Anita Walia's daughter had always been an overachiever.
She made the girls varsity soccer team as a high school freshman, earned good grades in the most challenging courses at the private school she attended and received high marks on standardized tests. So, when it came time to apply to colleges in fall 2017, she felt ready. But she wasn't prepared for what happened next.
Walia's daughter was rejected from her top two college choices. That both of the highly selective institutions accepted fewer than 10 percent of applicants did little to alleviate her feelings of dejection. “For my daughter, it became, 'I'm not good enough,'” recounted Walia, who lives in Baltimore.
It's a scene that will play out in countless homes nationwide through the spring as high school seniors learn that, despite their best efforts, they did not get into their dream college. Often, it's equally dumbfounding to their parents. “It seemed so overwhelming and complicated to me,” Walia said of the college-admissions process.
Indeed, the process has become much more fraught than it was when parents of current high school students went through it. Then, applying to a few colleges was the norm. “Now, students are applying to a dozen or even more,” says psychologist Mary Alvord, co-author of the book “Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents.”
In 2016, UCLA hit a record number of applications: 102,177 for a freshman class of about 6,500 students, meaning an acceptance rate about 6 percent.
In response to ever-lower acceptance rates at selective colleges, some families feel pressured to start preparing their children years in advance of the actual college application date. In the Washington, D.C., area, “it starts in elementary school, with kids thinking about building up their résumés,” Alvord said. But, as statistics reveal, even years of carefully preparing children for admittance to highly selective colleges – with endless tutoring sessions, loads of extracurricular activities, SAT prep classes and more – offers no guarantee.
Concentrate some of that energy on teaching kids how to be resilient, experts say. It's an attribute most kids are born with, points out psychotherapist Amy Morin, author of “13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don't Do.” But today's parents often don't allow their children to act on this natural instinct, she says.
“Parents tend to rescue kids, to step in and spare them from some sort of pain, thinking failure will be too much to handle,” Morin says.
Alvord suggests parents spend less time saving their children from pending failure or discomfort and more time engaging them in becoming responsible members of their family. “Even a toddler can help push a recycling container,” Alvord says.
Alvord has witnessed the fallout from well-meaning parents who coddle their children through high school. “They edit their work. They remind them of deadlines. Then all that scaffolding disappears in college,” she said. For many, it begins unraveling when they open the email from their first-choice college and learn they've been rejected.
Well before applicants hear from colleges, parents can take proactive steps to head off their children's discouragement should they get rejected.
For starters, many experts suggest de-emphasizing the “first-choice” idea and focusing instead on building an application containing multiple schools, all of which a student would be happy to attend. “That way, it doesn't feel so loaded,” says Tara Maglio, director of college counseling at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia.
It's important for families to recognize that there are many factors in the college admissions process over which they have no say. For instance, you can't control how many qualified applicants will apply to any particular school, or know what a school is looking for in a given applicant pool.
There's no controlling how a student will respond to a college rejection notice, but parents should control theirs, advise experts. “Stay calm,” Alvord says.
Maglio agrees. “If they have an emotional response, don't match their intensity,” she advised. It won't help anything.
But that doesn't mean discounting a child's deep disappointment.
That disappointment is real, and parents should acknowledge the pain, Alvord says. “Telling them, 'You'll be fine,' is not helpful,” she says. Instead, offer emotional support and let the child have time to feel hurt. But beware of negative reactions that linger.
Most kids recover from the disappointment of rejection fairly quickly, Maglio notes. But she cautions parents to be on the lookout for kids reacting personally. “Particularly if you're hearing from your kid, 'I'm not good enough,' try to really quickly get in and get a reset,” she said.
Fortunately, experts say, 17- and 18-year-olds tend to bounce back from rejection quickly. “On graduation day, they can barely remember the thing that happened just months ago that seemed so horrible,” Maglio says.
Even when the sting of getting shut out of a top choice lingers, students can thrive at a different school.
When asked how her daughter is faring a semester into her freshman year at college, Walia responds: “It's good. She seems happy.” Pausing, she adds: “But I still think she feels the pain of rejection from those schools. Not that they would have been better for her.”