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How to help your child deal with college rejection

By Rayma Griffin, MA, MEd

At a Glance

  • Rejection can be harder on kids with learning and thinking differences.

  • It’s important to be prepared for your child’s reaction.

  • Being proactive and positive can shift your child’s outlook.

Emotions can run high for all kids who are waiting to find out if they got into their college of choice. No child wants to get rejected. But if that happens, the situation can be extra stressful for kids with learning and thinking differences.

After years of academic challenges, kids who learn and think differently may struggle with self-esteem more than other kids do. That’s why it’s important to be ready to step in and support kids if they receive a college rejection letter.

It’s natural to feel disappointed when kids don’t get into the college of their choice. But it’s important to control your own reactions. This can help you help your child keep the rejection in perspective.

Here are common college rejection situations, and how you can help your child.

1. Your child shuts down and refuses to talk.

A rejection letter can reinforce negative feelings kids have about their own self-worth. And some may shut down as a response. If this happens, respect your child’s need to mourn for a short time. A day or two is acceptable, but anything beyond that can be paralyzing for a kid.

Try to be proactive and positive. Give examples of successful people who didn’t get into their first choice for college. (Warren Buffett and Tom Brokaw are two you can use.)

Maybe you have family or close friends who didn’t have an easy start in higher education. Remind your child that those same people now have strong careers.

These stories can help soften the blow. They let kids know they’re not alone in receiving a rejection letter.

2. Your child is overly emotional and has an angry outburst.

Some kids may react by lashing out. Kids may blame their teachers or the college admissions team for the rejection. If this happens, give kids some time to deal with their anger .

Try not to let them dwell on their anger for too long, though. When they seem ready to hear it, give an example of when you faced a hurtful rejection. Talk about how painful it was for you. Then offer a specific example of what you did to cope.

It’s also good to give your child some facts — like that many schools have more qualified applicants than they could ever accept. And that the rejection letter isn’t personal, even though it might feel that way.

It’s important to help kids direct their energy toward next steps, too. Your child could meet with the guidance counselor to discuss other colleges that might still be options, including colleges with programs for kids with learning and thinking differences .

3. Your child says “I’m stupid and won’t ever get into college.”

Kids with learning and thinking differences can be hard on themselves. They may take the rejection as a blanket statement that they’re “a loser” or too “stupid” for college.

Don’t try to discuss the rejection when kids are beating themselves up and putting themselves down. They may not be ready to hear other reasons why they didn’t get admitted. Let them know you feel their pain, but try not to engage in the rant. It will only reinforce negative feelings.

It’s OK to walk away, too. After 15 minutes or so, come back, ready to provide new ways to think about the rejection.

Bring up any recent academic successes. Maybe your child had strong SAT scores or did well on midterm exams. You can also remind kids of non-academic successes. For instance, maybe your child did some important volunteer work. This can help kids shift their focus away from the rejection to their strengths .

4. Your child is worried about telling friends.

Kids may be nervous or embarrassed to tell their friends about getting rejected. And it’s extra tough if their friends are celebrating their acceptance letters at the same time.

Ask kids if they want to tell close family and friends about the situation. You can practice talking through what to say. Remind kids that family and friends support them, and encourage them not to feel ashamed.

No matter the scenario, you can help your child keep the rejection in perspective. Explain that lots of kids didn’t get into the college of their choice. Offer hugs and a shoulder to cry on. But afterwards, it’s time to move on and make a plan for the next step.

Make sure kids understand that just because they got rejected from one school doesn’t mean that they can’t get into others. And if your child does get rejected from every school, there are still many good options.

For example, kids who are tech savvy might want to attend a vocational school for tech classes. Kids who like the arts could volunteer at a local museum while taking some classes at a junior college or online. There may be a regional campus that offers transfers to a main campus after a semester. Or your child may want to look into an internship.

The most important thing is to help your child see this rejection as an isolated incident. It doesn’t mean your child won’t be successful in life. Getting a college rejection letter is hard on kids, but teaching them how to deal with it gives them an important life lesson.

Learn more about college and career opportunities for kids with learning and thinking differences. Read about the importance of resilience and the  strengths that come from challenges . And discover ways to show empathy to kids with learning and thinking differences.

Key Takeaways

  • Kids who get a college rejection letter may shut down or get angry.

  • It can help to share your own experiences with rejection, and how you coped.

  • Remind kids of their strengths, and try to shift their focus to an action plan.

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