April 1, 2011 -- Ah, April -- spring is in the air and college admissions letters are on the way to inboxes across the nation. With many schools reporting more applicants than ever, teens and parents are bracing for the news: will it be the proverbial "big envelope" or the sting of rejection?
Though rejection letters have always been par for the course for undergraduate hopefuls, plummeting acceptance rates and tough competition in the college market suggests that teens today are likely to face more rejection and higher emotional costs than their predecessors just a few years ago.
"We're getting more applications every year and unfortunately that leads to more rejections, more students and parents shocked because they believe they have done a lot to make sure they get into their college of choice. It's a growing problem," says Mabel Freeman, assistant vice president of Undergraduate Admissions and First Year Experience at Ohio State University.
And while there are plenty of colleges and universities out there – more than enough to offer a spot to all the students who wish to matriculate, says Freeman, "unfortunately we're in an era where high anxiety levels combine with the mindset that there are an elite number of schools that you can go to and still be successful after, and that's just not the case."
Add in a national obsession with ranking schools and the problem only gets worse for students' psyches, says Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University and author of "You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10 to 25."
How can parents and teens keep their sanity in this high-stakes atmosphere, especially when the dreaded, and usually inevitable, rejection letters come? Mental health professionals and college admissions officers weigh in.
Top Ten Zeitgeist: Ivy or Bust
"When rejected from Pepperdine, I laid in bed for two days," says Jessica Wyers of Grapeland, Texas. "I had had my heart set on Pepperdine since I was about 13. [But then I] picked myself up and chose one of the fifteen that accepted me."
Now 22, Wyers is about to graduate from West Texas A&M University with a degree in Mass Communications and Broadcasting and says she ended up loving her college experience at her number-two choice. It "turned out to be the best possible thing for me," she says, noting the hands-on experience she got managing her school's radio station and HD studio -- things she felt she wouldn't have had the opportunity to do at Pepperdine.
Jess is not alone in her rejection-related distress. Deborah Pearson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, says the anxiety about getting into top schools increases as economic times get harder, and "parents and children certainly feel the pressure."
"Also, when I look back at the way this generation of kids as been raised…many were carefully groomed for Harvard admissions since the day they were born. It becomes a disappointment to the applicant and the entire family," she says.
Maybe not always Harvard, but parents and teens tend develop emotional attachments to a particular school during the visiting process and they forget that there are so many terrific schools," adds Steinberg.
All these factors feed in to a zeitgeist of top-tier fever among many teens that can make dealing with the very normal and expected event of rejection (at least from some of the reach schools) more difficult to deal with, mental health professionals say.
It's difficult, but not impossible, for teens to deal with, especially with a few reality checks and a lot of support from parents.
Putting It in Perspective: Why Third Choice May Be Your Best Choice
Here are some pointers that psychologists and admissions experts offered parents and teens when it comes to coping with an acceptance let-down:
"Number one, be realistic. This year is a perfect storm of a tremendous applicant pool. If you get rejected, realize that it's not something about you personally. They only have a certain number of slots and you could be a very well qualified applicant and still not get in," says Pearson.
A lot of it is luck of the draw. "Understanding that, especially for top schools, it's always going to be a long shot, may help you prepare a little for the disappointment of a possible rejection," says Steinberg.
Celebrate the accomplishment of admission for the schools you do get into, says Pearson. Parents and teens should be focusing on the options at hand and getting excited about where they know they have the option of going. These schools may turn out to be a better fit for them.
Research shows that there's very little connection between where one goes to college and success in the workplace later on, says Steinberg. The number of years of education is a much better predictor of success than the name of the school.
Finally, don't blame yourself. "You cannot be responsible for everyone else who has applied. You can only be responsible for yourself and what you've done over the course of your education," says Freeman.