Advice for High Schoolers on the Path to College

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It’s that time of year again. College acceptance — and rejection — letters from US colleges are stuffing the mailboxes of high school seniors.
I remember very clearly when I was a senior in high school waiting for college decision letters to arrive. I obsessively looked in our mailbox each day to see if there was a bulging package sticking out, the kind that contained a crisp and welcoming letter of acceptance, attached to a stack of registration and orientation information.

I also learned to expect the dreaded slim envelopes, the ones with a curtly worded form letter with no more than two or three short paragraphs that coldly told me I wasn’t welcome there.

To cope with the stress we were both going through, my friend and I agreed to a plan: we would collect all of our rejection letters — the “dings” as we called them — and burn them in a great bonfire. A blaze so bright that it would light up the night sky and make those cruel admissions officers sitting hundreds of miles away feel mortally frightened and regret their decision to reject us.

We chickened out and dropped the idea. From the pile of rejection letters we each received, we pulled out one acceptance letter, made our decision, and headed off into the future.

Today, I’ve got a high school freshman at home who is now going through the same process I went through many decades ago. While he’s still a few years away from the moment when he’s faced with the decision that will shape the course of his life and career, the pressure is already on.

He recently asked me a question that prompted me to reflect on just how much pressure he was under. He wondered aloud whether he could meet my expectations, and whether I would still be proud of him if he didn’t get accepted by a top ranked university.

Naturally, I reassured him that I was there to support him regardless of the outcome, and that I would still be proud of him. But what else could I tell him that would be helpful?

I will, of course, continue to encourage and support him, offer whatever wisdom I can about how to succeed at school, and invest the resources that our budget can tolerate — all to give him an environment and platform to succeed at school and beyond.

But I’m also realistic. I know there’s only so much I can do to help him, and that his own decisions and actions will largely determine how he performs at school, and what colleges he decides to attend.

I see the plunging acceptance rates at top schools and know that the environment he’s facing is even more complex and competitive than the one I ever faced.

While I’m hopeful that he’ll find a college that he likes and which will welcome him, I also know that — if he casts a wide net like I did when I applied to college — there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll be faced with rejection as well. It’s part of school, it’s part of life.

Here’s what I told my son:

Find what interests you, and do well at it. Nothing fuels self-motivation and increases the chances of success more than having a strong interest in something.

Do your personal best. When you’ve taken a test, or completed an assignment, you should be able to tell yourself that you’ve done what you could to learn the material and get the best score that you could get. Don’t measure yourself against your classmates.

Be intellectually curious. Ask questions. Cultivate the ability to think critically. And learn how to learn, which in my view is one of the most powerfully useful outcomes of an education that a student can get.

Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Ask your teachers, ask your classmates, ask me. You’ll be surprised at how willing and happy most people are to help you when you need it.

Never lie or cheat. Ever.

We love you. At the end of the day, mom and I love you and are proud of you, regardless of what grades you get at school, or whatever college you eventually decide to attend.

(And between you and me, here’s one more piece of advice that I’m storing in my back pocket, that I’ll only pull out in case the pressure gets too overwhelming, if and when the day comes: Burn those damn rejection letters!)

How do you help your high schooler cope with rejection? What did you do to deal with college rejection letters when you were in high school? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
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