Ask a Professor: How to Deal With College Rejection

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
Read Full Bio


An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D., has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a writer and consultant. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern...
Updated on December 9, 2021
Learn more about our editorial process is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Ready to Start Your Journey?

  • Many of the country's most elite universities accept fewer than 1 in 10 applicants each year.
  • Students should understand that college rejection is a normal part of the process.
  • If you get rejected, take time to grieve — but try to get excited about other schools, too.

As a high school senior, I couldn't decide where to apply to college. After considering some highly selective schools like Ivy League institutions, I ultimately cut them from my list and decided to focus on more realistic options. I didn't tell my counselor or my parents, but secretly I dreaded the thought of receiving a college rejection letter.

Since that time, elite universities have grown even more selective. At top schools like Harvard and Columbia, only 5% of applicants received an acceptance letter in 2019. And Stanford admitted just 4% of applicants. In fact, in fall 2019, more than 25 colleges and universities in the U.S. admitted 10% or fewer applicants, meaning at least 9 in 10 college hopefuls got rejected from those schools.

College rejection letters hit hard, especially if you're set on one dream school. So what should you do if you receive a rejection letter from your top pick?

5 Tips for Dealing With College Rejection

The typical advice for college-bound seniors goes something like this: Apply to a few "reach" schools, a few "match" schools, and a few "safety" schools.

Yet a logical approach to the application process doesn't prevent students from falling in love with their dream school. Maybe it's their parents' alma mater or the home of their favorite college sports team. Sometimes students fall for a gorgeous, tree-lined quad or a top-ranked program in their field.

But none of that means you're guaranteed to get in. Here's what to do if you get rejected.

Plan Ahead Before Applying to College

Selectivity has pushed many high school students to apply to a dozen or more colleges in order to raise their odds of getting an acceptance letter. But the more applications you submit, the greater your chances are of receiving a college rejection letter.

The more applications you submit, the greater your chances are of receiving a college rejection letter.

Quotation mark

This doesn't mean seniors should pin their hopes and dreams on a single school. Instead, it means you'll need to come to terms with college rejection before it happens, during the application process.

Planning ahead entails taking a realistic look at your odds and applying accordingly. Submitting an application to 10 schools, each with a 10% admission rate, doesn't mean you'll get in — in fact, you could very well get rejected from every college.

This is why it's so important to cover your bases by applying to a mix of competitive schools, match schools (i.e., schools that accept students with GPAs and test scores similar to yours), and backup schools.

Don't Take It Personally

Almost every senior receives at least one college rejection letter. This is tough advice, but try not to take the rejection personally. Most U.S. colleges admit a majority of applicants. Only 3.4% of schools fall into the most selective category, meaning they admit fewer than 10% of applicants.

Still, it's not hard to feel, well, rejected if a college turns you down. Remind yourself that admissions committees are simply aiming to create a balanced incoming class that takes into account factors beyond students' academic strengths.

It's easy to feel angry or bitter over a college rejection letter, but try to allow yourself to feel sad without seeing the rejection as a judgment against you or your abilities.

Acknowledge Your Feelings

Rejection letters hurt, so don't skip the grieving process. As therapist Lori Gottlieb writes in The Atlantic, college rejection is often "the first disappointment of its kind in a young person's life," particularly for overachievers who connect their self-worth to their academic performance.

It's not easy to adapt to change or unexpected news. Maybe you pictured yourself walking through the campus at one school and can't imagine going anywhere else. A college rejection letter can trigger melancholy over a future that won't materialize. Much like other forms of heartbreak, it's not easy to move on, so set aside plenty of time for yourself to accept the news.

Get Excited About Other Schools

Maybe your top choice rejected you but your second choice sent an acceptance letter. Or maybe a scholarship offer from another college took some of the sting out of a rejection letter. Either way, invest time and energy into getting excited about the schools that did admit you.

Some students make a campus visit before submitting applications. Consider visiting after receiving an admission letter to get a feel for the college and build your excitement. Alternatively, you could reach out to current or incoming students at your new institution to start making personal connections and help you look forward to the opportunities that await you.

Consider Transferring

If nothing works and you still can't take your mind off the college that rejected you, consider transferring there within the next couple of years. Transferring is fairly common, with around 1.4 million college students changing schools each year.

Over 1 million college students transfer schools each year.

Quotation mark

However, if you want to transfer, you'll need to really stand out at your current institution. Most transfer students with at least one year of college credit only submit their college transcripts, meaning schools evaluate applicants on their college grades rather than their high school performance or standardized test scores.

Keep in mind that some universities accept very few transfer students. Highly selective institutions generally report extremely low transfer rates. Stanford, for example, didn't accept a single transfer applicant in 2019.

Moving On After a College Rejection Letter

The spring after I submitted my college applications, acceptances and rejections began rolling in. My classmates celebrated their admission offers and started a new tradition. Instead of hiding their rejections, seniors brought their college rejection letters to the school and taped them to the wall.

Soon, rejection letters papered the wall outside the band room, stamped with letterheads from the best schools in the country. That tradition turned college rejection letters into something that brought us together, rather than pitting us against one another as competitors.

In the end, I attended a public Ivy, where I benefited from in-state tuition. Looking back, I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I'd reached for a selective private school. But I wouldn't trade my college experience for anything — even an imagined future at a dream university.

Rejection stings. But with time, you'll be able to move on and thrive at a different institution.

Feature Image: AntonioGuillem / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Compare Your School Options

View the most relevant schools for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to finding your college home.