Commentary: For any parent, it’s hard to watch a college reject your child

If you’re a parent of one of the 2.2 million high school seniors who applied to college last fall, then you’re probably following the admissions scandal exposed in the media last week.

You were probably shocked when the FBI uncovered a ring of parents, coaches and counselors who bribed, forged and cheated to get students into elite colleges. These parents were so afraid to let their children face rejection (and had such a corrosive need for prestige) that they went to illegal and immoral lengths to avoid it. But even for honest, upright citizens (like you and me), it’s hard to see our children face rejection.

March 28 is decision-release day for many universities. Most students will get in somewhere, but most students will also receive rejections. Rejection is hard for mature adults, let alone for teenagers.

So how do you help your child deal with rejection? Here are some strategies:

First, acknowledge that the system isn’t fair. We knew this before the scandal broke. This cheating, an extreme form of unfairness, affected relatively few students: six Georgetown cheaters out of 3,369 students admitted is only 0.2 percent of the accepted class. But even if we eliminate cheating, it’s still not fair. There is quite a bit of luck involved. Selective schools can’t possibly take all the highly qualified applicants. Last year Brown University accepted only 15 percent of applicants with perfect SATs. Admissions officers have to make tough choices. Many acknowledge that if they repeated any year’s admission process, they would end up with a very different freshman class. There are many factors beyond your child’s control. Maybe she was edged out because this year the school needed an oboe player more than a soccer goalie.

Second, recognize it’s okay to be disappointed. Give your child space to feel sad. Let them know that rejection is an important part of life. If you’re never disappointed, it means you’re never challenging yourself. J.K. Rowling was rejected by every major British publisher. Einstein didn’t get into his dream school — really. Learning to handle disappointment will make more resilient and more compassionate individuals.

Third, help them get excited about where they were accepted. Order some swag from the bookstore and sign them up for admitted-student weekends. They might discover perks at this school (personalized attention from faculty or research opportunities) that would be unavailable at their “dream” school.

Fourth, help your child remember that college is a means to an end, not the end. The goal is to be a happy, informed, productive adult. Read Frank Bruni’s “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be” about students who never realized how amazing they were because they were always surrounded by overachievers. Or read Malcom Gladwell’s “David and Goliath” where he argues that it’s better for your career and your self-esteem to be in the top third of the class at a good university than the bottom third at a highly selective university. Many highly successful people went to less-selective schools.

Fifth, as hard as it will be, help them be supportive of their friends who had better luck. If they can manage to be gracious, they will develop a strength of character that will serve them well all their life.

Finally, if they can’t get excited about going anywhere they were accepted, they can always take a gap year and try again. And next round, they’ll have had some practice at rejection.

Sarah Sandberg

Sarah Sandberg is a college adviser and founder of Navigate to College. In addition to her regular clients, she spends about half her time helping low-income students, including volunteer work at West High School.