Navigating College Rejections

May 1 in America is “Decision Day” for incoming college freshman and as May 1 quickly approaches, many students are excited to submit their decisions while others are struggling to decide.

A few weeks ago, you likely began receiving your college decision letters. The day finally arrived and in your hand you held the answer to all your dreams: A golden envelope with your name beautifully written across the front (or in most cases, an email telling us our decision could be accessed via the school’s portal). Inside the envelope is the most important document of your life: your college acceptance letter! You’ve done it. You got into your dream school! All the hard work paid off! All the nights of crying at the table as your dad tried to teach you how to do Algebra really was worth it. You unfold the letter and in big bold letters it reads:

“Dear Student,

We are so sorry to inform you…” Well, you know the rest.

That’s it. You’ve been rejected from your dream school. Nothing matters anymore. 

At least that is how I felt when I got rejected from my dream school. At least for a little while. A part of me felt that my hard work for the past 12 years of my life wasn’t really worth it after all. The hours of studying for tests and taking advanced classes. What was it all for if I didn’t get into the school of my dreams? Didn’t I continuously tell myself in high school I was working so hard so I could attend any college I desired?

I know I’m not alone in this experience, which is why I reached out to other students who didn’t get into their dream schools. I spoke with Hayley Y. (22) and Gracey D. (19) who both experienced a college rejection from their dream schools. We also got some extra advice from student Sydney H. (18) Here’s what they had to say. 

How did you feel after you learned you’d been rejected from your dream school? 

Hayley: I actually developed this weird complex where I started to put down my own achievements because I felt like I had failed. For example, I got into the University of Michigan (where I ended up going), and even though the acceptance rate was around 26% and probably lower for out of state students, I kept bemoaning that “It’s easy to get into UoM!” Because compared to Dartmouth, which has an acceptance rate of around 9%, it seemed like it was. But this was really harmful and made me feel like I was going to a place I hated. I had put so much on Dartmouth as being the place where everything would change that when I didn’t get in, it felt like a defeat to go somewhere else. I sulked for two years. I finally learned to let go of those feelings of failure and accept and even celebrate what I had achieved at UoM!

Gracey: I immediately felt disappointed, like everything I had worked at didn’t matter. It was really difficult for me to think at that time.

Tiffany: I also felt that all my work in school was for nothing. I think many students put this pressure on themselves during high school to go above and beyond in every category in order to get into a great school. And then when you don’t get into the school you thought you would, it feels like you pushed yourself for no reason. You did all the work but didn’t get the reward you deserved. And I think that’s really difficult for students to accept. 

Did receiving this rejection letter change your course of action for your college decisions? How so? 

Gracey: I decided almost immediately after it happened that I didn’t want to give up on my dream of going to University of Florida. I always envisioned myself going to a big university after high school, but I decided to go to Valencia for a year in between so that I could try my hand at transferring into UF.

Tiffany: When I was rejected from my dream school the first year, I decided to apply again the following year. Both times I received a rejection letter which was very discouraging but it led me to another school that offered me a much better financial aid package. It also encouraged me to take a gap year which I really enjoyed as it allowed me to work and explore my options.

Why do you think it was so upsetting for you to be rejected? Was it expectations you set for yourself or did your family expect you to get accepted? Was it because it was your dream school, etc? 

Gracey: UF has been my dream since very early on in my educational career. I have visited and stayed on campus multiple times and really enjoyed the curriculum and the school as a whole. When I found out I didn’t get in, I felt like I didn’t do enough to get in, I started to think and reflect on all the things I could’ve done better.

Tiffany: I definitely think for me it was the expectations I put on myself. Throughout high school I made sure to stay a top student and in my mind, I thought this automatically meant I’d end up at a top university. Because of those unnecessary expectations I put on myself, I was embarrassed when I didn’t get into my ‘dream’ school. 

Do you think students should have a dream school when applying to colleges?

Hayley: Having a dream school is totally great! It gives you motivation to apply to colleges and can help make you excited for the future. What’s important is that you don’t put so much of yourself into your dream school that you don’t make space for other opportunities. Your SAT/ACT scores, GPA, and where you go for college do not define who you are as a person, much less determine your self-worth.

Tiffany: I think it is great to have a school you want to go to because it has a program your interested in or offers unique opportunities. But I think it can be harmful when students are pushed by themselves or their parents to get into a top university and consider that the only school they want to attend.

If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself after you found out you didn’t get into your dream school?

Hayley: That you aren’t a failure for not getting into your dream school. It’s okay to mourn the loss of that path, but it’s important to remember that there are other paths you can travel down, new people you can meet. You did your best and even though you didn’t reach that goal, you should remember that you still tried everything you could within reason. 

Tiffany: Don’t let yourself sulk too long. You did your best and you got accepted into the schools you were supposed to get accepted into. College is only four years of your life. The college you attend does not determine what you will achieve or do with your life.

Finally, what would you tell all the other students who didn’t get into their dream schools this year?

Hayley: My biggest advice is to give yourself some gentleness. Sure, you may have been able to write a better essay, have a higher SAT/ACT score, get better grades. But be kind to yourself – recognize your limitations and what else may have been going on when you were applying. When you don’t feel great about yourself, one thing that I find helpful to ask yourself is this: what would you say to your best friend if they were in your position? You may find yourself being a lot kinder that way.

Sydney: A college rejection isn’t a reflection of your worth as a person. You are so much more valuable and important than a college rejection. Honestly, the college itself is missing out because it doesn’t have YOU there. You will be able to have a successful and happy life wherever you decide to go because you deserve success and happiness.

Gracey: You’re going to end up where you are meant to end up. Don’t fear what you don’t know, a rejection isn’t the end of the journey. Take a step back and realize you have options. This is what I did, and I just got accepted into UF as a transfer a few weeks ago! I think that getting rejected at first was the best thing to happen to me, I ended up where I’m supposed to go.

As students who all received rejections from their dream schools, we hope that Decision Day becomes something you are excited for instead of something you dread. No matter what school you commit to, know you have achieved a great thing in seeking a higher education and that you will do great things at whichever school YOU decide. Whether that be a community college, state university, or an Ivy League school.

Stay tuned for more articles on college life! Next up: A Guide to College Transfers by Gracey Davis.

This article was written by Tiffany Leveille with contributions from Hayley Yu., Sydney Hubbard, and Gracey Davis.

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