Parents may be more upset than their children over receiving a “letter of denial,” as colleges call them. Parents understandably want to shield their children from the pain of rejection. Despite these instincts, it’s best to let a child receive and process college admission news first. It’s not a good idea to make the dash to the mailbox a race, nor is it advisable to open college mail addressed to your child. Parents can, however, help put admissions decisions in perspective.


Your child may read rejection from a school as an indication that he doesn’t have what it takes to succeed. You can reassure him that admissions decisions are not a judgment from society. Colleges have many reasons for rejecting students, and there is always an aspect of randomness in the process. Neither parents nor children should treat rejection as a personal failure.

Student merit is not the only factor in a school’s decision. Schools also must address their own needs for a diverse population or for strength on sports teams or in specific degree programs. Neither parents nor children should treat rejection as a personal failure.

What to do if your child isn’t accepted anywhere

What if your child hasn’t gotten into any of the schools he applied to? This can occur when students apply only to very selective schools or too few schools, or if senior grades falter. This requires some reevaluation of your child’s situation, but it’s certainly not the end of the world. Your child can still apply to schools whose deadlines haven’t passed. If circumstances such as test scores or grades have changed, he can reapply to the same school.

Check with the admissions office at the college to find out how to reapply, and encourage your child to seek advice from the high school counselor. Colleges do make mistakes, and a student can appeal an admissions decision, but these appeals are rarely successful. Finally, your child might consider attending community college and transferring to the school of his choice.


Colleges build a waiting list of students to ensure full freshman classes; they have to assume some percentage of accepted students won’t enroll. This system benefits the schools, but it’s hard on students and parents. If your child gets a waiting list notice, encourage him to decide whether he really wants to attend the school before he agrees to remain on the list. If he is accepted, he’ll often get only a few days to decide. Also investigate the conditions attached to being wait-listed; your child may lose priority housing or financial aid options.

How to move up and off the waiting list

Schools sometimes rank waiting lists. The higher your child ranks on the list, the better the chances of being accepted. Being wait-listed means the school has already determined your child has the academic credentials; so nonacademic factors are more likely to sway admissions officials. Encourage your child to send a compelling letter explaining why he wants to attend. He can indicate that if accepted he will enroll, but such a promise should be made only if he’s absolutely certain. He can also enlist the help of an alumnus and his high school guidance counselor. Encourage him to schedule a second interview with admissions officials.

Schools will not decide who will be admitted off the waiting list until the May 1 decision deadline has passed. So you will need to prepare for your child to attend another school by filling out the paperwork and sending in a deposit. If your child is accepted off the waiting list, you will forfeit your deposit at the first school and be required to submit a deposit to the second.


Research shows that nine out of 10 students get in to their first or second choice college, so it’s likely that your child will soon see the fat envelopes piling up. Encourage your child to take time deciding which college to attend. Your child definitely shouldn’t make a final choice until he’s heard from every college he applied to, and he’s probably not required to make any decision until the May 1 deadline.

Review the college admission criteria

Have your child go back and review his college selection criteria. Use College Board’s College Search to compare schools side-by-side and determine how they match up with his requirements for size, distance, extracurricular activities and other factors. Revisit the schools if possible. Many colleges have “admitted-student days” when the school pulls out all the stops to convince students to attend. Encourage your child also to wander the campus alone, visiting a classroom, the dining hall, and other important spots to get a sense of the real life of the school.

Compare aid awards

Finally, there’s funding to consider. Use the College Board’s How to Review and Compare Your Financial Aid Awards page to determine which school best meets the financial needs of you and your child. It provides a side-by-side comparison (including the percentage of grant aid and loan for each award), and allows you to calculate your actual family share of costs at each college. The tool also provides an overview of alternate financing options.

Making the final decision

Now it’s decision time. Having too many choices is a welcome quandary, but it can also be hard for a teenager to make what is perhaps the first independent decision of adult life. You can help out by reminding him there is no one perfect school. Statistics show that what your child does while in college matters more to future success than the name of the school on his sweatshirt.

If your child is having a hard time choosing, don’t hedge your bets by sending a deposit to more than one school. This is unfair to admission officials and wait-listed students. It can also result in an acceptance being rescinded. Some schools share information and check for double depositing.

At last, the acceptance letter will go in the mail. The other colleges should get short thank-you notes declining their invitation to attend. Before you know it, the agonies of the college application process will be over and the adventure of freshman year begun. You’ve provided important support and groundwork along the way, helping to ensure that whatever school attended, your child is on the right road to success.

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