College Admissions: How to Deal With a Thin Envelope

Rejection is hard for everyone, but especially sensitive high schoolers. Here's how to put it in perspective.

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Students walk past a sign for undergraduate admissions at Dartmouth College, Oct. 10, 2011.

It’s an exciting time for students who got into one of their top-choice schools. But what about all the kids who didn’t? At 18, that kind of rejection can be devastating. And perspective on how the college you go to doesn’t determine the rest of your life takes a few years to kick in. Tom Brokaw has said publicly that his rejection from Harvard helped him realize that he needed to party less and study more. He got a degree from the University of South Dakota and ended up becoming one of the most highly regarded household names in America. Warren Buffett didn’t get into his first choice for business school, and he’s done alright too.

Brokaw and Buffett’s paths to impactful careers offer a basic and important lesson: Your first act isn’t your last. In that vein, here are three pieces of practical advice for dealing with college rejection.

(MORE: How Colleges Really Make Admissions Decisions)

This is an initial setback, not the end of the world.

Take it from me, as someone who initially wanted to study resource economics and be a forest ranger but ended up working in the White House on education policy and writing a weekly column for TIME: It’s pretty common to change your mind about what you want to do, often more than once. So that perfect fit with a particular school that you think you’re missing out on might not be so perfect in the long run anyway. Students change majors, and people change careers. If you stop to think about it, a system that expects 18-year-olds to know the path they want to be on decades down the road is bound to have a lot of false starts.

I asked educational entrepreneur and former school superintendent Tom Vander Ark — who studied at the Colorado School of Mines — how he moved from a successful career as a mine engineer into education. He cited the vagaries of the professional world and a desire to do new things. “A formal education may help you get your first job,” says Vander Ark. “You’re on your own after that.”

In my experience talking with current students and those who graduated long ago, elite athletes are the savviest about questions of college fit; the brutal sifting process they go through makes them especially attuned to what they want in a school. For almost everyone else enrolling in college, how you’ll feel about that school down the road is something of a crapshoot — just because you had a great campus visit doesn’t mean you’ll love it for four years. Admission into top schools is basically a lottery, too, given the numbers that apply and the number of slots available, so don’t obsess about it. A few years after graduation, specific colleges matter much less than how you perform in a workplace.

(MORE: The Latest Wrinkle in College Admissions)

Don’t give up if you got waitlisted.

Not too long ago, a spot on a college’s waiting list was a pretty meaningless consolation prize. But the trend of applying to more schools and the rise of the Common Application, which allows students to submit many applications without having to do much extra paperwork, means that admissions officers have a harder time knowing how to get the right number of students to matriculate. Too many or too few cause problems on campus. So while students are fixated on admission offers, college officials are worried about admission acceptances. That’s why admissions experts say if you’re on a waitlist and really want to go a particular school, make sure the people who work there know that you’ll absolutely go if you get an offer.

If all else fails, you can always transfer.

College counselors caution that it’s important to give a new place a try — don’t start freshman year with your focus entirely on transferring out as soon as you can. But a college choice isn’t a jail sentence. If it’s really not working, or if you want something else, you can change schools; about 1 in 3 students do so during their collegiate career, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. President Obama was a transfer student, moving from Occidental in Los Angeles to New York City to finish college at Columbia. Many states have a formalized process to help students transfer from less competitive state schools to more competitive ones. The most important factor in transfers? College grades. Consider it a chance for a mulligan, a fresh start. And almost everyone needs one or two of those at some point in life.

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