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Helping teens weather the blow of college rejection letters

Young people walk and bike beneath a high, ornate gate
Students on campus at UC Berkeley in 2019.
(Josh Edelson / For The Times)

This is the March 28, 2022, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.

If you have a senior in high school, you probably know that the last of the college-admissions decisions for the class of 2022 will land in the coming days.

Maybe your teen got into their dream school. If that’s the case, congratulations! But there’s a good chance that your child will face, or already is grappling with, one of the biggest disappointments of their life.

California’s top colleges are yielding record applications, and admissions are competitive. UCLA offered spots to 11% of freshman applicants in 2021, and the rates of admission for USC and UC Berkeley were 12% and 14.5%, respectively. These are universities many kids form identities around long before they’re eligible to apply. Being rejected can be crushing, especially for students who have spent high school earning top grades, juggling extracurriculars and studying for AP classes.

Adults have the benefit of perspective. We know that success (whatever that might mean to you) can be achieved without attending an elite institution of higher education. And yet parents, too, can feel that rejection keenly, as if it’s their own.

I spoke with a few experts about how parents can help their teens weather college rejections and keep their cool in the process.

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Just listen

Your high schooler might react in any of the following ways: angry, sad, frustrated. Wondering if all of their hard work was for nothing. Comparing themselves to friends who got into the schools of their choice. Or dismissing the disappointment altogether, as if they don’t really care about it. This typically comes from shame or because it’s too painful to acknowledge.

All of these responses are absolutely normal, said Ashley Hudson, a marriage and family therapist who works with teens and young adults in Orange County.

“Being rejected without any clear reason — it just sucks,” Hudson said. “It’s hard to make sense of it and get any closure, and teens tend to internalize that. They blame themselves.”

It’s your job to listen and validate how much this thoroughly stinks. Parents want to rescue their kids from hurt, but it’s important for teens to feel the rejection and learn how to grieve the loss.

To properly hold that space for your teen, you need to stay calm and confident. Kids easily pick up on anxious, frantic energy and make it their own, compounding their own stress. If you handle disappointment by flying off the handle, your kid is probably going to do the same. At the same time, too little of a response could make it seem like you don’t actually care, Hudson said. It’s a tough tightrope to walk. But it’s as simple as being present and OK with whatever emotions arise.

Mark Montgomery, a college admissions counselor in Denver, says parents should make it clear how proud they are of their kids for going through this process. “Nothing will change my opinion of you, my love and respect and pride in you as my child,” Montgomery demonstrated. “You are awesome and you will always be awesome. Nothing can take that away.”

If you think your teen would be open to it, encourage them to write out their feelings and read them aloud to themselves. This is a simple and effective way to begin accepting a loss, said Elayne Savage, psychotherapist and author ofDon’t Take It Personally: The Art of Dealing With Rejection.”

Sometimes, though, teens aren’t willing or ready to talk. That’s OK, too. “The invitation is there,” Savage said. “Let it be, and leave the door open.”

Normalize rejection

Disappointment is a part of life, and this won’t be your teen’s first — though it may be among their most profound to date. They haven’t accumulated enough life experience to know that things will get better, even if this setback initially feels really terrible. Here’s one not-so-fun fact: Social rejection is processed by some of the same neural circuitry that processes physical pain, which is why moments like this are so heartbreaking.

Ask your teen if they’d be open to hearing about a time when you didn’t get something you had your heart set on, Savage said. This normalizes rejection and helps them feel less alone.

“It shouldn’t be a story about how wonderfully you handled it. Tell them how tough it was,” Savage told me. “Parents think they need to appear strong, but often it’s better to show vulnerability.”

Students can pull from their own experiences of disappointment, too — like not getting on a sports team, not getting invited to a party or losing a friendship, said Bay Area psychotherapist Cornelia Gibson.

Once your teen has sat with the loss for a bit, it’s time to explore other options. “This is about flexibility and adapting to what’s uncontrollable, and learning to pivot when something doesn’t go as planned,” Hudson said. Hopefully, your kid got into other schools. Help them figure out what they really liked about their dream school and how other colleges might check those same boxes — and what kind of compromises they’re willing to make.

You can also help them get excited about their Plan B. “What are some unique offerings of the other schools?” Gibson said. It’s possible that those colleges may be a better fit in the end.

“In the best possible scenario, a student feels that sting but then dusts themselves off and moves open-mindedly in the direction of the other options they’ve created for themselves,” Montgomery said. “If they’ve got a decent list, it’ll be easier for them to fall in love with another school.”

It can be helpful to remind kids of the bigger picture, although Savage advises that this may not be the best move in the immediate aftermath of rejection.

“Colleges say it in their letters: that it’s not a reflection of your talents and achievements. ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’ And it’s true!” Montgomery said. “The colleges have priorities, criteria and lots of institutional imperatives that make it impossible to accept all kinds of wonderful kids.”

Watch yourself

How you as a parent react to this setback really, really matters. It’s natural for you to be upset, but it’s important to recognize that anxiety and stress get passed back and forth, Savage said.

“Parents almost always have some personal reaction to the rejection of their child — and a rejection of their child feels to them a rejection of themselves,” Savage added.Feelings get tangled up.”

In the wake of college rejections, Montgomery has heard many parents dissect what they could have done better — even in front of their kids: “It’s self-destructive, and it will make your kid feel awful.”

Parents who take it hardest are those who are living vicariously through their teens or those who’ve not fully processed their own major disappointments. “A lot of kids,” Savage said, “grow up with the message of, ‘You have to realize the ambitions that I didn’t.’”

Self-awareness is key here. Notice without judgment what’s coming up for you and why. It’s OK to let your teen know you’re bummed, too — but remain calm while you’re doing it, Hudson said. This is an opportunity to model self-regulation and how to navigate difficult emotions in a healthy way.

If you’re feeling especially reactive, call a friend or partner and vent. Deal with out-of-control, confusing emotions away from your teen. They’re going to need you.

College tests, college savings & more

Cal State University has officially dropped the SAT and ACT from its admissions requirements, report my colleagues Teresa Watanabe and Colleen Shalby. The UC system led the way in 2020 when it made the bold decision to drop the exams, triggering a national debate over whether the tests unfairly discriminate against disadvantaged students or provide a useful tool to evaluate college applicants.

A new program is providing all L.A. Unified first-graders — an estimated 31,000 students — with a free college savings account. Opportunity LA launched this week and is aimed at encouraging families to begin saving early for college or other post-high-school education such as trade schools by removing barriers like paperwork and eligibility concerns that might prevent families from opening accounts.

Seven out of 10 voters do not believe that every neighborhood in the Los Angeles Unified School District has a good school — and an even higher number believe that a digital divide is holding students back from accessing their full educational opportunities, according to a poll by the nonprofit Great Public Schools. The findings are similar to those from a recent poll that was a collaboration between The Times and the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies. It asked voters to give schools a letter-grade rating from A to F — and found that voters gave schools worse marks than a decade ago, with the pandemic a potential contributing factor.

In the final months of 2021, hundreds of Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban takeover were relocated to Orange County. But as these families arrived, they struggled to find educational options in the county for their children. So, about six weeks ago, the Orange County Department of Education began providing alternative schooling services in hotels where the refugee families are staying temporarily.

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What else we’re reading this week

Thousands of COVID-cautious parents wanted to keep their kids in remote learning as the pandemic ebbed and flowed. Now, the districts that in recent months have done away with their distance learning options are trying to convince these students to come back to campus. The Hechinger Report

After a year of divisive school board meetings and a decisive recall, San Francisco’s new school board president is taking a no-nonsense approach to governing by introducing a policy that would mandate civility. San Francisco Chronicle

As mask mandates have largely lifted and more Americans say they are ready to leave the pandemic behind, teachers are still grappling daily with issues that COVID has left in its wake — most of which defy easy solutions. “I really feel scared to say that we’ve turned a corner,” a teacher in Oklahoma said. “The things that we were struggling with, even outside of COVID, are just still there.” Chalkbeat and the New York Times

Almost 1 in 5 U.S. students attended schools in districts that were affected by federally declared natural disasters from 2017 through 2019. Yet many schools, especially those designed and built in a time of less intense weather, aren’t built to withstand our new climate reality. NPR

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