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College letters stacking up?

Keep your wits about you as you make pick, face rejection

It’s the end of April, college crunch time. You may be both recovering from the disappointment of rejection and worrying about which school that accepted you is best.

Here are five mental-health tips for surviving this moment:

Those rejections aren’t your problem. University of South Florida education Professor Sherman Dorn says the greatest barriers for college-bound students “will not be the inability to be admitted into every place you apply” but the challenge of getting the money for college, dealing with university budget cuts and surviving the daunting academic demands of the first semester. Dorn chides education writers who bemoan great students getting rejected by their first choices but ignore the fact that they almost all got into good places.

If you don’t like the college you chose, it’s easy to get another one. We have a former college transfer student in the White House. He moved from Occidental College to Columbia University his junior year. About 20 percent of students who start at one four-year college graduate from another four-year college. Many more start at two-year colleges, then move to four-year schools. People who say picking a college is as important as picking a spouse are wrong. It’s more like buying a house. If you discover the bad soil ruins your tomatoes, sell it and buy another one.

Your future success has no bearing on whether your grandmother has heard of your college. Database researcher Stacy Berg Dale, now at Mathematica Policy Research, and Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger wrote a research paper in 1999 titled “Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College: An Application of Selection on Observables and Unobservables.” It revealed that students accepted by selective colleges but who decided to attend non-selective ones were making just as much money 20 years later as those who attended the selective, brand-name schools. Those prestigious colleges were good at recruiting students who had the character traits, such as persistence, humor and charm, that produced success in life. But students with those qualities who went to colleges rarely mentioned in the rankings did just as well. It is your character that makes the difference. Work hard, and all will be well.

Your college will have many Ivy League-quality students and professors. Admissions officers at colleges that reject 80 percent or 90 percent of applicants readily admit that there is no difference between applicants they accept and large numbers of the applicants they reject. As proof of that, some wait-list more students than they accept. In the case of very selective colleges, the number of rejected high-quality applicants can be two or three times as large as the admitted freshman class. Some of those disappointed but brilliant people, like you, will go to your school and give it the intellectual fizz and take-charge energy you find at the Ivies. Universities such as Rutgers, James Madison and Salisbury, for instance, admit slightly more students than they reject but are great places to learn. They get not only a spillover of Ivy League-quality students, but also Ivy League-quality professors.

Whatever your mood now, you will be happy once you ditch your parents. Maybe you developed a taste for NCAA basketball championships and are heartsick at being rejected by Duke. Maybe you won’t be enjoying the milkshakes at the Peninsula Creamery because Stanford shunned you. No matter. You got in somewhere that has some intriguing features. For the first time, you get to decide what you do every day. In just four months, you will be making friends and sampling new experiences in what are likely to be the most unsettling, strenuous and exciting years of your life.