Most adults can recall with startling clarity decades-old mistakes and moments of rejection: those dropped passes and bad prom dates that mark even the smoothest childhood. But of all the memorable humiliations of youth, none are more potent than the one that comes in a skinny envelope one day during your senior year in high school. In the world of college admissions, good news comes in fat envelopes. Skinny envelopes contain the applicant's version of a "Dear John" letter: heartbreak in three paragraphs. What can parents, who spend two decades nudging their kids forward, applauding every soccer goal and clarinet solo, do for them on the day the skinny envelopes land in the mailbox?
As dean of admissions at Cornell University, Don Saleh will have his name at the bottom of 21,000 letters this year, only 6,000 of which will arrive in fat, happy envelopes. But as the father of an 18-year-old applicant to three colleges, Saleh himself is praying to the mailbox god this year. He suggests that parents and their college applicants can help prepare themselves for the rejection process by doing some homework before the letters arrive. "Recall positive aspects of all the schools on your list--especially the 'safety schools,'" he says. "Get out the brochures and watch the videos, and remember what you liked about them that made you apply in the first place." Be available to your kids on the day the letters are due to arrive, and make sure they know to call you when they find out. (Saleh plans to keep his cell phone on at work so his daughter can reach him quickly.)
Admissions professionals, guidance counselors and child psychologists I spoke with were in agreement on what parents should do when their child receives a skinny envelope: be there but back off, way off. Guard your own reactions because your child will be watching you for cues. When your kid is wrestling with his own disappointment, the last thing you want is for him to think he's disappointing you too. Don't try to call the college and challenge its decision; don't try to step in, as if rejection were a problem that could be fixed. This is your child's entry into adult-size experiences; he must handle it in his own way.
Admissions decisions are famously whimsical and are not negotiable, though Saleh suggests that if a kid is determined to attend a school that has rejected her, she should wait a week or two, then call the admissions office herself and have a serious discussion about transfer requirements. Students who didn't get into any school can contact the National Association of College Admission Counseling www.nacac.com after May 5 for a list of colleges that still have openings.
Rejection from a first-choice school is an education in the beauty of "Plan B." Embrace it. Celebrate the good judgment of the school that wants your child. Congratulate your kid on being wise enough to apply to that school, and plan to make a spring visit to campus. Bill Mayher, author of The College Admissions Mystique and a veteran high school guidance counselor, says parents should appreciate the maturing process brought on by the skinny envelope. "We're trying to put kids in charge of their lives here, and we shouldn't undermine it with our own expectations. Besides," he notes, "college is too blunt an instrument to tell you who you are for the rest of your life."