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Advice for Parents

How Parents Can Help When a College Says No

Picture of Liz Gyori
By Liz Gyori on March, 10 2021 | 6 minute read

Author’s Note: Although this post targets parents, my hope is that anyone who works with parents and students may find these ideas, based on hard-won experience, useful and shareable. If you’re a student with a decision coming around the corner, help your parents out and send them this link!

Do you have a good parental poker face? I don’t. My grown kids learned early on to study my expressions, no matter how fleeting or micro, for their self-preservation and amusement. “Look at Mom’s face!” is one of the most frequently uttered expressions in our family lexicon. Here’s the thing, though – there are times when they see the emotion playing out but misinterpret the feelings and context behind it, which can lead to confusion or hurt.

I bring this up because, as a parent who’s been in your “admit-or-deny” shoes before, this is one of those milestone moments when your child will be closely observing your expressions, along with your actions. I hope with every ounce of me that your senior receives their desired admission outcome. I know what a strain these months of applying and waiting have put on your family, and you might be thisclose to a primal scream. Don’t let it rip here. Your reactions to any admission rejections will definitely influence your senior’s reactions, and possibly how they feel about themselves afterwards. How do I know this? Because I’ve done it wrong before, and it wasn’t a pretty family picture. I’ve learned to make it a point to anticipate outcomes and potential reactions in advance of the make-or-break moments.

So, before those big decisions come in, prepare yourself by – honestly – answering the following questions:

  • Whose dream school is it – really? Maybe you loved your undergraduate experience at a particular university and want the same amazing experience for your child. Or maybe you feel you had to work harder in your profession because of your “average” education and believe that an Ivy League degree will give your child advantages you didn’t have. There are many reasons why we dream about specific schools for our children. But let’s make sure before the answers come in that we are clear about whose dream this is. If a school is more your dream than your child’s, and the decision is a no, your child may not be that crushed about it (they may even be relieved!). But if your reaction is one of deep dismay, anger or howling upset – well, now your senior is processing the decision with a lot more pain because of how much it obviously meant to you. Have clarity about your own hopes and objectives in this instance, and prepare to put your personal disappointment aside so that you can respond in a way that won’t add to your student’s distress.

  • If the school is your senior’s dream, and they are denied admission, how will they handle it? What will they need from you? Recall how your senior has processed big disappointments in the past. Maybe it was messy, but I’m sure learning occurred for them and for you. What worked, and what didn’t? I have one child who can purge a letdown from his system pretty quickly with the help of physical activity and time spent with supportive friends. After a few reassuring words from his dad or me, he doesn’t need much to bounce back. When decisions were posted, my husband had him outside in the driveway shooting hoops and talking it out before too long, and we fed a lot of teenaged boys who huddled around him that weekend. I have another child whose tender heart is easily broken, and she can require some “mom so hard” moments of encouragement and consolation to help her recuperate. In her case, I had cleared my calendar and was ready to devote myself to some concentrated nurturing if necessary. Your senior will process their feelings on their own timeline, of course, but having some TLC at the ready will help keep them communicating with you, which is vital. Think about how your child is wired and prepare for the kind of support they’ll need.

  • Will I love my child less if the college says no? What? Of course not! But it’s time to prove it – yet again. You loved them when they missed that A in a tough class by one point, when they didn’t make varsity, when it took them multiple tries to get their driver’s license (that one was pretty frustrating, though). Just as you might have had to reassure them of your unconditional love in those instances, you’ll need to reassure them now. Think about how you’ll do this. What will you say to comfort and encourage them? What will they need to hear from you? One of my daughters has applied to several highly selective law schools and is receiving decisions now. After she told me of a rejection from a super-reach school, she saw dismay in that transparent face of mine and asked, “Are you disappointed in me?” No matter that she knows full well I’m her #1 fan. I had to say – again – truthfully, emphatically, that any disappointment in my expression was FOR her, and not IN her, because I knew how thrilling that admission would have been for her. Afterwards, she hugged me and said, “I mean, I know that – I guess I just needed to hear it.” Take a moment to decide what you can say to reinforce your senior’s confidence in the love and respect you have for them.

  • Who will we blame for our child’s rejection? Um, no one, right? This is a part of life, and life can sometimes be disappointing and crummy, especially in our current times. And yet, a parent who wants to cushion their senior from one more stinking life blow this year may be tempted to point fingers or create explanatory narratives. Provide context, yes, and your school or college counselor can help paint a picture of the admissions statistics in the crazy landscape of this year. Try not to spend energy wondering why this senior or that senior was admitted instead of yours. There will be gossip and buzz and conspiracy theories when decisions are released. If you go down those rabbit holes, your child may follow, to no one’s benefit. Remember that folks outside of a school (I see you, Reddit admissions forums) cannot possibly know the changing, myriad priorities of any particular admissions office. Resist second-guessing your test and test-optional choices; resist blaming your child for not working as hard as you think they could have; resist kicking yourself for not donating more as an alum; and above all, resist diminishing the accomplishments of someone else’s children by saying that schools were “checking a box” by admitting them. No one “took” the place at a college from your senior (a sentiment I often hear). It was the school’s offer to give, and they gave it.


It may seem like I’m saying that as adults, as parents, we’re not allowed to have feelings. That’s not what I’m trying to convey, as there are days when I am just one big emotion, especially when it comes to my kids, or the kids you’ve entrusted to my care. What I am saying is that your senior’s eyes and ears will be trained on you as the decisions come in, and, for their sakes, for their well-being, think through what they will see, hear – and feel – from you in these important moments.


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