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April 5, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 75

How Do I Help My Teen Deal With College Rejections?

Episode 75

Not getting into desired colleges can be devastating for teens and their parents. How can you help your child move past what feels like a major life setback? Dr. Lisa provides language that might be helpful in navigating this delicate moment. What do you say to friends and neighbors who put teens or their parents in an uncomfortable spot? Reena asks how you can help teens deal with feeling disappointed – and perhaps bitter about where other classmates got in – especially when they’ve put in a lot of hard work. Dr. Lisa also reminds parents that, regardless of where teens are going to college, there may still be work to do to get them ready for freshman year.

April 5, 2022 | 28 min

Transcript | How Do I Help My Teen Deal With College Rejections?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 75: How Do I Help My Teen Deal With College Rejections?


The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.


REENA: Oh boy, it’s that time of year. People find out what school they got in to.


LISA: And didn’t get into.


REENA: And didn’t get into.


LISA: Oh, Reena, you know that I’ve been living in this this year.


REENA: I know. You have a senior.


LISA: I do.


REENA: And you found out early decision. What has this year been like?


LISA: Well, she got in where she wanted to go early. So, Reena, I’ll tell you, we got off easy, and I’m thrilled for my kid and yet, you know the beat goes on. I am very aware of kids who are not getting outcomes they want. I’m hearing from my kid about what’s happening with all of her friends. Reena, you know sometimes we say it’s a lot? It’s a lot.


REENA: I know. And I’m a horrible test taker. I’m the Indian kid who would never get into medical school or law school because I’m so bad at test taking.


LISA: Well, I don’t know if you’re bad at test taking, but you’re in the right job.


REENA: So, back to these college students, Lisa. I’ve got to say, we got this letter, and I’m realizing now doing this podcast how many parents are in this boat, and it says: ‘Dear Dr. Lisa,  my son just learned that he did not get into any of his top college choices. He’s been admitted to three solid schools and I’m sure he’ll be fine at any one of them, but how do I help him deal with his disappointment in the meantime? Also, to make matters worse, one of my son’s classmates got into one of the schools my son really wanted to go to. My son has known this kid forever and can’t understand why he got in and my son did not. What should I say to my son about that? Please help. Thank you.’ I’m guessing this is the only one going through this right now.


LISA: No, I think this parent’s in a very large club, and admittedly we’re talking about families with the kind of privilege and latitude that lets them go to college and also lets them apply to lots and lots of schools for college. So, we are talking about privileged problems but for the families that have them this is very painful and very real.


REENA: Yeah, so how do you deal with this disappointment because this is like a major chapter of your life, right?


LISA: It is, and it stinks. I mean it stinks, Reena, and I think part of how you deal with it, you just turn and face it. You just say, yeah, man, this did not go down the way you wanted it to go down and because we love you and we want you to have what you want, we’re going to but bummed on your behalf. We know you’ll be a great adult, we’re not worried about that at all, but yeah, you had your heart set on a few places and just the chips didn’t fall the way we wanted them to fall, and it’s lousy. I mean, I think just saying it, and the thing is we have this kind of corny saying in psychology, if you can name it, you can tame it.


REENA: Ooh. I like that.


LISA: It’s good, and it’s good for times like this because if you’re like, no, I’m sure it’s fine and you’ll be okay, if you’re doing all that the kid’s like, okay this is actually bad. Whereas, if you’re like, yep this stinks, and it sounds like they did the smart thing in terms of how they did the admissions process where he has good options anyway. I’ve sometimes seen kids who’ve applied for ambitious schools trusting they’ll get into one of them and then one safety school and then they’re stuck with the one safety school and have no options. So, the boy has choices and one thing that can help if they have the resources and the time is if he hasn’t seen the schools, and a lot of these kids are actually not done a lot of touring of these campuses because they’ve been shut down.


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: One way to recover from this moment is to be like, man this stinks, buddy, I get it. I’m so sorry. You know you’re gonna be okay, I know you’re going to be okay, but that doesn’t make this feel better, but then to go visit the schools he got into and, Reena, there’s something kind of beautiful about college campuses end of April or early May if this is available, and what it does is it can pivot attention away from what you didn’t get to what you can have and colleges are amazing. All colleges are amazing, and in the abstract we can get really caught on certain colleges or certainly high reputation colleges can have a lot of power in our minds, but if you could almost any college campus in the U.S. I mean these were extraordinary institutions, whether they’re highly ranked or the kind of names people throw around, they are wonderful places and for most high schoolers they’re  like, okay this is pretty cool, it may not have been my first choice but I can get behind this.


REENA: I also find that people forget you’ve got the option of being able to transfer. I know it’s a pain, but sometimes it’s easier to get to other schools once you’ve started. So, it doesn’t mean that if you don’t like the school, you’re wedded to it for four years, right?


LISA: Absolutely, and I think that is something that you can say. You can say look, why don’t we go, if we can, check out the schools that you’re in to, see if you can find one that really feels like it rings your bell, and if you get there and you’re not happy, you can take another swing at this. And one thing I think parents don’t always appreciate is that a lot of high schools, public, private, parochial, the college counseling staff will continue to work with you post graduation.


REENA: Really?


LISA: Yeah. It’s worth asking if your kid gets to college and is unhappy, it’s worth going back to your kid’s high school and saying, can you help us with another round of applications? And, you know they may say no, but a lot of them will do it, and so it’s okay to put the possibility of transferring on the table, and the way I usually see that play out, Reena, is that early days at college, okay maybe like this isn’t where I want to be, I’m going to transfer and they start the transfer process, and the transfer process happens in on a different timeline than the regular process, and they may even get in to places and then they often have a choice about whether to leave or stay, and this is all very extended and they’ve now been at the school for a lot longer, a lot of kids end up staying where they were. They’ve made friends or they’ve found where they want to be in that school, but what’s kind of neat about it, Reena, is if they decide to stay where they were, they like it better because now they chose it. Now they feel like, nope, I decided against that school that I thought I wanted to go to and I have decided to stay here. So, I would even say to parents if your kid’s thinking about the transfer process, be open to supporting it because it doesn’t mean they’re transferring. It may help them feel better about where they are.


REENA: That’s good to know. I’ve got to ask you about this kid who got into the school that he really wanted to get into. That’s painful, Lisa. That’s hard.


LISA: It is, and this, Reena, this is like a constant.I mean I would say there’s not a high school in America where this isn’t going on with a decent percentage of kids, and what’s really hard in these moments is seniors each other pretty well. I mean do you remember? By the time you’re a senior in high school, you kind of have the drop on everyone.


REENA: Especially if it’s a small town and you guys have gone to school together since elementary. Yeah, definitely.


LISA: Exactly, so sometimes kids are like wait, him? Or her? Like why would you take that kid, and I think the pivot that is so hard for kids to make is to understand that the criteria colleges are using to decide who comes are very different criteria. They’re working with very different data than the high schooler is working with. So, the high schoolers are working with information about how hard that classmates works or works or what it’s like to be with a classmate or how they measure up against that classmate on whatever yardsticks the high schooler is thinking of. The college is picking who they need to fill various roles at the school, and that’s the thing that parents should start to make very clear to their high school juniors, that when you are applying to college, yes they ask you for this set of things that you can control, your grades, your scores, your extracurriculars or whatever, and you may be quite dazzling on those things, that, you know that these are what we ask of you to produce. When the college admissions office is sitting there trying to figure out who’s coming, they’re like, all right, we need a 6’5 kid for crew someone to fill the oboe chair of the symphony and we need enough kids from the Midwest and we definitely need more kids from Hawaii this year, we’ve been really low on that. That they are coming in with this set of putting together a class that fills the needs of the university, and the needs of the university should be honored here, right? They want a diverse class in a million ways, they want kids that represent a wide range of backgrounds, a wide range of geographies they’re coming from, and then a wide range of skill sets so that all of their classes that they need to have populated get populated, so the kids are taking the subjects that are being offered, and so it may come down to things like, what that kid’s major is, and what the kids said his major would be and that may be the thing that worked for him getting into the college, and it just didn’t happen to work for the boy in this letter, and so high schoolers, they’re not thinking in that way because they’ve always been measuring themselves against one another and then a whole new set of criteria are at work that are often pretty opaque to them, and so it just makes them feel really bitter is the bottom line. That’s the bottom line, Reena.


REENA: Yeah, but can I tell you? You explaining this to me about the different things that colleges look for makes me feel better. Lisa, you enlighten me. We do these Instagram Lives on Friday at 3 p.m. Eastern where parents bring questions and we get to talk to the community, and I had asked you something about your daughter getting into college or something and you helped me understand, as a parent who does not have a child near the college process, there are things you do and don’t say to a parent who is going through this process, but what about a parent whose kid didn’t get into the school they wanted to and now you’ve got to deal with everyone who’s wondering about the school your kid got it to?


LISA: Yeah. Then there’s the public facing side of this. So, there’s the misery in your own kitchen, right? With your unhappy kid and helping your kid understand, look, the reason that kid got in has nothing to do with what you did or didn’t do. The college chose what they needed, they will take as many kids from high school as they want, you were not up against that kid, it is what it is. Okay, so then there’s the neighbors right? With the, oh, what’s happening with, let’s say this kid’s name is Bobby, what’s happening with Bobby? Okay, so the first thing we have to remember is these are well meaning questions, and I think sometimes people can feel like the question is, did your kid get into a fancy college? I’m very curious. Often the question is, I’ve watched Bobby grow up his whole life. I love that kid. I am invested in that kid, and because I care about the kid I’m very curious about his next step. You know, often it’s quite neutral, and I think we want to remember that because it doesn’t feel natural in our homes and it doesn’t feel neutral in our hearts at these moments, and so I think where they are right now, they may say, you know he’s got some great choices and still deciding. Like that’s as much information as anybody needs to know. What if it’s a nosy neighbor though, Reena, one who makes it weird? One who’s like, oh Bobby’s so amazing, is he going to Harvard, Yale or Princeton? You know something awful like that, right? And then the parent’s in a bit of a pickle because the person has actually made this strange. I would hope no one would ever actually say anything like that, but if it’s something along those lines where it feels there’s a little bit of checking to see if there is a dazzling outcome, I think then the parent has to absolutely stick up for their kid, and say, you know, he is going to a school that is the perfect fit for him and we could not be prouder. That’s the end of that conversation.


REENA: Oh my god. Stop. Hold everything. This is a great line. He is going to a school that is the perfect fit for him. I love that because you know what? I love these lines you give us because it’s like holding a grenade in your hand and you figured out how to diffuse it before the grenade goes off. I love Lisa language. Lisa language is my favorite. It’s so good.


LISA: Well, you know I’m much better at probably generating it for other people than in my day-to-day, but if I can be of use, I’m very happy. And I think just, and we’re so proud of him, and then you just end it. Like you make it clear, we’re not having this conversation anymore, and then then there’s of course the interactions, especially as parents around, or adults around high schoolers when we meet a high school senior, and of course the first thought on my mind is like, where are you going to college, and like just don’t, right? Just don’t, and again, it may be coming from a place of like because I’ve known you your whole life and I’m just excited about your next step, there’s nothing judgey or measuring behind this.


REENA: So, give me some Lisa language because I was just at my alma mater, GW, last month and excited and meeting with seniors and excited about what their plans are next, and realizing you know what? I didn’t know what my plan was until six months after I graduated from that school. What’s language when you know you’re dealing with a senior in high school going on to college, what can I say that keeps it open ended and doesn’t put pressure on them about schools?


LISA: That’s a great question. I think we can ask questions like, what are your plans for the  summer, right? That’s a perfectly reasonable question. Or what are you planning to study, right? And they may say, I don’t know, and you can say, that’s great. You can go in with eyes wide open to all the possibilities. I think those are great ones. If you do end up learning more about where they’re going to be, just be like, oh, Nashville, that’s such a cool town. You’re going to so enjoy this, this and this. I mean just be where they are. The most important thing, Reena, on this one is what you don’t say, and here’s what you don’t say, and this, I really feel strongly about this, do not tell kids that college is the best four years of their life.


REENA: Oh my god. I do that all the time. I do that all the time because I love college. I’m like, oh my god this is the best four years of your life. I say that to everybody.


LISA: Okay, don’t do that anymore. Here’s why. Here’s why. Because first of all, for a kid like this who didn’t get in where they wanted to go, now that feels even worse. Like, well they were going to be the best four years if I’d gotten in where I wanted to go, but now they’re just going to be four years, right? So you won’t always know if that’s in the background, but then the other thing is, they’re just the next four years of a kid’s life, and they’re going to have good days and bad days. In my experience, I was very stressed through college, Reena, like I liked college. I would go again where I went. It was the right place for me and I was lucky to get in, but I also knew I was going to grad school in clinical psych, and the preparation for that is actually weirdly demanding and I also was under prepared for my high school. So, for me, college was actually a pretty taxing experience and I don’t know if I had it in my head like it was supposed to be the best for years, but if I had I think that would have made the taxing aspects of it that much more unpleasant for me because I thought, oh man, these are supposed to be the best for years and actually I spend a lot of the time feeling a little overwhelmed, and so that means it’s all downhill from here, like that’s the worst, you know, so I just think to say things like, you’re going to learn and grow, you’re going to meet kids from all over, this is a really cool opportunity and I know you, you’re going to make the most of it. Something like that that can be really heartfelt and kind. The other thing I just want to say on the positive side of this, Reena, it has been so beautiful to watch my daughter’s cohort be so good to each other through this process.


REENA: You don’t always get that.


LISA: Yeah you don’t. Sometimes you hear about the more cutthroat side and this boy in this letter, his understandable disappointment, but I have to tell you, Reena, in my daughter’s friend group, and I don’t think she’s in some very unusual group. I think this is a not rare thing, when kids are getting in, like their friends are posting these beautiful montages celebrating them, so happy, so excited, and I just I always want to give voice how good teenagers are and how kind they can be, and yeah there can be some ugly stuff around college, but I would tell you based on what I’ve been able to observe, we hear about the ugly stuff but I think it is vastly outweighed by a lot of decency and kindness and heartfelt celebration of any variety of outcomes.


REENA: That’s so nice to hear, so nice to hear. I’m just curious though, what else do you think we can do to help kids with disappointing outcomes?


LISA: Well, here’s how I think about it and then let’s see if we can come to some language about how to talk to kids about it. You know, I think we get the idea, teenagers get the idea, that they’re these outcomes that we’re trying to get to, whether it’s like a fancy career or making money or something like that, and that there’s a straight path that can get us there, and often kids have put the schools they want to go to on that very straight path, but, Reena, you know that’s actually not how most adults arrive at the mid life experience, right? It’s a windier path than that. So, when the kid’s feeling really down about a college outcome, I think often what’s behind it is they’re like, oh man I was knocked off of my trajectory. Like I had this plan and now you know step for my plan has been disrupted, I won’t get to the steps down beyond that, and so the more we can disabuse kids of that idea that there’s a straight path to these glorious outcomes, the better, and one of the best ways to do that is to get teenagers to ask adults they respect about their first job.


REENA: Really?


LISA: Yes, and it is so helpful because if you think about it, Reena, this is a really interesting dynamic that happens for teenagers. So, I’m 51. You know my daughter’s off to college, her friends are off to college. I’m mid-career. I’ve been able to do the same thing now for a long time and so I’m good at it, like I’ve had time to get good at it, and same for you, right? Like you’ve been doing what you’ve been doing now for a long time until you’re established in your skill set, and what we have to remember is that teenagers don’t see what happened between point a and point b. When we were 18 and now when we’re you know mid-career, and so they miss all of the kind of messiness that occurred.


REENA: Yeah, good point.


LISA: Yeah, it’s really interesting and so I think the more that we can introduce into conversation how windy people’s paths were. You know, like oh, so and so our friend, Mark who you love, you know, he’s a really good lawyer now but you know what? His first job was? He was a waiter. He was a waiter, and then after that he did this, and then after that he did that, and then he was a DJ for a while. Like I think I think the more we can pull back the curtain on the actual path that people take to, you know, if they’re happy in their mid-life, you know, the actual path they take to that point, it’s a great gift we can give young people. So, have some of those stories ready maybe if, and really go for the adults that your kid respects in your community.


REENA: That’s great, to help them see how long that journey was, that’s so good. And I want to say you know something that First Lady Dr. Biden made me realize. She says it’s the best kept secret, which are community colleges.


LISA: What we’re trying to do is help young people cultivate themselves to grow and learn. So, so long as people are growing and learning, that’s what matters. People can go to Ivy League schools and not grow and learn, and people can go to wonderful community colleges and grow and learn and cultivate themselves tremendously.


REENA: You know I know we’re talking sort of at the end and colleges, but I’ve got to tell you, I still have a pit in my stomach throughout this episode of thinking about my kids who are in elementary school in a long road ahead. How do we take pressure off early on on this whole college process? Because I hate it. I hate it already. I just feel like we’ve got to rethink it. You know I don’t like tests, and is this really needed? All this pressure. How do we get them in the mind frame so they don’t have anxiety over this whole college process?


LISA: Well, okay. So, I’ve got bad news and good news. Part of it is like you can do it all right in your home, but they’re going to school with other kids, it just becomes atmospheric. So, there’s an element of it that’s very hard to insulate them from, but here’s the key thing, Reena. So much of the college process pressure gets tied up with this idea of we want our kids to be happy. So, psychologists have actually studied what makes people happy at midlife, and we use the definition of like well being in midlife, and, Reena, it’s actually not professional success and it’s not being wealthy.


REENA: Really?


LISA: No, it’s not. I mean it’s kind of amazing like those are very loosely correlated, they’re hardly correlated. It does matter that you make enough money that you are not strapped financially, that when we see people go from being below the poverty level to comfortably above it, like their happiness increases dramatically, no surprise, but then that quickly levels off  that as people become wealthier and wealthier they do not actually become happier. It’s a very flat line. So, we’ve studied what makes a person happy or have a high level of well being in midlife, and it’s three things, Reena, there are three things that matter. So, the first is that they have good relationships, that they get along well and have enriching, nurturing relationships. The second is that they do work that they find meaningful, that they think that they care about what they do, they feel that it matters, and the third is that they are competent in that work, that they do a good job of the work that they think matters. That’s what makes for adult well being and you probably notice this, like you don’t need to go to college for those things, right? Like you could do all of those things without a college degree.


REENA: So true.


LISA: Okay, so if we backward engineer that, Reena, which we have, you know, so what is it 18 or 14, 15, 16, that gets you to these adult wellbeing outcomes, it’s being a conscientious person, being a good person, like being honest and upright, that builds good relationships. That means you do meaningful work and that means you do it well, and so if you can focus on that, right? You want your kids to be useful and all grown up with good well being, just focus on that. Like are they upright? Are they decent? Are they honest? Or do they treat people well? If you put all your eggs in that basket, you’ll get the outcomes we want for our kids, and they may go to college, they may not go to college. Like there’s so much room between here and there, but what we say is that we want our kids to be happy, this is how it happens.


REENA: Wow, we went in so many directions in this podcast that I didn’t think we were going to go, but it’s been so helpful. I mean I’m not applying to colleges but I feel better already hearing from you. So what do you have for us, Lisa, for parenting to go?


LISA: I think for parenting to go, when we’re talking with kids about college, whether it’s our kid or somebody else’s kid, scrap the name. Scrap the prestige. Don’t worry about any of that. Bear very much in mind that kids can thrive anywhere, and they can also crash and burn anywhere. And what we really want to focus on is whether they’re ready for college, are they going to get there and take good advantage of what’s available to them? Can they take good care of themselves? And we want to tell them that’s our focus. We want to say, you know what? Maybe this didn’t go the way you want but you’re going to get there and you’re going to soak it up and you are going to grow and learn and that’s the point.


REENA: We sometimes forget the importance of what really is meant to come out of these life moments.

LISA: Yeah.


REENA: So true.


REENA: Well, thank you. A lot to talk about here and process, and I want to say next week, we’re going to talk about something I struggle with and have been struggling with for years. We’ve got an encore episode about how do you get your kids to do things without nagging them all the time? I’m the biggest nagger, according to my children. So we’ll have that next week. So, I’ll see you back, Lisa.


LISA: I’ll see you next week.



The advice provided here by Dr. Damour and the resources shared by her AI-powered librarian, Rosalie, will not and do not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.