How Rejection Impacts Students’ Mental Health (Plus 4 Tips on How to Cope)

Rejection can come from many sources, including friends, partners, and even colleges themselves. How students bounce back can influence later success.

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by Anne Dennon

Updated May 16, 2022

Reviewed by Megan Pietrucha, Psy.D.

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How Rejection Impacts Students’ Mental Health (Plus 4 Tips on How to Cope)
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Young adults often face many rejections in their college years. A big one comes from colleges themselves — the dreaded, single-page rejection letter.

On campus, there's the potential for social and emotional rejection. Finding the right friend group or right partner often first means finding out the hard way who doesn't belong in your circle.

Later in college, applying to internships and jobs means exposing yourself to potential rejection yet again.

From college rejection to romantic rejection, being turned down can be profoundly destabilizing and isolating. Yet, it's arguably one of the most common experiences among college students.

No matter the source, rejection hurts. And the frequency of rejection doesn't negate its sting.

Research shows that rejection is experienced much like a physical injury. It's also strongly linked to depression and suicide.

Rejection and Depression: A Vicious Cycle

People are highly motivated to avoid rejection and all the nasty feelings it can bring up, such as disappointment, sadness, depression, and anxiety.

Rejection can fast-track predilections for certain mental health conditions. Repeated rejection can also prompt mental health challenges and suicidal ideation where there was previously lower risk or possibly no outward signs to cause concern. Many studies have found a particularly strong connection between rejection and depression.

Depression appears to be both an aftereffect of and precursor to rejection. Decades of research confirm that rejection and depression unite in a self-perpetuating cycle.

This connection is particularly clear when it comes to emotional and social rejection. People with depression, including people with more mild cases of depression, are more likely to seek reassurance that people care about them.

But rather than get the affirmation they crave, those who excessively seek reassurance tend to experience more rejection from others. Individuals who are more depressed and have lower self-esteem are at greater risk of rejection. The cycle continues as rejection, in turn, brings up feelings of depression and low self-esteem.

Perhaps even more worrisome than the connection between rejection and depression is rejection's power to bypass typical signs of mental health conditions and lead straight to suicidal thoughts. Research shows that the feeling of not achieving your goals can be an even stronger suicide trigger than a preexisting mental health condition.

A 2020 review found that stressful life events are associated with 37% higher odds of subsequently reported suicidal ideation and behaviors combined.

The association between rejection and suicide is particularly strong among young adults. And the type of rejection doesn't matter. A different 2020 study revealed that both social and nonsocial rejection stressors could raise the risk of suicide attempts, with the month following a major rejection stressor as the suicide danger zone.

Students Extra Sensitive to Rejection Are at High Risk of Other Mental Health Conditions

Rejection sensitivity is a defense mechanism rooted in low self-esteem and high levels of insecurity. People who react strongly to any hint — real or imagined — of being criticized, ignored, or rejected may respond with anger or anxiety and withdraw.

By withdrawing to avoid future rejection, those with rejection sensitivity ultimately fulfill their own prophecy of being rejected.

Also called rejection sensitive dysphoria, or RSD, this heightened response to rejection is especially associated with depression among college students. Whether or not a student meets the diagnosis for RSD, accumulated rejection messages can combine to pack a punch when a young person faces a challenging ordeal, such as being rejected by a romantic partner or college.

"You may not only be reacting to the present situation but to past experiences as well," says psychologist Elayne Savage in her 1997 book "Don't Take It Personally: The Art of Dealing with Rejection." A history of rejection in early life can trigger an overwhelming emotional response when faced with a new rejection as a young adult.

Repeated experiences of rejection are a known causal factor in nearly all psychiatric disorders, including, but not limited to:

How to Cope With Rejection: 4 Helpful Tricks

Twin drivers — the fear of rejection and the need for acceptance — fuel our choices, both small and big. You may bite your tongue when a friend expresses a political opinion you don't share. Or you may talk yourself out of applying for a dream job.

Despite its centrality to life experiences, rejection is a concept that psychologists have only recently begun to grapple with. Rather than letting a rejection derail your confidence or even your entire college experience, experts urge learning how to cope with rejection — and using it as fuel for positive change.

Rachel Brandoff, Ph.D., a registered art therapist and assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University, advises students reeling from rejection to "transform their mindset."

1. Avoid Self-Criticism

"Rejection from one opportunity (e.g., a job, a school, a program) is not tantamount to rejection of them as a person," says Brandoff. "If a person is rejected from any one opportunity, they might benefit from finding other opportunities that are more within their reach, and reframing their goals and expectations."

When students equate a single instance of rejection "with a rejection of their personhood," the experience can prove especially painful, says Brandoff.

During the initial appraisal stage that follows an experience of rejection, it's natural to feel a sense of shame. Something you wanted and imagined having has been torn away, along with all the feelings of success and contentment you associated with it.

At this vulnerable moment, avoid the tendency to criticize what you did leading up to the rejection. It's impossible to know all the reasons why your wish wasn't granted, but it's extremely likely that those reasons extend well beyond you.

2. Confirm Your Self-Worth

As profound as your disappointment may be, you must realize how much bigger and more meaningful your life is than this one event. While your potential and value are infinite, an experience of rejection is the precise opposite — it's finite, and it's already over.

With every passing moment, you are recovering from the rejection. Catch-all phrases of comfort may not sound like much help, but this one is proven true: Time heals all wounds.

A study of college-aged adults dealing with romantic rejection revealed that, over time, people typically experienced less and less of the telltale brain activity associated with attachment.

Every instance of rejection provides a powerful opportunity to practice accepting yourself. In fact, investing in your ability to recover is the most important thing you can do to avoid setting yourself up for rejection in the future.

Fear of others' negative evaluations can prompt college students to avoid social situations, with negative effects on their academic achievements and even mental health.

Take Time to Prioritize Self-Care

Give yourself time and space to focus on you. Explore our collection of mental health resources to find support.

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3. Connect With People Who Make You Feel Appreciated

Get in contact with people who can help you rebuild your sense of belonging and self-esteem.

You may believe you just want to be left alone, but isolation is the last thing you need if you're struggling with feelings of rejection. Isolation is a major factor in depression and suicide, both of which are linked with rejection. Instead, find someone with whom you feel comfortable enough to vent.

"It can be valuable to seek conversations, reading material, and counseling that can help a person gain some perspective about what they wanted, what they were seeking and didn't obtain, and what they want now," says Brandoff.

Just be conscious of who you turn to when you're vulnerable. Rejection can bring up feelings of anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy, and sadness. Compounding the sensations of rejection by being in the wrong company runs the risk of deepening negative feelings to the point of aggression or violence.

4. Put the Rejection in Perspective

There's an evolutionary reason rejection hits us so hard. Because humans are social creatures, our success depends on being part of a pack. Anything that suggests we don't have membership in a pack — be it a friend group or an in-crowd of Ivy League alumni — can trigger feelings of despair.

But in most modern-day instances, our fight-or-flight brains simply aren't seeing the big picture.

Take, for instance, college rejection. While being turned down by a big-name school may feel like a huge blow, the reality is that highly selective schools are admitting fewer applicants than ever. Harvard University accepted a record low of just 3.2% of applicants to its Class of 2026.

Even as colleges accept fewer and fewer applicants, including those initially waitlisted, admissions officers acknowledge that as many as two-thirds of the students they reject are fully equipped to succeed academically at their schools.

You already have what you need to succeed. Putting that to work wherever you attend is what will kickstart your future, no matter your alma mater.

A 2018 white paper by the Stanford-affiliated nonprofit Challenge Success found that engagement in college — including activities like seeking out mentors, participating in internships, and completing multi-semester projects — is more important than which college you attend.

When it comes to rejection, what feels like a dead end is invariably a fork in the road. Wallowing in feelings of rejection may keep you from seeing the other paths before you.

"There are so many opportunities in the world," says Brandoff. "Feeling defeated after rejection can impair a person's ability to seek out, apply, and take advantage of other opportunities."


With Advice From:

Portrait of Rachel Brandoff, Ph.D.

Rachel Brandoff, Ph.D.

Rachel Brandoff, Ph.D., ATR-BCCS, LCAT, is a registered, board-certified art therapist and credentialed supervisor, as well as an assistant professor and the coordinator of the art therapy concentration in the community and trauma counseling program at Thomas Jefferson University. She maintains a clinical practice specializing with individuals who are coming out of crises and coping with trauma. She also provides supervision and consultation to art therapists and professional counselors.

Dr. Brandoff has served on the boards of various professional organizations and is a regular presenter at regional and national conferences. Her first book, "Quick and Creative Art Projects for Creative Therapists With (Very) Limited Budgets," was published in 2019.

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