Coping With College Rejection

Oh, man. This was hard to read without getting fired up. The Times’ “Motherlode” blog had a post two weeks ago by Tracy Mayor, timed for the wind-down of the college admissions season, “When the Answer Is No.” Mayor writes about her experience a couple of years ago shepherding her son through the disappointment of a college rejection. There is comfort to be found here for parents with kids who have been crushed in recent weeks and have felt crushed themselves. They are not alone. In an era of acceptance rates that dip into the teens and single digits, rejection is a common experience. Surely, it will help to be reminded of that, no?

All the same, while our job isn’t to do back-seat parenting, there are implicit choices in Mayor’s story that inspire some thoughts about how to approach the whole mishegas of admissions. The article’s final take-away, that it’s OK to cry when your kid’s dream school says no, is entirely reasonable for those parents who find themselves reeling from their child’s disappointment, but the guidance here really should be for those parents at the beginning of the application process. How can parents best inoculate themselves from falling into the trap in the first place?

Five paragraphs into the article we get to the meat of what left us unsettled:

Some people tell you, hands on hips, that the college application process should be “entirely student-driven.”

As if you would let a 17-year-old make the biggest decision of his life (so far) unaided. As if a high school junior has even an hour’s worth of extra time between SATs and APs and sports and school clubs and volunteering and demonstrating interest and taking leadership positions and the stuff of regular teenage life — drivers’ licenses and prom dates and after-school jobs.

This has it exactly backward in a number of ways. One of the primary things that has made the lives of upper-middle-class teens (the very limited demographic we’re talking about here) so overpacked and challenging is the anxiety among parents that their kids need to do more in order to be appealing to colleges. The undifferentiated commitment to clubs, volunteering, and “demonstrating interest” writ large is a plague. Interest is not interest when it’s expressed with the intention of demonstrating interest. Kids vanish in an overpopulated applicant pool when they fail to show genuine, self-determined investment in things. A student-driven applications process is not simply a matter of affording students independence and trust, it is an extension of the very logic that is going to give your student the best chance at gaining admission to the school that is the right place for her. Top schools, especially, are not looking for students who are incapable of driving their own applications process. They are not looking for students who are “demonstrating interest” in leadership or anything else for its own sake. If you have your child too busy ticking off college requirements to be the primary agent in his or her own application process, then something is grossly wrong. College-bound 17-year-olds should absolutely be making the biggest decision of their lives, largely unaided.

Mayor is setting up a straw man. Those of us who would say that the process should be student-driven aren’t necessarily saying that it should be done *entirely* in the absence of parental help. As an astute commenter on the site (“dcl” in New Jersey) observes, there isn’t necessarily much wrong (outside the obviously inequitable and pernicious way that such help is distributed as a function of class) with a parent helping a student put a final polish on an application. After all, as the commenter reminds us, adults often hire people to polish their resumes and cover letters. The problem isn’t that parents take *some* role in the process. The problem is that the alternative to student-driven applications are parent-driven applications.

In every respect, a student applicant to college is best served when he or she drives the process him or herself. A college-ready student should, ideally, also be a student ready to tackle the lion’s share of the responsibility for the application process. A college-bound student should be aware enough and mature enough to articulate and match his or her own needs. A 17-year-old looking at a school with a 16% (or lower) admissions rate should have genuine, personal interests that he or she has cultivated independent of the demands of the college portfolio.

In the end, this piece left us a little sad, and not empathetically for Mayor’s loss. For all the heartache, we come away with the sense that the motivations were a bit muddied. After all, Mayor admits that “Pefect U.” would have condemned her son to a life in the library without all the other healthy social and secondary intellectual outlets that he enjoys at “Pretty Good U.”, where he winds up. All that pain was expended, in the end, on a school that doesn’t sound like it was “perfect” at all. Can we help but suspect that there were interests at play here beyond “the right fit” for the student? At the end, we notice that Mayor isn’t suggesting that parents allow themselves a tear in sympathy for their child’s pain. It’s their own dreams they’re mourning.

Tags: Parenting Advice, College Admissions, College Applications, Stress & Anxiety
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