Reflections on the College Admission Process and Mental Health

girl holding college acceptance letter in the car with her mom

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Key Takeaways

  • Students experience stress, anxiety, depression, and even grief during the process of applying for college.
  • Parents play a key role in helping teens not to catastrophize when they receive admission rejection letters.
  • Keeping proper perspective and recognizing there are many other choices can help students bounce back after not getting into their top college choice.

The season of college acceptance letters has come to a close, and most students have made their choice of which university to attend in the fall. The conclusion of this process comes as a major relief for thousands of teens and their parents, but even though many can now take a collective exhale, lots of students are still grappling with the sting of rejection. The impact of the stress endured over the past six months should not be overlooked.

It can be grueling for kids and parents alike when it comes to the wait for college acceptance letters. If they are accepted, joy and excitement emerge. But if a kid is rejected, especially from their dream college, it is devastating. The entire experience can really cause a teen’s mental health to take a beating.

“I know the disappointment of not getting into your first-choice school has a tremendous impact on student mental health. Many of these kids have taken every possible advanced class, devoted countless hours to their extracurricular activities, and shelled out extra money for test prep tutors. Finding out that it was all not enough can be very depressing,” notes mom and homeschool teacher, Jana Strickland. She endured the application process with her son and knows the roller coaster of emotions it can bring.

Kids grapple with a lot of competition to get into college for very few slots. Applying for college can cause intense amounts of pressure and weigh heavily on a student’s mental health. It’s important to remember that proper perspective, flexibility, and the refusal to compare yourself with others can help students and parents cope with the admissions’ experience.

The Application Process

In 2017, students submitted over 10 million college applications. Admission rates range from about 5% to over 80% of all applicants, depending on the school. More selective schools offer fewer acceptances, increasing the pressure students feel.

“There were over 46,000 applications to my son’s first choice school and an admit rate of only 26%. His second and third choice school had even lower admittance rates. The demand for certain ‘must have’ colleges drives the stress and anxiety through the roof for parents and kids,” Strickland notes. “Waiting is stressful.”

While her son was fortunate to be admitted to a school he’s excited to attend, that’s not the case for everyone. It’s hard for teens to watch friends get into schools where they weren’t accepted. Those rejections can negatively impact students’ confidence, as they begin to think that something is wrong with them.

Mary Alvord, PhD

When you’re competing, parents and teens need to keep in mind that there are many factors. If your friend gets into a school and you don’t, that doesn’t mean that you’re less than.

— Mary Alvord, PhD

“When you’re competing, parents and teens need to keep in mind that there are many factors. If your friend gets into a school and you don’t, that doesn’t mean that you’re less than,” explains Mary Alvord, PhD, co-author of “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens.”

Perfect SAT or ACT scores, advanced classes, and hours of community service aren’t the only things colleges look for. The inability to figure out exactly why a student is accepted or rejected can be frustrating. But realizing that you won’t completely understand the process, and preparing for the inevitable ups and downs, can help make the ordeal of applying to college flow more smoothly.

The Mental Impact and How to Cope

Depression, stress, and anxiety are just some of the feelings kids experience when applying to college. It’s a complicated process filled with hopes and dreams, but also intense pressure and heavy doses of reality. Being rejected from a top college choice can be jarring.

“They might be feeling really sad. Maybe they’re disappointed that their grades aren’t as good as they wanted them to be,” states Dr. Alvord. “It’s almost like a grief reaction; it’s like ‘I’m not meeting expectations’,” she notes.

Mary Alvord, PhD

It’s almost like a grief reaction; it’s like ‘I’m not meeting expectations’.

— Mary Alvord, PhD

Research shows that large numbers of teens are dealing with mental health challenges before starting the college application process, which can make them more vulnerable to rejection. Over 30% of kids ages 13 to 18 have issues with anxiety. About 13% of kids ages 12 to 17 deal with depression. Additional pressure of having the perfect test scores, grades, essays, and extracurricular activities to get into college adds to the tension they feel.

In instances like these, parents’ support makes a profound difference.

“I think parents need to validate the kids’ feelings and not add to the stress. It will be really hard if you don’t get into that school, but there are other really great schools,” Dr. Alvord notes. It’s also important to make sure students have realistic expectations when making their college choices. “We don’t want them to catastrophize and get so upset that then they feel like they have failed,” she adds.

Helping kids to take their minds off of the pressure of waiting for admission letters, or the sting of rejection, is helpful. Experts also say teens should not take the rejection personally. Focusing on other options, talking to a therapist, or even activities that they enjoy can be a healthy distraction.

“We tend to break long waiting periods up into smaller ones and make sure there’s something to look forward to in between. Maybe put a weekend hike on the calendar, a bowling night, or a trip to the library for a new book—or three—to pass the time,” Strickland notes.

At the end of the day, the right outlook is key. Whether the college on their radar pans out or not, staying positive about future options now will make a world of difference later.

“First and foremost, keep perspective. There is no perfect college,” Strickland concludes.

What This Means For You

Being rejected is hard. And it hurts. After working hard for years on grades, activities, and tests, it’s understandable for kids to feel discouraged when they don’t get into a certain college.

Help your teens to redirect their focus to the options they have available, and to recognize that they have a bright future ahead. Give them the perspective they need and the proper balance to maintain good mental health throughout the process.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pew Research Center. A majority of U.S. Colleges admit most students who apply.

  2. Office of Population Affairs. Mental health for adolescents.