratory videos flood social media with high school seniors opening their admission decisions! Surrounded by friends, family, and school staff, these videos show the fear, suspense, and joy of the students’ efforts coming to fruition with the word “Congratulations!”

In other videos, students also share the sharp pain and disappointment of admission rejections. They post their perfect “stats” [4.0+ GPA, 10+ AP classes, 10+ extracurricular activities] with a list of universities that have rejected their applications. “What could I have done differently?” “Why aren’t I good enough?” In one, the caption reads, “idk what i did wrong… i worked so hard for what #waitlisted #rejected.” 

Students, who have envisioned this moment and the next four years of their lives, must suddenly restructure what they thought college would be like. 

In response to disappointment, a counselor in a California school seeks to empower students by having a “rejection party,” hoping to take the “sting” out of rejection and build a mindset resilient to setbacks. Students celebrate by bringing their rejection letters and shredding them. This symbolic act helps bring students closure while highlighting an essential component in these discussions, what really matters in a college education. 

The initial rejection and redirection to another university make way for an opportunity to reflect on what students want to gain from their college experiences–personally, academically, and professionally, which is infinitely more important. For example, one student attending the rejection party reflects, “[this event] gives us an opportunity to celebrate that we are college-bound because…a lot of students at our school are first-generation, low-income.” Rather than dwelling on the rejections, students rejoice in where they will attend. That mindset shift is what lays the foundation for planning a college experience that supports students’ dreams, academic and professional goals, and their transition to adulthood. 

College is a substantial financial and time commitment. When prestige, rankings, and selective acceptance rates rule conversations and peak intrigue, it is imperative to step back and ask: what do I want to gain from the next 4+ years of a college education? What is important to me? 

Perhaps a goal is building a professional network for budding business students. Students could look forward to conducting research with a faculty member aligned with their psychology research interests. To work in the ever-expanding tech field, students may want to use college to develop proficiency in programming languages to intern at big tech firms. A 4-year degree could also be the stepping stone for students interested in advanced training in medicine, law, or university teaching. These are goals not tied to the prestige of a university, and students from all universities can access those opportunities. 

A Gallup study on graduates of a four-year degree found that “the type of schools…college graduates attended — public or private, small or large, very selective or less selective — hardly matters at all to their workplace engagement and current well-being [post-grad].” Instead, “the answers may lie in what students are doing in college and how they are experiencing it.” The fulfilling experiences include faculty support and care, research experiences, and meaningful extracurricular commitments. Just 3% of nearly 30,000 survey participants reported that they had experienced all the above, with only 14% “strongly agree they were supported by professors who cared, who made them excited about learning, and who encouraged their dreams.” 1

The staggeringly low numbers reported should prompt students and families to think about college differently. Students should begin developing a habit of self-directed learning that will empower them to access resources and advocate for themselves while pursuing their academic programs. Students ought to feel confident scheduling regular meetings with advisors and connecting with department administrators to stay current with any scholarships, internships, or fellowships. Often, students don’t know where to look for these opportunities because websites are not always updated with the current information. Therefore, students will benefit from communicating with the university staff and participating in extracurricular activities that will allow them to connect with mentors like upperclassmen, TAs, and other students. 

Ultimately, the Gallup study concluded that “too few” students had profound experiences in college. The initial sting of rejection may derail students momentarily. However, redirection can also empower students to take the lead when committing to a university to build sustainable relationships, regardless of where they attend. 


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