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College Rejection Letters and Wait Lists: Moving Forward

How to make a course correction in the college decision process after bad news.

Kathryn Knight Randolph

February 08, 2021

A college rejection letter or waitlist notification isn't the end of the world. Read on to see how you can move on.
College Rejection Letters and Wait Lists: Moving Forward
We regret to inform you that your application for admission has been rejected by our admissions committee. I am so sorry to notify you that we cannot offer you admission at this time. Due to an increase in applications and limited openings, we cannot at this time extend an offer of admission to you. No matter how nice – or how cruelly – a college admissions committee informs you of an admission decision that is not in your favor, the result is still the same: crushing. Perhaps you applied to that school that you knew you wouldn’t get into. Or maybe it was your top choice, dream college since you were the age of 10. Whatever the case, rejection hurts. So how do you deal with the feelings – and the reality – of receiving an admissions rejection letter?

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Allow Yourself Appropriate Time to Wallow

It’s true – it’s not the end of the world. But it’s still upsetting. Allow yourself some time to grieve over what could have been had you received a college acceptance letter to your #1 choice. However, don’t let it get you down. While this particular lesson in rejection cuts deep, it is very likely that you will encounter this type of scenario again in life. Ultimately, it’s good practice. How you handle rejection now will help you better approach being potentially rejected from other major life experiences, like job opportunities or a significant social snub.

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Prepare Yourself for This Scenario Ahead of Time

This is tricky. You should NOT go into the admissions process thinking, “I’m very likely not going to get into this amazing university so I won’t give it my all.” You should think the opposite! A positive, can-do attitude can do wonders for your application, admissions interview and test-taking. In fact, many admissions officers consider that type of attitude when making decisions. On the other hand, you shouldn’t lump all of your collegiate hopes and dreams into one basket. You need to diversify your admissions portfolio. Apply to a variety of schools. Set yourself up for success – but also dream a little. Here’s how you can do that:

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Reach Schools. Identify one or two schools that are the dream schools. The “I don’t know if I can get into that school but I at least have to try” schools. These colleges may be a reach for you academically or financially, or they may be one of those top-tier universities in the nation that receive countless applications with limited space. • Target Schools. Apply to three to five target schools. These are the colleges that you are fairly certain you can get into based on your academic performance, extracurricular involvement and test scores. They’re also a great financial fit. Generally speaking, these schools also have an average acceptance rate. A quick Internet search can typically tell you about a certain school’s acceptance rate (for a quick reference: Stanford University’s acceptance rate is just over 4%, making it the most difficult school at which to gain admission). • Safety Schools. Finally, safety schools (insert sigh of relief). A safety school is the one college that you KNOW you will get into. Perhaps they have a 100% acceptance rate. Or maybe it’s the college nearest your hometown – the one that you took summer courses at or have credits that you can transfer over from your accelerated high school courses.

If Nothing Cheers You Up, Know You’re in Good Company

If it helps, everyone has been rejected at one point or another. Especially from colleges. While your peers may not fess up to any of their college rejections, some pretty notable people in history have talked about their experiences. According to, Tina Fey and Katie Couric both wound up at University of Virginia after being rejected from their first choice colleges. Fey was hoping to attend Princeton University while Couric was vying for a spot at Smith College. Tom Hanks was hoping to get into M.I.T. or Villanova, but he wound up with rejection letters from both. Instead, Hanks opted to attend Chabot College for two years before transferring to Sacramento State. Steven Spielberg experienced a double whammy when it came to college rejection letters, as reported by Money. He didn’t make it into either UCLA or University of Southern California. After being rejected from both, he attended Cal State Long Beach – but left just before graduation after he was offered a movie deal. Many Oscars, BAFTA wins and Golden Globes later, Spielberg returned to Cal State Long Beach to complete his degree in 2002. Finally, even future United States Presidents have been rejected from colleges. Harry S. Truman was rejected from West Point – although it was due to his poor eyesight and not bad grades or less-than-stellar test scores. He went on to attend business college in Kansas City but dropped out because he lacked the money to attend. Ultimately, he secured the title of President of the United States without a college degree, states Money. Barack Obama also received a college rejection letter in the mail. Swarthmore denied the future President admission into the school (joke’s on them), and he opted to attend Occidental College. He later transferred to Columbia University.

Is Getting Wait-Listed the Same as Being Rejected?

Not necessarily. However, if you did receive a college waitlist notification, you can’t remain in limbo until the university makes a decision. You need to move forward in a few ways. First, you can accept a spot on the waitlist. This tells the college that you’re still interested should they be able to offer you admission. At the same time, you should put a deposit down to attend your second choice school. Getting on the wait list at your first choice is in no way a guarantee that you’ll eventually be accepted. In fact, depending on the school, your chances of gaining admission can sometimes be pretty slim. With that, update your wait list college with any pertinent information to your initial admissions application. If your GPA has increased or you scored better on the most recent SAT, let them know. Anything that has improved you as a student should be made clear to the admissions committee. This is also the perfect time to let them know that you’re still interested in attending. Lastly, use this waiting time as a chance to consider whether your wait list school is still your #1 choice – or if you’re willing to accept a spot at another school. When the time comes to notify either institution, you’ll be ready. If you do make it off the wait list (congratulations!), you must notify any other college where you had placed a deposit. You won’t get the deposit back, but it’s likely worth it to you to wind up where you want to be in the first place.

Soldiering On After the College Rejection Letter

The old saying is true: things happen for a reason. If you asked any of the above celebrities and politicians if they would have preferred to get admitted into their first choice college, they would likely tell you that they wouldn’t change history. Their stories – as well as countless other unknown biographies – help to show that there is life after a college rejection letter – as well as purpose. The journey to and through the college experience molds you into the person you will be; let it take you to surprising places and find joy in what happens next.

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