Life after college rejection: How to stay on course for your future

Life after college rejection

As colleges and universities become more selective with their admissions criteria, rejection is a real possibility.

In 2011, Harvard tallied the lowest rate of admissions of any U.S. school, making enrollment offers to just 6.2 percent of its applicants, according to statistics compiled by The New York Times.

Many state schools and private liberal-arts colleges also are cutting their acceptance pools. The University of Wisconsin, Madison, for example, dropped its acceptance rate from 56.51 percent in 2010 to 49.77 percent in 2011. Maine's Bowdoin College in 2011 offered spots to 15.69 percent of those who applied, compared to 19.66 percent in 2010.

Change of plans?

Students who are rejected by colleges should try to look at the experience -- and potential year off -- as an opportunity, says Brenda Wade, executive director of Achievement Services in Catonsville, Md.

"I advise my students to not view this as a 'rejection,' but rather as a postponement of immediate plans," Wade says. "There are educational, volunteer and work options for those young people who either were not admitted into their college of choice, or have opted to delay college entrance.

"This can be viewed as a time for personal reflection, without the pressures of academic achievement, to discover what is of interest to them."

What went wrong

Give yourself a week to absorb the disappointment and then try to figure out what went wrong with your college applications, advises Nikki Geula, president of Arete Educational Consulting in New York.

Among the questions to ask: Did you score too low on the SAT or ACT for your dream school? Are poor or inconsistent grades an issue? Did you fail to connect with your personal essay?

To gain perspective on the situation -- and determine your next steps -- review your applications with a professional college advisor, your high school counselor, a teacher or other trusted adult, to help identify your weaknesses.

"Try to understand the rejection is not personal," Geula says. "Re-commit to doing the best you can."

The immediate future

Make the most of the final months of your senior year by applying yourself academically, so you can complete high school on a positive note.

"If you slacked off, it's time to re-commit to your grades," Geula says. "There's nothing that can take the place of strong grades and strong scores."

If your SAT or ACT scores are a weakness, sign up for a re-do in the summer, and either take a prep course or use practice tests on your own. Or you may wish to focus on a growing number of schools, including Wake Forest University, Connecticut College and Bard College, that no longer require SATs, Geula says.

To further make your academic case and prepare to re-apply to colleges by the November deadline, take a summer course or two at a local community college. Community-based learning programs or noncredit courses also can help you brush up on a subject or find out if accounting really is in your future.

"Take courses that are interesting in which you'll do well," Geula says. "This will show colleges you've matured, and you can do well."

The "safety" dance

If the only place to accept you is a "safety school," give careful thought to whether you could be happy attending or would rather take a year off and re-apply to your top picks.

"You want to take a look at why the school is important to you," Geula says. "Are you attached because you really want to go there, or because it seems more prestigious?"

Another option is to attend a safety school for at least your freshman year, with the intent to transfer. However, the danger is that you might not fully invest yourself in the safety school.

"If you go to a safety school, go with a good attitude -- you might actually love the school," Geula says.

Real world experience

Exploring the world of work can help you save for college, while also gaining practical experience that's sure to impress an admissions officer on your next round of applications.

"Colleges love it when students work," Geula says. "Getting a job is a wonderful way to build character. It could be working at Starbucks, but it shows you can deal with people, and you can write an entrance essay about your experiences."

For jobs in professional settings, look to temporary staffing centers or local and state government agencies, which may offer opportunities geared to help prepare young people for the work force.

"Time can be a wonderful friend to you, and can allow you to be more involved in your community and gain more experience in the work field," Wade says.

Internships with private companies, nonprofit organizations or community and church groups also can open your eyes to career possibilities in politics, the arts or business, and further testify to your personal growth when you re-apply to college.

"Internships should be in line with your interests and not be something that just looks 'good,' on your resume," Geula says.

Value of education

Above all else, it's important not to give up on the dream of getting a bachelor's degree, because it will have real-world benefits.

Those who complete a four-year program, depending on where they go to school, earn anywhere from $230,000 to over $500,000 more income over their lifetimes than those who have just a high school diploma, according to a study by the American Institutes for Research and Nexus Research and Policy Center.

College rejection may be a setback, but the time and effort it takes to reach that goal will provide a lifetime's worth of personal -- and financial -- rewards.