Written for PolicyMic.
If you’re startled awake to the harsh reality of not getting into your dream college, how do you move forward? To those who have been through college, that appears in hindsight to be an amateurish concern, a parting manifestation of adolescent theatrics and teen drama. But it does matter. Having been there, the emotional memory I can most readily recall is the sense of starting the rest of my life on the wrong foot. I definitely didn’t, and at least part of that comes from receiving great advice and taking some intentional steps after the season of envelopes thick and thin ended. Here’s the best of that:
1. Get to Calm
Before anything else, take a nap. Sleep it off. Go to dinner with a group of friends. There’s disappointment in getting rejected, but you needn’t to deal with it all at once after the initial shock of a short email or thin envelope. Taking a little time to process the event will serve you well — when you think and act in the moments following a dramatic event, you’re not exercising much agency. You’re reacting. In order to take the best path forward, give yourself enough time to get to a place where you’re distant enough from the initial shock that you can act.
2. Reverse Engineer the Dream School
When you’re ready to move on and move forward, meditate on the qualities of your dream school. What about the school made it perfect for you? What kinds of classes were you likely to take, experiences likely to have, programs you wanted to get involved with, people you wanted to count amongst your peer group? It’s a good idea to put these qualities to paper, in a list so that you can see them in a form more tangible than your thoughts and feelings. It’s an ever better idea to enumerate these points as specifically as possible. You may find that your dream school doesn’t have quite has much on paper as you thought. Perhaps you’ll see that some of what you found to be dreamlike about your dream college was precisely that — ethereal in its articulation. The point of this exercise isn’t to undercut the allure of your dream school (though that may soften the blow). The point is to demonstrate that few of these qualities cannot be replicated elsewhere.
3. Decide how to deal with your dream school
Now that you’ve distanced yourself a bit from the rejection and thought a little about the nature of your pull to the dream school, there are four paths you can take with regards to the immediate decision. First, if you still feel you have to go to this school, you might consider writing a letter of appeal. This is a way to show your continued interest in the school, while at the same time adding to your profile some attributes that weren’t seen on the original application. Should you go this route, don’t do it alone. Seek the advice of your counselor or a teacher, and not only because it’s helpful to include a recommendation letter in your appeal packet. Your appeal should not ruminate on the undying bond you’ve forged with the college, nor how utterly amazing they are. Instead, work to craft a very precise and careful argument that incorporates your continuing desire to gain admission, your particular interests in the college (the previous step may help here), your reason for appealing, and what you’ve been doing since the original application.
Maybe an immediate appeal isn’t the strongest tactic for you to take. If you need some more time and space to develop an appealing application for admission, you might consider transferring. Do you due diligence to determine whether and how many transfers are taken by your dream college, as well as their requirements for transfer. Some education bodies, like the University of California, have a great system for transferring from California Community Colleges. Private universities, as you might guess, tend to be more restrictive in this area. Don’t be afraid to call the Office of Admissions to ask this question directly.
Let’s say you want to try your hand again at the dream college, but don’t think more classes and better grades are going to help. You may consider taking a gap year. New York Timescolumnist Nicholas Kristof is a big proponent, and as he points out, this is not an uncommon practice in other parts of the globe.
The final path you could take is to just accept admission to a different college. An intermediary step to this path is to take your list of qualities that make the dream school so and compare them to the opportunities of your given admissions. Depending on your feel of the school, the closeness of the alternate choice to the dream might be a good way to move forward without forgoing any of the college experience you might with transferring or taking a gap year. However, this is not to say you should attend another school pretending it is the substitute or next-best-thing to your dream college. Rather,
4. Make Your College Choice Your Dream College
This is accomplished by seeking out the analogous opportunities of the dreamy college in the chosen college, understanding that the chosen college has much to offer on its own terms, and really preparing yourself for the best college experience possible.
Let’s say that you adored your dream college because it offered a small classroom environment to pursue your studies — maybe it was a liberal arts college. Even at a large state school, it is possible to craft that kind of experience if you’re intentional about that need. Most schools offer honors programs with smaller class sizes, for example. And by forming early on a small group of classmates and frequently going to office hours, you can absolutely shrink even the largest classes.
But also prepare yourself to receive what the college has to offer. This means two things: First, you want to be open to drinking the Kool-Aid. If you’re going to be there for four years, you might as well be an evangelist for the school. This will make you happier in the long run and receptive to the deluge of opportunities every college affords. Perhaps more important, there’s a lot you can do to prepare yourself for the journey. Sure, it seems like this was the purpose of high school, but it’s worth asking yourself between now and August whether you actually know how to study, whether your grasp of fields is good enough to hit the ground running, rather than good enough to pass an AP test. The best time to learn how to be a better college student is when you’re supposed to be inflicted with Senioritis.
A dream college isn’t this castle in the sky that will shower upon your passive self amazing experiences and unparalleled opportunities. It is as much welcoming space as it is a product of your agency.
5. Write the Dream College a Rejection
If after all this you still need a hand coping with rejection, you could try writing a letter (that you’ll never send) to your rejecting college. Just don’t be a jerk about it. The following process is a modified version of what is called cognitive reappraisal. Start by writing a handwritten letter to the dream college, articulating everything you wish you could say to them, in every cringing detail. Sign this letter with your signature. Then, write a letter back to you from the perspective of the dream college. In this letter, write out everything you want to hear from them in an apology. Write the letter that, if you received it, would make you feel better. Sign this one too. (For added fun, you get to invent a signature for whole college.) Before going to bed — you may do this for a week, or however long it takes — read this latter letter back to yourself. Even though this plays a trick on your mind, you’ll feel better for it. And after doing this, you’ll have learned a valuable process for letting go of grudges.