By Heather McCutchen: InGenius Prep Counselor, Former Admissions Reader from Dartmouth College, Mother of Two Ivy League Graduates

It’s awful when your kid’s dream is crushed, no matter the situation. I’ve worked in and around higher education for thirty years and I have 3 kids of my own, so I speak from the experience of the heartbreak that comes with the “We regret to inform you…” letter. If you are lucky, your kid won’t even have a dream school when they apply to college. Rejection during this rite of passage in a kid’s life feels incredibly personal and determinative. I can tell you that the evidence shows us it is neither.

I know that it feels personal—the application they wrote is probably the most personal 13 pages they have ever composed. But from an admissions officer perspective’s, it really isn’t that somebody didn’t like your kid. The former Dean of Admissions at Dartmouth once told me that when parents called demanding the reasons for their child’s rejection, he would pull the file, scan it, and almost invariably say that he had no idea why they weren’t admitted. Looking at any one kid’s application in isolation is a completely different experience from evaluating thousands. Admissions is a well-intentioned but inherently flawed process. It isn’t fair.

Your kid may be crying on the sofa insisting that their life is ruined. Of course it isn’t. Every college has wonderful things to offer and your kid will go to another school and make the life for themselves that they dream of. Here are my 3 best suggestions for dealing with this kind of disappointment:

Respect their sadness.

They have envisioned themselves in a dream life at this dream school starting a dream life. Letting go of that sucks, and you can say so. Let them cry or sulk or deal however they deal for a while.

Support their options.

It may take a while, but eventually, they will be ready to look at the colleges that do accept them. Facilitate attendance at admitted student weekends. Buy that sweatshirt. Celebrate their achievement.

Don’t let them see your disappointment.

You can be sorry for their sadness, of course, but never let them feel they have let you down. You can say that the dream school is crazy for not accepting your amazing kid, but then move on. Don’t call the school, futilely demanding another review. Do not spin crazy plans to re-apply next year. This kind of passionate response is going to make everything worse.

Rejection from a dream school is brutal, but the trauma shouldn’t last. You know it is true when you tell your kid that everything will be okay. You know they can be happy and thrive at lots of different college options. And pretty soon, they will know it too.

About Heather:

I am an internationally produced playwright and novelist with over 30 years of experience in Ivy League admissions, including serving as an Admissions Reader for Dartmouth College. I now work on the other side of the application process, helping students craft their stories as a counselor for InGenius Prep. I earned my MFA from the University of Iowa Playwrights’ Workshop and was a Senior Fellow in playwriting at Dartmouth College, where I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude.

I live with my husband and children in a Connecticut farmhouse. I have worked with hundreds of students to navigate the application process, including my two oldest kids, who were both admitted to Ivy League schools.

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