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Rejected from my School of Choice

*This appeared as a column in the Five Towns Jewish Times*

Dear Elisheva,

I’m feeling very upset about something, and I don’t have clarity about how to proceed. My daughter is in 12th grade, and she and her friends have applied to colleges and seminaries and are now making their decisions about where to go after high school. She’s a pretty good student- mostly As and Bs, and an all-around good kid. She participates in extracurricular activities, volunteers as per school requirements, and has never been in any kind of real trouble. She applied to schools which we all, including her Israel and college guidance counselors, thought were appropriate and realistic options for her. She worked hard on her application materials and was excited to find out where she’d be going next year and beyond.

In both cases- Israel and universities, she didn’t get into her first choice or even her second. Thankfully, she had applied to a third back up program for each and was accepted into those. Our daughter is crushed and feeling betrayed. She looks around and sees kids who are not as academic as she is with spots where she wanted to go and can’t figure out what happened. We’re very upset about it too. I thought there might be some mistake, so I called the high school and spoke with the Israel and college guidance faculty. We wondered if something went wrong along the way, or if there was someone to appeal to about trying to get her in after the fact.

They both said that while they were happy to support her application to those schools, they also know that the competition is tough, particularly with those institutions, which is why they always encourage applying to several places. They thought she had a chance at getting in where she wanted to but they weren’t shocked that she didn’t. They tried to assure us that her backup options were still good schools, and that she could have excellent educational and social opportunities there as well.

We asked how it could be possible that students with objectively less impressive transcripts got into places that she didn’t. They just said that schools don’t always only look at grades; there are other variables they consider too. I can’t help but feel like it’s just not fair. My daughter really deserves better. I’ve heard that some places are swayed by social connections, influence, or money instead of just scholastic merit, and that doesn’t seem right. She’s so disappointed and embarrassed- most of the kids seem all excited about their plans, and she’s barely talking about hers. I guess I’m just wondering what I can do to help my daughter in this situation.


A frustrated parent

Dear FP,

My sympathies to you- as parents, it’s hard to see your child work hard for a goal, feel that they earned it, and then not achieve or receive what they thought they would. It would have been so much more gratifying to be able to celebrate her accomplishments with her with the acceptances she wanted. I don’t know whether this is comforting for you to hear, but there are many other young men and women who find themselves in a similar situation to your daughter; she’s not the only one struggling with this.

There are a few different parts to your question.

Why didn’t she get in where she wanted and thought she would? I certainly can’t speak for the colleges or seminaries, but the answer you received sounds plausible. She may be a strong student, but it’s possible that there were details on the letters of recommendation, extracurriculars, additional talents, or interviews that changed the ranking status of applicants beyond the scope of quantifiable grades.

It’s also possible, as you suggested, that some students get in where they do based on family connections. I imagine that’s true to some extent, but if it is, then unfortunately it's a taste of real life that isn’t going to change any time soon and is probably a waste of energy to fight- some people are born into (or marry into) privilege which will open doors for them that others can’t access. Just as we were born into the privilege of a country offering freedom and opportunity, rather than oppression or poverty. It’s not really fair, but then most of life is not egalitarian in this way. Fixating and ruminating about this will get us nowhere other than a resentment spiral. We can only work with what we have and who we are.

This is all part of why I believe in teaching kids that we, as parents, don’t put too much stock in their academic grades, report cards, or school acceptances. There are some wonderful, brilliant souls and minds who perform unremarkably or poorly in a scholastic environment but then go on to thrive and contribute meaningfully or extraordinarily in real life. Likewise, there are some students who excel in a classroom, but may lack character or resourcefulness or other traits that matter far more than transcripts. And there’s a whole spectrum in between. Test scores and academic achievement reflect scholastic aptitude- nothing more than that. Creativity, talent, empathy, reliability, grit, life smarts, loyalty, kindness- the stuff that really matters- that’s not really for teachers or schools to evaluate, and it’s what matters a lot more in the long run.

It sounds like your daughter is someone who works hard and sets big goals for herself. She had high expectations, which can sometimes be ambitious and hopeful, but expectations often set us up for disappointment. It’s useful to distinguish between expectations and hopes:

Expectation is the sense that something “should” happen, that I deserve it- it’s coming to me, and I’m upset if it doesn’t. (If it does, I might take it for granted, because I simply got what I ordered.) Hope, by contrast, is the belief that good things can happen, that what I want is possible, but not guaranteed, and then if it happens, I can rejoice and be grateful. It’s great to reach for the stars, but also to recognize that we might not get the one we’re aiming for – immediately or at all.

Ultimately, we don’t really know why your daughter didn’t get in where she wanted to, and living with some disappointment, frustration, and uncertainty is a challenge and life skill that we all need to learn at some point. How do we do that?

We need to acknowledge, honor, and talk about our feelings at first. Process the disappointment, and deal with what comes up around it. But these feelings are not a fun place to set up shop for the long term. Blaming her high school faculty, seminary administrators, or the college admissions officials who rejected her will only reinforce her sense of victimhood, and not help her develop the resilience she needs to move forward.

So what can you do to help her?

I would move away from trying to investigate or analyze what happened, or from talking about how wronged she’s been.

Instead, I think it’s helpful to validate what seem to be the facts and the attending feelings, without catastrophizing or vilifying anyone:

“You worked really hard, earned good grades, and were hoping that would take you in a certain direction. We don’t know exactly why that didn’t work out the way we hoped it would, and that hurts. It’s also confusing, trying to understand how these decisions get made. It’s tough to let go of what you thought you had, and to feel left out from those who do have it. It’s going to take some effort to adjust expectations and plans now.” Allow some time and empathy for her sadness but try not to fuel the fires of indignation and jealousy.

Now, as far as the places where she was accepted, and will likely attend, I think it would be wise to encourage your daughter to begin trying to gently improve her perspective on them (and yours if necessary:). If this is where she is going to be spending the next few years, it won’t do her any good- psychologically or socially- to feel that she is attending schools that are beneath her, or that she’s superior to her peers there. Try to help her focus on what she can look forward to in those places- research the advantages and possibilities they offer, and the nice kids going there. Great friendships and bright futures are actualized on all types of campuses.

One of the most valuable skills we can develop personally and foster in our kids is resilience. We will almost all encounter disappointment, failure, injustice, adversity, or misfortune at some time or another, on different scales. Curling into a permanent ball of resignation or humiliation, calcifying into a bitter crust of anger, blame, or cynicism, or giving up on trying things altogether are all understandable but maladaptive responses. On the other hand, learning to recognize and accept our feelings, resisting the urge to beat ourselves up or blame others, focusing on regrouping and moving to an empowered plan B, are great ways to handle circumstances where we don’t get what we want- in schools, in relationships, at work, and in general.

But most importantly, make sure she knows that regardless of where she goes post high school, you see her accomplishments and potential, value her character, that you love her, you’re proud of her, and you believe in her.

*If you enjoyed reading this, you might also enjoy reading THIS*

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