When you talk to high school juniors, many of them have college on the brain. And that’s great because college offers the world to our children by offering knowledge, experiences, and training for each person to begin to craft a meaningful life. Some kids are emotionally, intellectually, and socially prepared. Some are not. Some have been thinking about their dream school since fifth grade, others have been trailing in the footsteps of their parents, and others merely complicit with their parents hopes for a prestigious education and all the successes these matriculations have been hyped up to imply. Bleary eyed guidance counselors corral juniors and their parents into meetings with important messages – often unheeded – and scores of parents and kids squabble about the SATs, GPAs, community service, and extra curricular activities all with an eye toward the golden moment: acceptance.
But if we pause on that word – acceptance – we can see through to the heart of this complex crucible. Each individual child, with a unique set of strengths, vulnerabilities, and experiences must find a way not to college acceptance but self-acceptance. And each parent, with his or her own hopes and dreams – typically bequeathed from their own experiences with the challenges of self identification, separation from family, and the demands of adult life – must come to accept their child for who they are. Don’t misunderstand acceptance for complacency – that is a common confusion. Acceptance means a wholehearted effort to empathize with another person, recognize the hazards of being that person, and love that person for who he or she is. Acceptance begins with the self. If you pause for a second and really think about whether or not you accept yourself, you may be unpleasantly surprised at just how unaccepting you are of your foibles, mistakes, and failings without contextualizing these problems in a broader and more loving context. If you struggle – as we all do – to accept yourself, then it’s not hard to imagine that it may be even harder to deeply accept our children who often come to represent our greatest unfulfilled hopes and dreams. So when the college of your child’s dreams does not accept your child, it is no surprise that both kids and families feel crushed.
I try to help myself, my family, and my patients follow the idea that no good crisis should go to waste. The crisis of confidence brought on by rejection is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to check the facts of the college process: as a teen, you may wonder if that was indeed the school that you most wanted to attend – or was it your father’s or mother’s dream school that you came to take on as your own? You may begin to wonder what purpose college may play for you at this stage in your life and development and ask some important questions about whether or not you’re ready to commit to transformative academic challenge and not four years of partying punctuated by midterms and finals. And you may begin to think about the meaning of college in a broader sense – does it fit with your own goals and aspirations or is it a hoop you’ve agreed to jump through because you’ve been told time and again that it is an essential rite of passage toward the ultimate goal of creating a life worth living.
As a parent, you have equally difficult questions that burn brightly with the sting of a college rejection letter: is my child ready for independence? Have we prepared him or her adequately? Have we addressed all that we can – from mental to physical health – in order to set our children up for success? And perhaps the most difficult one: does my own need for my child’s achievement blind me from the true needs and desires of my emerging adult son or daughter.
Do not let the college rejection letter go to waste – it is a strange blessing. It can help calibrate and focus the educational hopes and aspirations of kids and parents, it can help kids and parents get on the same page about college, and it can be a catalyst for the beginning of a new perhaps more reality based communication style between parents and kids. Often, when one door closes another opens. And frequently, we look back on hard moments in time – when strung together with love and acceptance – as crucial steps on a ladder toward greater understanding which ultimately forms the backbone of a mature and loving parent child relationship. This will not be the only disappointment of your son or daughter’s life, but if framed in this way, it may serve as an important template for managing others to come.