You Got Rejected From Your Dream School: Now What?

Rejection is never fun—particularly when the college you’ve been rejected by has been your dream school for years. But as tired as you probably are of hearing it—and really, who can blame you?—the truth is, everything does happen for a reason. So, to help you jumpstart your Plan B, we’ve come up with a list of next steps to follow if you’ve been rejected from your top-choice school. Don’t waste another minute to start crafting your new and improved college plan!

1. Breathe

Don’t skip this first step! As heart-wrenching as the process might feel in the moment, now is the time move forward. Why should not getting into one school stop you from having an amazing college experience? Here’s a secret: it can’t. “When considering the criteria that most students have for their dream college, many colleges fit into that ideal category,” says Katherine Clowes, an independent education consultant and founder of March Consulting. So close your eyes and breathe deeply.

“We’ve been taught that there is only one college out there that fits you, and anything else is an ill-fitting glass slipper,” Clowes says. “The truth is there are dozens, if not hundreds, of glass slippers that will provide the perfect fit for that all-important ball. It’s the happily ever after that counts, not the brand of glass slipper you’re wearing.”

But seeing the bright side is much easier said than done. Meditation, which can noticeably reduce feelings of anxiety in as few as 10 minutes, is one trick to try. A simple five-to-10-minute exercise has the potential to leave you feeling noticeably calmer. You can even download an app like Headspace for a guided meditation to help you get your “ohm” on.

If meditation isn’t for you, light some candles or make a cup of tea. Whatever you do, the important thing is to take a few moments to settle your thoughts and breathe before jumping into Plan B.

2. Be honest with your parents and your high school counselor

Tell your parents and your high school counselor as soon as you get your rejection letter. As hard as it may be to talk about it in that moment, your parents are there to help you get through it, and your counselor is there to help you continue your college search. Besides, contrary to what you may be feeling, no university’s rejection is going to change the way your family or your advisers view you and your achievements.  

Jolyn Brand, founder of Brand College Consulting, says that a rejection doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not qualified. “An important thing to remember is that students are applying for a limited number of spots in a freshmen class, and that the colleges are trying to fill those spots with students that are of diverse backgrounds with different interests and majors, and sometimes even diverse geographically,” she says.

When considering the most highly selective schools, most applicants are not offered admission. “Every year, Harvard rejects students with perfect SAT scores and perfect GPAs,” Brand says. It is not personal, and it doesn’t mean that you have any reason to feel ashamed.

3. Visit the other schools you were accepted to—and their websites

The next step is remodeling your college list. This is a good opportunity to reevaluate your priorities and take a more thorough look into some of the schools that you may have glossed over the first time around.

 “Consider your list of colleges not by rank, but instead by opportunity,” Clowes says. “Each offers something unique, which is why you applied. You’re not going to your second choice—rather, you’re choosing another option in which you can be yourself.”

Start by visiting the schools’ websites. There is a wealth of information available online, so take the time to browse your options, taking note of what each offers not only in terms of academics, but also location, extracurricular activities and social atmosphere.

As you do your research, keep a running list of things you like and don’t like about each school. “What are the pros and cons of each?” Clowes says. “You’ll probably find that the colleges you applied to were the ones you were interested in for some reason in the first place (otherwise, you wouldn’t have taken the time to apply). Do a little research and look at the opportunities for your future growth and career each college offers.”

If time and money allow, revisiting the campuses is the best way to get a sense of a school’s vibe and to decide if you can really see yourself going there. Most schools allow you to pre-register for campus tours and info sessions online, so be sure to check your school’s website for information about visiting.

If you can’t make a college visit happen, video tours are a pretty decent second option and can offer copious information about the school.

“Research and explore what makes that school amazing and compare it to what you’re looking for in your future,” Clowes says. “How does that school serve as a platform for where you want to be in your twenties? Open your mind up here and don’t let it get clouded by that rejection letter.”

4. Follow up with schools you haven’t heard from or have been wait-listed for

If you find yourself on a wait list or you still haven’t heard back from a school, Clowes suggests taking initiative. “Write a letter, make a phone call or draft an email to remind them why you’re interested in their college,” she says. “If you’ve accomplished anything (rewards, major milestones) or if you have anything additional that wasn’t included in your admissions packet that might help your case for admissions, mention it.” You can send these materials to a school’s admissions office by mail, or in many cases, to an email address for the admissions department.

Brand also suggests sending a thank-you note to a faculty member who answered your questions or an admissions officer who took you on a college tour recently. Expressing your gratitude is a courteous way of reminding an admissions officer of who you are without pestering.  

Essentially, however, you want to make sure that any supplemental materials you send truly add something to your application that isn’t already there. Sending letters for the sake of sending something can often come off as irritating or pushy. Remember to be honest about your accomplishments and courteous with admissions counselors. You want to present yourself in a favorable light, so keep it truthful and professional.

5. Look into these less conventional options

What if after carefully and thoroughly considering each of the schools you were accepted to, you still don’t think you’d be happy at any of them?

Usually around late April or early May, the National Association for College Admission Counseling puts out the Space Availability Survey, which provides a list of colleges across the nation who have available space for additional students. Be sure to check this out to see which schools are still possibilities!

Other options to consider are schools with rolling admissions. These schools accept applications on an ongoing or “rolling” basis over a large window of time, which gives you more time to apply. Another perk is that you’ll generally hear a response within six to 10 weeks—much faster than set-deadline schools that generally leave you waiting for months to hear a decision.

In either case, if you decide you’d like to apply to one of these colleges, Clowes suggests that you contact the admissions office and ask about the school’s admissions process, stating that you are interested in applying for admission in the fall. Many schools have a general number that you can call, as well as email addresses or phone numbers corresponding to the staff members assigned to each region, all of which you can find online.

Another route is to take a gap semester or year. “Gap time” refers to any time that students choose to take off from school before enrolling in college, which is typically a year or a semester. Many students use this time to gain work experience, volunteer at a nonprofit, conduct research, learn a new language or travel.

Gap years can be incredibly enriching experiences, but if you do choose to take time off, make sure that you are doing something meaningful with your time. Ultimately, you want to be able to demonstrate to colleges how your gap time enriched you as a future student and as a person.

6. Acknowledge that everything will work out eventually

Everything will turn out how it should—we promise! Take it from Sam Hamerman, a freshman at Northeastern University, who was rejected from the school she’d been dreaming of attending for years. “Northeastern was a school that I basically found out about in September,” she says. “I don't even think I knew it existed before then. When I realized that it was in my range and that there was no supplemental essay, I decided to throw in an application.”

After Sam was rejected from Tufts University, her top choice, she took a more serious look at Northeastern. “I started getting more interested and doing more research,” she says. “I visited on admitted students day. I was stuck between Northeastern and BU, but what ultimately made the decision for me was Northeastern's co-op program and job placement statistics.”

Sam is one of many students who found a silver lining in her rejection. “Ultimately, when it comes down the college process, as with everything in life, I think that it all works out as it is supposed to,” she says. “I am definitely a walking example of that.”

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About The Author

Brooke is a rising sophomore at Columbia University and a lover of travel, coffee & tea, running, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.