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Shake It Off: College Acceptance Decisions Aren’t Personal (Really!)

College acceptance decision season is almost here— the time of year when so many high school seniors, and their parents, anxiously await that notifying email or envelope.

Every year, there are teens and parents who experience confusion, disappointment, and even heartbreak. The process of applying to colleges can make a teenager question their worth and self-esteem. Parent and teen take these college acceptance decisions quite personally, and it’s completely understandable why they do.

Causes of College Acceptance Decision Anxiety

1. They’ve been working four years to get here.

Teens are conditioned to believe that every single day of high school, starting from Day One of freshman year, can affect their chances of getting into a “good” school. The advice from teachers and administrators comes from a place of good intentions but starts to create stress for many students when they are only 13 or 14 years old. Four years of that anxiety can weigh heavily upon our kids. And us.

2. The hype starts early.

As soon as students take the PSAT, they start receiving mailings from schools with tantalizing messages that build hope and hype about college acceptance decisions. It is flattering and ego-boosting—and it’s marketing at its finest. The nets are cast far and wide by design. Yet each recipient can’t help but feel a little special when they hold a brochure from a selective school with their name on it.

3. Even their life outside of school is affected.

For many students, there is a big investment in time spent pursuing the “right” activities to earn that college acceptance decision. Besides all the endless hours of homework and studying, the quest to possess a standout application can become overwhelming. Which club should they join? Which office to run for? What sport will give them the most playing time? Which community service project is more meaningful?  It’s a time-suck like nothing else they have ever experienced.

4. There’s often a considerable amount of financial buy-in.

There are music and dance lessons, club sports fees, and supplemental summer classes—all to help our kids find and develop their passion. Then comes the test prep, the tutoring sessions, and sometimes the college consultants, all working in tandem to create an application that will demonstrate that passion to the admissions departments.

5. Personal interactions build the anticipation of college acceptance decisions.

There are the college fairs, where students chat with the friendly college rep. The campus tours, where students feel a connection with a tour guide, faculty member, or student they stay with in the dorm with for an overnight visit. The alumni interviews, when students are often told, “Oh, you’d be a perfect fit for University X.” Bonds are created in these situations and hope grows from these interactions.

6. The personal essay is, well, personal.

Students struggle and sweat over their college application essay. It’s the part of every application where students are urged to show their “true self” and share their unique story—why they are more than just the numbers and grade letters in the academic section of their application.

Of course, kids are going to take every college decision personally! They pour their hearts out. They work their butts off. And we spend a fair amount of our hard earned money in the process. They are invested. We are invested. Heck yes, it’s easy to take these decisions personally.

Why College Acceptance Decisions Aren’t Personal

The fact is, and you’ve probably already figured it out, higher education is Big Business. It’s about profits, bottom lines, endowments, and rankings so that more and more people buy into the madness each year. Educating our kids is just one of several drop-down goals of these schools.

Colleges, particularly the very selective ones, are creating a freshmen class. They are looking for certain characteristics to plug into the identity of that group. Their calculus is known only to them and they don’t have to be transparent in what, precisely, they are looking for year to year. This may be the year they need fewer kids from your geographic region, or they want more kids who have medical research experience. Or who love hip hop music. Or expressed a dislike of cauliflower crust pizza. Who knows? They do—but we don’t!

But their decision has nothing to do with who your student truly is as a person. Despite them saying they look at each student “as a whole,” in so many cases they are choosing qualified applicants based on just a couple component parts of that whole. They are checking boxes and disregarding feelings, and if they were honest about the whole process, the official motto of every college’s admissions department would be, “It’s Not You, It’s Us.”

Want more info on college admissions?

It is gut wrenching to see a child crushed over a rejection after all of their hard work. But once you have acknowledged and talked through their sadness and disappointment, be sure to convince your student (and yourself) that it was not a personal decision in any way. And it shouldn’t be taken personally, either.

Marybeth Bock, MPH, has logged time as an Army wife, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in the desert Southwest and you can find her writing on Your Teen Magazine, Grown and Flown, Blunt Moms, the Scottsdale Moms Blog, and Teen Strong AZ.  Follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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