The Envelope Please: How to Accept College Hits and Misses

When the college admission process is in full swing, you and your kids will be making decisions that can impact their whole lives. So – what should you do if your kid gets the upsetting news that they did not get into their first choice school– or even their second? What if your child didn’t get into college at all or decides simply not to go? Well, take a big breath and think how you can help support your kid through this difficult process.

College rejections can pose a major disappointment for your child. They can also be a huge blow to you. Your initial reaction might be to downplay the importance of the event but instead, you should help your child put it in perspective and give them time to feel bad. You should recognize the fact that, if nothing else, your child is likely embarrassed. It’s hard to face those letters of rejection at the same time their friends are happily flaunting their letters of acceptance. Acknowledge the disappointment, the anger, the embarrassment and let your kid feel the pain. You can’t solve this for them – you can support them and help them find a solution, but you can’t control the outcome.

Dealing with  college rejection – taking it one step at a time.

Providing perspective.

As with any disappointment for you and your child, it’s important to get a grip. First, this isn’t do or die – there are always options. Is there perhaps a second, third or fourth choice school that’s worth looking into?

Embracing the gap.

Maybe your child should consider taking a year off and trying again. Taking time off between high school and college doesn’t mean your child will never go to college. Not to worry. A year off can be instrumental in helping your child focus on their interests and career path. However, parents must help to set expectations, so that the gap year doesn’t turn into a subsidized vacation. There should be goals and a timeline firmly set and adhered to.

Waiting it out.

If your child still wants to hit the books directly after high school, then it would be wise to check out wait lists and transfer policies for their top-choice schools. And, if you haven’t already investigated your local (or non local) community colleges, this is a great time to do that. There are also a variety of high-quality community colleges out there where your student can start their college credits. Remember, college is pricey, and a two-year program may be an affordable option and an opportunity for your student to explore different courses of study. These are a fantastic option for financial reasons, and also for kids who are struggling with the transition for various reasons.

Forward thinking.

Help your student understand that they have choices – even if they aren’t the ones they’d hoped for or anticipated. This decision process should be a priority, but it doesn’t have to suck up every conversation that you have. Shift your thinking to your available choices and what makes them special, not about what you can’t have. Help your child look forward – no use in looking back and blaming themselves now for a low test score or a late paper as the reason for the rejection. The truth is rejection feels awful – but when your child gets through it they will develop resilience and know they can handle it – even if they don’t want to.

Opting out.

And what if your child announces, “I don’t want to go to college?” This can be a harsh wake-up call for parents. We often have dreams for our kids that they may not share. Face it. College might not be for your 18-year old. I would encourage you to have a conversation about it – make it clear what you expect and hope for your child and keep an open mind. Really listen. Is this a passing moment, merely a reaction to the acceptance and rejection letter? Is this fear-driven by the anxiety of the college process or leaving home? You should discuss each and every one of those issues. Try to remain calm as you talk through the decision. And, if you feel it’s being made for the right reasons, support it. And keep in mind, this is not necessarily a final decision. . There are options for kids who aren’t ready for college and they should be researched and seriously considered. College is a huge investment of time and money and should not be pursued, at this time, if the student is not up for the challenge. And who knows? This could lead to a different positive opportunity.

This is your child’s journey – you are there to support and advise. Be a sounding board, acknowledge their excitement, disappointment, curiosity, anxiety, and fear. For your own mental wellbeing, and your child’s, it’s best to embrace this like a new adventure. Whatever the decision, it will represent your child’s next big step into independence – and there are many paths they can take, not just the one you’d envisioned. So I urge you to be flexible, responsive, supportive and to always enjoy the ride.


About the Author: Dr Amy Alamar

Amy Alamar, EdD, has worked in the field of education as a teacher, teacher educator, researcher, parent educator, and education reformer for over fifteen years. In late 2014, Amy wrote Parenting for the Genius: Developing Confidence in Your Parenting through Reflective Practice. The book is a comprehensive guide to becoming the most thoughtful and confident parent possible, with anecdotes and details relating to the guidance and support of children from infant to young adult. In 2016, Amy was an invited guest of Michelle Obama at the White House for a conversation about kids’ health. Amy is also a contributing author to the Disney parenting website, Babble.com and a parent support specialist with Yellowbrick.me. Amy is married and the mother of three children whom she learns from and enjoys each and every day. She is a resident of Avon, CT, where she serves on the board of the Avon Education Foundation, dedicated to promoting and enhancing excellence in education. Find out more about Amy and her work by visiting her website, amyalamar.com.

One Comment

OK Essay

State schools often disadvantage students by writing short and brutally honest evaluations of their strengths and weaknesses. I was a hall tutor at Bristol University some years ago and the references from the private schools were more detailed and (in general) more glowing than those from state schools. At the very least state schools should be writing more detailed, focused and more informed references. They should think about the skill set required by the university and write a reference based on that. A lot of the references I saw were vague and related to whether x was a nice kid or not rather than innate ability and other qualities.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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