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We regret to inform you ….

Those five words on a college rejection letter can send high school seniors spiraling.

The below article explores the reasons college rejection hits teens so hard and examines the link between college rejection and mental health issues.



Teens tend to take college rejection as a judgment on themselves—not just on their academic abilities, but on who they are as a person. Failing to get into their dream school can undermine students’ confidence and self-worth, leading to what is sometimes referred to as college rejection depression.


While getting depressed from college rejection is usually temporary, it can sometimes have lasting effects. For teens who struggle with self-esteem or negative thinking, rejection from college can feel like yet one more thing that isn’t working in their life. And for those with existing anxiety or depression, a college rejection can make symptoms worse.


Where Does College Rejection Depression Come From?

What causes teens’ intense reactions to college rejection? There are many reasons why getting into college—or not getting in—is such a significant and emotional event for young people. Here are some of the factors that can contribute to college rejection depression.


Being Unused to Failure

Not getting into their dream college is sometimes the first big rejection a teen or young adult experiences. That’s particular true if they’ve been protected by helicopter parents who worked hard to keep them from feeling the sting of failure and rejection.


It’s natural for parents to want to protect their kids from difficult emotions and experiences. However, when kids don’t get a chance to fail, they may not have the resilience and coping skills for dealing with college rejection.


“Out of love and desire to protect our children’s self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness.  Unfortunately, in doing so we have deprived our children of the most important lessons of childhood.  The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations, and failures we have shoved out of our children’s way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative, and resilient citizens of the world.” 
Jessica Lahey, from The Gift of Failure

Perfectionism

For teens with perfectionistic tendencies, a college rejection letter can feel like the end of the world. Many teen perfectionists have been working toward getting into their dream school for years. They may have been attending a competitive school and taking honors courses. Some might have taken the SATs multiple times in order to get the best possible test scores to include in their college applications.


Not making the cut may seem to them like proof that their very best isn’t enough. For students who pride themselves on their academic accomplishments, a rejection can feel devastating. Sensitive teens who believe school is the only thing they’re good at are more likely to experience college rejection depression.


It’s good for young people to have high expectations for themselves. That’s why perfectionism in children and teens is commonly assumed to be a positive. After all, what could be bad about having high standards and working hard to meet them?


Perfectionists are often high achievers. But perfectionism in teens is just as likely to create paralysis and a devastating cascade of mental and physical health effects. Many high-achieving perfectionists are actually masking inner struggles that can lead to future problems.


The Mental Health Toll of Pressure to Succeed

Most teens don’t compete at the high levels that young Olympic athletes do, but that doesn’t keep them from experiencing intense pressure to achieve and “be the best” whether that be in sports, academics, or other special interest areas, like music or dance.

These high-pressure experiences can be positive for teens: they gain skills, feel empowered, and enjoy doing something they love, and doing it well. They can also build positive connections with others—teammates, band members, coaches, or study partners. In addition, the clear goals provided by academics, sports, or musical or theatrical performance offer a stable structure that can support adolescents during a time when they are going through so much physical and emotional change.


But when teens connect their worthiness and identity entirely with their achievements, that can become a problem. Over time, the pressure and perfectionism associated with the pressure to succeed can lead to teen burnout and mental health issues. Research shows that teens who fit a perfectionist profile have significantly higher levels of anxiety, depression and body image issues, as well as lower levels of resilience and self-worth. Furthermore, teens who focus single-mindedly on one skill can lose ground in terms of social-emotional development, including the ability to form strong friendships outside of their sport or other activity.



Moreover, if they give up the activity—even if that’s the best thing for their mental health—teens can end up feeling lost and without direction. A survey of former NCAA student athletes found that 44 percent of them were struggling to find purpose after leaving sports behind. That sense of emptiness and confusion can leave teens vulnerable to depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and other maladaptive coping strategies.

 

Causes of Perfectionism in Children and Teens

Between 25% and 30% of teens suffer from “maladaptive perfectionism”—striving for unrealistic perfection to the point of causing them pain. Researchers have determined there is a genetic component to perfectionism, reinforced by behavior learned from perfectionistic parents. But a greater influence comes from environmental factors.


Perfectionism in children and teens has increased by 33% over the last three decades, part of a larger society-wide trend that includes:

  • Tighter competition for admission to top colleges

  • Skyrocketing costs of education

  • More controlling parenting styles

  • Comparisons promoted by social media

However, high standards (termed “perfectionistic strivings” by researchers) are not always associated with problems. A teen with a more balanced drive for excellence can get satisfaction from putting in the effort, regardless of the outcome, and can grow by integrating the lessons learned from mistakes.

 

College Acceptance Jealousy

Seeing others getting into their dream school can be extremely painful for high school students. While they’re mourning a rejection, they’re surrounded by others who are celebrating their successes. And when they’re asked the inevitable question, “So, did you get in?” they have to keep admitting “I got rejected.” Sure, they may be happy for their friends. But having to watch them receive congratulations and praise really hurts for a rejected student.



Others’ Expectations, Real or Perceived

Sometimes college rejection depression is less about high school students’ own disappointment and more about their fear of disappointing others. They may see teachers, parents, siblings, or other mentors or family members as having high expectations of them. Whether that’s true or not, teens can feel intense shame and embarrassment if they get rejected from a selective school. Moreover, they may worry that the people they so badly wanted to please will now think less of them.


Fear About the Future

For some teens, a college rejection can feel like an omen of what’s to come. Teens tend to think in black and white. So they may see a college rejection letter as a sign that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in their life and career. That’s completely untrue, of course. But the adolescent brain is still in development. Therefore, executive functions like perspective and logical reasoning aren’t usually among teenagers’ strong points.


Craving for Belonging and Acceptance

Teens are hardwired to strive for approval and acceptance. The desire to be liked and to belong is a huge part of adolescent development. (That’s part of what drives teen social media addiction.) Therefore, rejection in general—whether from a crush, a sports team, or a college—can hurt terribly. In fact, studies show that rejection in adolescence activates the same parts of the brain as physical pain.


Some experts believe there are 5 stages of college rejection, which mirror the 5 stages of grief.

Stage 1: Denial

“There must have been a mistake! This has to be the wrong letter. There’s no way I got rejected!”

Stage 2: Anger

"How could they possibly reject me? I worked so hard! This is totally not fair!"

Stage 3: Bargaining

“There’s got to be some way I can get in. Maybe I can appeal or get on the waitlist.”

Stage 4: Depression

“Being rejected from my dream school is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

Stage 5: Acceptance

“So I got rejected. But these other schools that accepted me actually look really good …”


Does College Rejection Cause Depression?

As we’ve seen, a college rejection letter can bring up all of a teen’s worries and fears about their self-worth and their future. But does getting rejected from your dream school actually cause depression?


That depends. For many teens, sadness about getting rejected from college will pass in a matter of days. That’s particularly true if they have other good options to get excited about. But for adolescents who struggle with low self-esteem, perfectionism, self-doubt, or anxiety, college rejection can make things worse. And for those who have been previously diagnosed with clinical depression, a college rejection letter has the potential to catalyze a depressive episode or even a mental health crisis.


Can a College Rejection Letter Increase the Risk of Teen Suicide?

Some young people could have a higher risk of suicide attempts or thinking about suicide after college rejection. Research shows that rejection and stress can increase the likelihood of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. A 2020 meta-analysis found that stressful life events were associated with a 37% increase in the risk of suicidal behaviors and a 45% increase in the risk for suicidal ideation. This association was more pronounced in young adults and males.


In another study, vulnerability to rejection was isolated as a significant factor in the death by suicide of 10 young men who had no previous history of mental health conditions or suicide attempts. Furthermore, a study with teens found that the risk of suicide attempts may be highest in the 30 days following a significant experience of rejection.


In most cases, high school students who receive rejection letters are not at risk of suicide unless they have an existing mental health condition or are vulnerable to mental health issues. Unfortunately, however, a high percentage of adolescents fits this description. According to a new CDC report, 1 in 10 high school students attempted suicide in 2021. Moreover, 30% of females seriously considered attempting suicide that year—a 60% increase from 10 years previous. And among LGBQ+ students, 22% attempted suicide and 45% seriously considered an attempt.


Consequently, parents and other mentors should not brush off or ignore teen’s reactions to rejection letters. Depression after college rejection should be taken seriously and needs to be treated by a mental health professional if symptoms continue.


7 Ways to Support a Teen Dealing with College Rejection

Parents, teachers, school guidance counselors, and other family members and mentors can support teens in dealing with college rejection. And they can help them celebrate their wins and embrace what comes next, even when it’s not what they were expecting. Here are seven approaches for how to handle college rejection.


Let Them Grieve the Dream

It’s okay to feel depressed about a college rejection. Don’t ridicule teens’ emotions or push them to get past it. Allow them to vent about it, cry about it, or just be bummed out for a while, without judging them or their reaction.


Ultimately, it will be easier for them to move on from a college rejection letter if they’ve allowed themselves to feel all the feelings, with your support and validation.


Support Them in Exploring Alternatives

If your teen got rejected by one or more highly selective schools, they may want to appeal the admissions decisions. The college admissions committee at many competitive schools will reconsider college applications from a rejected student. (But encourage your teen to be realistic. If they don’t have strong grounds for an appeal, restarting the application process could lead to another rejection and an extended period of grieving.)


Hopefully your teen has backup schools they were accepted to. If not, they can start the application process again with other schools. Many colleges have longer application deadlines or rolling admissions. Attending community college or taking a gap year are also good options. Help teens assess their goals and take steps from there.


Encourage Them to Connect, Not Compare

Teens are not alone in experiencing college rejection, particularly if they applied to elite universities. For example, Harvard University accepted only 3% of applicants for its class of 2026—a record low. Remind them that everyone has different strengths, and that comparing themselves to a classmate who did get into a highly selective school isn’t useful. Encourage them to spend time with others who are also feeling the pain of college rejection, not just those who got acceptance letters.


Also, if you think it would be welcomed, you might mention some of the many people who didn’t get into their dream schools and still ended up having an amazing career. To name just a few: Steven Spielberg was rejected from the University of Southern California’s film school. Tina Fey was rejected from Princeton University. And Barack Obama was rejected from Swarthmore.


Be Aware of Your Own Reaction

Parents always want their kids to achieve all their goals and be recognized for the incredible people they are. And they hate to see their kids suffering or feeling “less than.” It’s awful to see your child hurting. That’s one reason why parents sometimes try to dismiss or overlook their teens’ difficult emotions.


But in the case of college rejections, it’s important for parents to look at their own reactions, too. What expectations and hopes did you have for your teen? Did you imagine them attending your alma mater before they got rejected? Were you looking forward to telling friends and family that your teen received acceptance letters to all the schools they applied to? Be honest with yourself about how your teen’s college rejections make you feel. Then put those emotions aside and focus on helping your child get through this challenging time. 


Remind Them They Are So Much More Than Their College Applications

It may be hard for a rejected student to believe, but a college rejection letter is not a statement on their academic ability or potential to thrive at highly selective schools. According to college admissions officers, as many as two-thirds of rejected students are fully equipped to succeed at their schools. Sometimes the reasons one applicant got in and not another are arbitrary.


Furthermore, a college rejection letter is not a judgment on a teen’s personality, likeability, or worthiness. Remind them that they are so much more than their test scores and college applications. The admissions committee considered a very limited facet of who they are. A college rejection doesn’t consider—and can’t negate—all the beautiful things about them: their sense of humor, kindness, resilience, creativity, curiosity, and so much more.


Help Them Embrace the Good News

Along with rejection letters, it’s likely your teen also received some acceptance letters from other schools. Maybe these weren’t their dream schools, but one of those “safety schools” could end up being the perfect fit. There’s a reason they chose those schools to apply to as backups. And there’s a reason those schools chose them and are excited about welcoming them to the freshman class. In fact, excelling at less elite universities can be less stressful and ultimately more satisfying than striving to keep up at more selective schools.


Furthermore, research by the Stanford-affiliated nonprofit Challenge Success shows that attending a selective school is not more likely to result in future job satisfaction or well-being. The report found that engaging fully in the college experience is the most important factor for success, regardless of the school you go to. For example, after getting rejected from Princeton, Tina Fey went to the University of Virginia. The actor, writer, and director has said she “found her home” in the drama department there and had a “wonderful experience.”


Article courtesy of Newport Academy

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