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What to Do When College Decisions Arrive (Hint: Don’t Panic!)

By Mir Kamin

Greetings, fellow parents of high school seniors! If your kid intends to attend college next year, chances are that you and I are occupying the same space these days—a weird limbo where college decisions are arriving and still forthcoming, ditto for scholarship and other financial aid awards, and quite possibly your kid is feeling even more overwhelmed than they were while writing applications. (This may be true even if you followed my college prep guide, made sure you busted those college application myths, and carefully considered the college application options.)

Sure, we told our kids the applications were the hard part. We may have neglected to mention that the decisions are hard, too, for some expected and other not-so-expected reasons. Here’s a quick reference guide for some of what you might be facing right now or in the days to come.

If they got rejected from their “dream” school…

… don’t panic. And tell them not to panic, too. There’s no such thing as the One Perfect School, for anyone. No such thing. Here in the US (and, I assume, in many other countries) we literally have thousands of excellent institutions of higher learning. College is about finding a good fit, but you can assume there are hundreds of schools where one might find that. And take heart: thanks to Common App and other factors which have caused a surge in college applications, the acceptance rate at many “top” schools is now less than 10% (and for the tippy-top schools, closer to 5%). That means a rejection from those schools is statistically most likely a product of numbers, geography, and/or other factors completely separate from who your kid is as a person or a student. This is not the end of the world. Remind your kid that by this time next year, they will likely be settled in and happy at another school, and possibly relieved at how everything shook out.

If they got deferred from their “dream” school…

… they may yet be accepted, but chances are slim and they should see above to get over the potential disappointment and start formulating a Plan B.

If they got waitlisted at their “dream” school…

… their chances of acceptance are very, very low. If this remains the dream, they should write a letter to the admissions department indicating their continued interest, but you should go ahead and put down a deposit someplace else. (Hey, if they get in and change plans, you lose a little money and life goes on. It’s like buying insurance; better to lose one deposit than to gamble on a maybe-acceptance and end up with no college plans at all.) If they’re offered a spot on the waitlist but this will only make them feel “stuck” and in limbo in the coming months, let them know it’s okay to turn that down. I bet there’s plenty of other schools dying to have them and where they’ll be happy and successful.

If they got rejected from all the schools to which they applied…

… their approach to college applications/academic fit was not realistic, and they need to head back to the drawing board. If these are Early Action rejections, they may yet have time to apply elsewhere under Regular Decision. If these rejections are coming in past the typical deadline, it’s time to peruse a list of colleges with rolling admissions and/or have a discussion about starting at a community college and applying for transfer, later. Again, this shouldn’t happen, but sometimes it does, and it doesn’t mean it’s time to panic. A course adjustment is called for, is all.

If they got accepted everywhere and don’t know where to accept…

… this is a wonderful conundrum to have. Seriously! Your student has options, and not being set on one school over all the rest can be a huge advantage in terms of making the most logical decision. As a family, you’ll need to consider:

  1. Total cost of attendance (figuring in everything from financial awards to travel to/from campus).
  2. Distance from home and whether that’s a factor beyond cost.
  3. Strength of department/major if they already know what they want to study.
  4. Size of school/classes and what size school your kid would thrive at.
  5. Surrounding area and general “student life” issues.


A lot of these considerations can be done via Google and discussion, but don’t forget to visit campuses, even if you’ve already visited. An “informational tour” is very different than a “prospective student overnight,” not the least of which because the former brings along a (possibly overeager) parent and the latter allows them to get the “lowdown,” student-to-student. All other things being equal, get your kid to the campuses they’re considering. And please take this time to be very honest, too—if you cannot afford a school you told them it was fine to “go ahead and apply” to, now’s the time to break the news. Chances are good you may find yourself helping them to weigh “pretty good school with great aid” against “really great school with so-so aid,” too, and again, if money is a factor, be very clear here. I don’t believe any school to be worth putting yourself or your family into crushing debt, personally.

If they got rejected from some schools and accepted to some others…

… see above. Now is not the time to get tangled up in “what if”s or “but I thought”s. Take the information—and acceptances—you have and formulate the best plan for moving forward.

If your student expected to feel happy and relieved at this point and is, instead, feeling stressed out and sad…

… please, please, please let them know that this is perfectly normal. Even if they only got rejected from one or two schools. Even if they got accepted at their dream school. Even if they got accepted to every school! This is a time of transition and uncertainty. Even the best possible outcome—getting everything you thought you wanted—brings with it the knowledge that everything is about to change, and maybe even a side-helping of “is that all there is?” Fluctuating emotions are to be expected. Nothing is wrong. And nothing—I repeat, nothing—is as important as your student’s mental well-being in these last months before they leave home. How they cope and make decisions now is a good indication of how they’ll do without you. With that in mind, your job as a parent is not to fix this for them, it’s to reassure them that everything is fine and they can and will make the right choice for themselves. (Remember: there are no “wrong” choices, only “right for right now” choices, which can be changed as needed.) If your student progresses beyond normal teenage mood swings and into genuine, lasting distress over college decisions, consider calling in some reinforcements (high school guidance counselor, other trusted adult, or even a therapist).

This should be an exciting time in your student’s life. If it’s not, stop. Take a breath. Regroup. You have time and you have options. Hopefully once your student is ready to make a decision, they (and you) will also have peace.

Photo source: Depositphotos/Ai825

More on College Planning from Alpha Mom:

  1. The Waiting is the Hardest Part of College Admissions 
  2. Senioritis? Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
  3. The Final College Reminder: Failure is Human


About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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