College Rejection and Mental Health

Raquel BermejoAssociate Vice President, Market Research and PlanningMay 11, 2023
College Rejection and Mental Health: Male student leaning his head against a white board in frustration
The current mental health crisis has made rejection even harder to take.

May is college decision time, and we can’t think of a more emotional time in college planning than these next few weeks. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, we at RNL wanted to reflect on the less popular side of the admissions process—the rejections.

Rejection is a natural part of any application process. Rejections are also part of life. By the time a student reaches 12th grade, they probably already experienced at least a couple of rejections, some that may have been crushing—they may not have made it on to the cheerleading squad, were cut from a team, or did not get the part in a school play they really wanted. However, a college rejection brings rejection to a whole new emotional level.

Let’s examine some of the facts we know about our high school students and their emotional health:

  • According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 31.9 percent of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 in the United States experience an anxiety disorder at some point, and the American Psychological Association reports 70 percent of high school students cited anxiety and depression as a significant problem among their peers.
  • The Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of teenagers saw mental health as a significant issue facing their peers, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 7.4 percent of teens reported having made a suicide attempt in the past 12 months. In addition, 19.8 percent reported seriously considering attempting suicide.
  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that one in five youth aged 13-18 experience a severe mental disorder, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that in 2020, more than 60 percent of high school students reported feeling “nervous, anxious, or on edge” for two or more weeks; more than 40 percent reported feeling sad or hopeless.

With deadlines for admissions decisions in May, mental and emotional health should be top of mind for anyone living, supporting, and taking care of students in 12th grade and applying to college. It is going to be emotional, no matter what.

RNL and ZeeMee are conducting an ongoing research project to understand how students in 12th grade from across the US feel about college planning activities. We will offer a preview at the RNL National Conference in July, and the report will be released in late September. You can also read more about our research in my earlier blog, Emotions and College Planning.

Here is what we have learned so far from the 7,000 12th-grade students we have surveyed:

  • Nearly 56 percent are stressed and anxious about not knowing if they are going to get in anywhere.
  • 58 percent are anxious about not knowing when they are going to hear about their college acceptance
  • 56 percent are stressed about not knowing if they will get into their first choice.

We understand that rejections are part of life and are most certainly part of admissions. But are there things we could be doing to help students understand, cope, and move on from these rejections? And from the “not knowing” that seems to stress students so much?

Tips for colleges to address rejection with students

First, let’s get this message out to all students, admitted and rejected: a college admission rejection does not define your worth or future success.

Offer feedback: Providing specific feedback on why a student was not accepted can help them understand what areas they need to work on and improve for future applications. This can also help alleviate feelings of confusion and frustration.

Help high schools create a supportive environment for the college admissions/rejections process: Creating a supportive and inclusive environment can help students feel valued and that their worth is not solely based on their admission status. This can include offering emotional health resources, peer support, opportunities for involvement and engagement on campus, and even help apply to other schools after the decisions are in. Plenty of schools accept applications well into the summer—do high school counselors know about those? Ensure they know if you are one of those institutions still accepting applicants.

To alleviate some of the other cause of stress, the students mentioned in our study (not knowing when they will hear) strive for clear and transparent communication. Being transparent about the admissions process, including the criteria used to make decisions and the timeline, can help students understand first when they can expect to hear from you and why they may not have been accepted. This can also help alleviate feelings of uncertainty and lack of control.

Every step of the way, communication with students should express empathy and encouragement, no matter the decision.

Tips to share with parents about communicating with students

Ever thought about communicating information to the parents to help them help their students deal with rejections?

First and foremost, remind the parents to remember that this is not about them; it’s about their students! A rejection can make a student feel rotten, often because they feel they have let their families down when they are turned away from a college. Encourage parents to ask students questions and talk to them about their feelings.

Now that the rejections are behind them (in some cases, families/students may be dealing with multiple rejections), encourage parents to help their students move on.

To see how some students and their teachers have taken it upon themselves to creatively deal with college rejections, watch how these students had a rejection party! We love this as a way to channel the disappointment of rejection into something positive.

RNLNC 2023 graphic
See our session at RNLNC.

I invite you to join us at the RNL National Conference July 25-27 to see our session with ZeeMee. The conference offers 130 sessions on student success, marketing and recruitment, financial aid and more, so you’ll also find plenty of sessions that will provide great ideas and insights to take back to campus. I hope to see you there!

About the Author

Dr. Raquel Bermejo

Dr. Raquel Bermejo analyzes existing search, inquiry, and conversion data in addition to conducting original research with college-seeking students and parents to understand trends and student behaviors. Her research informs and enhances the services the...

Read more about Raquel's experience and expertise

Reach Raquel by e-mail at Raquel.Bermejo@RuffaloNL.com.

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