We regret to inform you …. Those five words on a college rejection letter can send high school seniors spiraling. Teens tend to take college rejection as a judgment on themselves—not just on their academic abilities but on who they are as a person. Failing to get into their dream school can undermine students’ confidence and self-worth, leading to what’s sometimes referred to as college rejection depression.
While getting depressed from college rejection is usually temporary, it can sometimes have lasting effects. For teens who struggle with self-esteem or negative thinking, rejection from college can feel like yet one more thing that isn’t working in their life. And for those with existing anxiety or depression, a college rejection can make symptoms worse. It may even increase suicidal thoughts or behavior.
In this article, we’ll look at the reasons college rejection hits teens so hard and examine the link between college rejection and mental health issues. We’ve also provided tips for how to handle college rejection. Parents, school professionals, and mental health providers can help young people who are dealing with college rejection to move on and embrace the good news.
- Perfectionism, fear of disappointing others, and not being used to failure can contribute to feeling depressed after college rejection.
- Teens with rejection sensitivity may experience a college rejection letter as a trauma trigger.
- Some teens could have a higher risk of suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide after college rejection.
- If depressive symptoms continue, mental health assessment and treatment are essential.
Where Does College Rejection Depression Come From?
What causes teen’s intense reactions to college rejection? There are many reasons why getting into college—or not getting in—is such a significant and emotional event for young people. Here are some of the factors that can contribute to college rejection depression.
Being Unused to Failure
Not getting into their dream college is sometimes the first big rejection a teen or young adult experiences. That’s particular true if they’ve been protected by helicopter parents who worked hard to keep them from feeling the sting of failure and rejection.
It’s natural for parents to want to protect their kids from difficult emotions and experiences. However, when kids don’t get a chance to fail, they may not have the resilience and coping skills for dealing with college rejection.
For teens with perfectionistic tendencies, a college rejection letter can feel like the end of the world. Many teen perfectionists have been working toward getting into their dream schools for years. They may have been attending competitive schools and taking honors courses. Some might have taken the SATs multiple times in order to get the best possible test scores to include in their college applications.
Not making the cut may seem to them like proof that their very best isn’t enough. For students who pride themselves on their academic accomplishments, a rejection can feel devastating. Sensitive teens who believe school is the only thing they’re good at are more likely to experience college rejection depression.
College Acceptance Jealousy
Seeing others getting into their dream school can be extremely painful for high school students. While they’re mourning a rejection, they’re surrounded by others who are celebrating their successes. And when they’re asked the inevitable question, “So, did you get in?,” they have keep admitting “I got rejected.” Sure, they may be happy for their friends. But having to watch them receive congratulations and praise really hurts for a rejected student.
Others’ Expectations, Real or Perceived
Sometimes college rejection depression is less about high school students’ own disappointment and more about their fear of disappointing others. They may see teachers, parents, siblings, or other mentors or family members as having high expectations of them. Whether that’s true or not, teens can feel intense shame and embarrassment if they get rejected from a selective school. Moreover, they may worry that the people they so badly wanted to please will now think less of them.
Fear About the Future
For some teens, a college rejection can feel like an omen of what’s to come. Teens tend to think in black and white. So they may see a college rejection letter as a sign that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in their life and career. That’s completely untrue, of course. But the adolescent brain is still in development. Therefore, executive functions like perspective and logical reasoning aren’t usually among teenagers’ strong points.
Craving for Belonging and Acceptance
Teens are hardwired to strive for approval and acceptance. The desire to be liked and to belong is a huge part of adolescent development. (That’s part of what drives teen social media addiction.) Therefore, rejection in general—whether from a crush, a sports team, or a college—can hurt terribly. In fact, studies show that rejection in adolescence activates the same parts of the brain as physical pain.
The 5 Stages of College Rejection
Some experts believe that there are 5 stages of college rejection, which mirror the 5 stages of grief.
Stage 1: Denial
“There must have been a mistake! This has to be the wrong letter. There’s no way I got rejected!”
Stage 2: Anger
“How could they possibly reject me? I worked so hard! This is totally not fair!”
Stage 3: Bargaining
“There’s got to be some way I can get in. Maybe I can appeal or get on the waitlist.”
Stage 4: Depression
“Being rejected from my dream school is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
Stage 5: Acceptance
“So I got rejected. But these other schools that accepted me actually look really good …”
Does College Rejection Cause Depression?
As we’ve seen, a college rejection letter can bring up all of a teen’s worries and fears about their self-worth and their future. But does getting rejected from your dream school actually cause depression?
That depends. For many teens, sadness about getting rejected from college will pass in a matter of days. That’s particularly true if they have other good options to get excited about. But for adolescents who struggle with low self-esteem, perfectionism, self-doubt, or anxiety, college rejection can make things worse. And for those who have been previously diagnosed with clinical depression, a college rejection letter has the potential to catalyze a depressive episode or even a mental health crisis.
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria
Some teens have what’s called rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD). RSD is a heightened response to rejection, resulting from low self-esteem and high levels of insecurity. This disorder often arises from childhood trauma and is linked with attachment issues and depression. People with RSD may have experienced repeated rejection as a child, perhaps from a parent who was unable to fulfill their emotional needs. Hence, they have an extreme reaction to perceived criticism or rejection as they get older.
Research shows that sensitivity to rejection increases an adolescent’s vulnerability to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. Therefore, for teens and young adults with rejection sensitivity, a college rejection letter can represent a significant risk to mental health.
Can a College Rejection Letter Increase the Risk of Teen Suicide?
Some young people could have a higher risk of suicide attempts or thinking about suicide after college rejection. Research shows that rejection and stress can increase the likelihood of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. A 2020 meta-analyis found that stressful life events were associated with a 37 percent increase in the risk of suicidal behaviors and a 45 percent increase in the risk for suicidal ideation. This association was more pronounced in young adults and males.
In another study, vulnerability to rejection was isolated as a significant factor in the death by suicide of 10 young men who had no previous history of mental health conditions or suicide attempts. Furthermore, a study with teens found that the risk of suicide attempts may be highest in the 30 days following a significant experience of rejection.
In most cases, high school students who receive rejection letters are not at risk of suicide unless they have an existing mental health condition or are vulnerable to mental health issues. Unfortunately, however, a high percentage of adolescents fits this description. According to a new CDC report, 1 in 10 high school students attempted suicide in 2021. Moreover, 30 percent of females seriously considered attempting suicide that year—a 60 percent increase from 10 years previous. And among LGBQ+ students, 22 percent attempted suicide and 45 percent seriously considered an attempt.
Consequently, parents and other mentors should not brush off or ignore teen’s reactions to rejection letters. Depression after college rejection should be taken seriously and needs to be treated by a mental health professional if symptoms continue.
7 Ways to Support a Teen Dealing with College Rejection
Parents, teachers, school guidance counselors, and other family members and mentors can support teens in dealing with college rejection. And they can help them celebrate their wins and embrace what comes next, even when it’s not what they were expecting. Here are seven approaches for how to handle college rejection.
Let Them Grieve the Dream
It’s okay to feel depressed about a college rejection. Don’t ridicule teens’ emotions or push them to get past it. Allow them to vent about it, cry about it, or just be bummed out for a while, without judging them or their reaction.
Ultimately, it will be easier for them to move on from a college rejection letter if they’ve allowed themselves to feel all the feelings, with your support and validation.
Support Them in Exploring Alternatives
If your teen got rejected by one or more highly selective schools, they may want to appeal the admissions decisions. The college admissions committee at many competitive schools will reconsider college applications from a rejected student. (But encourage your teen to be realistic. If they don’t have strong grounds for an appeal, restarting the application process could lead to another rejection and an extended period of grieving.)
Hopefully your teen has backup schools they were accepted to. If not, they can start the application process again with other schools. Many colleges have longer application deadlines or rolling admissions. Attending community college or taking a gap year are also good options. Help teens assess their goals and take steps from there.
Encourage Them to Connect, Not Compare
Teens are not alone in experiencing college rejection, particularly if they applied to elite universities. For example, Harvard University accepted only 3 percent of applicants for its class of 2026—a record low. Remind them that everyone has different strengths, and that comparing themselves to a classmate who did get into a highly selective school isn’t useful. Encourage them to spend time with others who are also feeling the pain of college rejection, not just those who got acceptance letters.
Also, if you think it would be welcomed, you might mention some of the many people who didn’t get into their dream schools and still ended up having an amazing career. To name just a few: Steven Spielberg was rejected from the University of Southern California’s film school. Tina Fey was rejected from Princeton University. And Barack Obama was rejected from Swarthmore.
Be Aware of Your Own Reaction
Parents always want their kids to achieve all their goals and be recognized for the incredible people they are. And they hate to see their kids suffering or feeling “less than.” It’s awful to see your child hurting. That’s one reason why parents sometimes try to dismiss or overlook their teens’ difficult emotions.
But in the case of college rejections, it’s important for parents to look at their own reactions, too. What expectations and hopes did you have for your teen? Did you imagine them attending your alma mater before they got rejected? Were you looking forward to telling friends and family that your teen received acceptance letters to all the schools they applied to? Be honest with yourself about how your teen’s college rejections make you feel. Then put those emotions aside and focus on helping your child get through this challenging time.
Remind Them They Are So Much More Than Their College Applications
It may be hard for a rejected student to believe, but a college rejection letter is not a statement on their academic ability or potential to thrive at highly selective schools. According to college admissions officers, as many as two-thirds of rejected students are fully equipped to succeed at their schools. Sometimes the reasons one applicant got in and not another are arbitrary.
Furthermore, a college rejection letter is not a judgment on a teen’s personality, likeability, or worthiness. Remind them that they are so much more than their test scores and college applications. The admissions committee considered a very limited facet of who they are. A college rejection doesn’t consider—and can’t negate—all the beautiful things about them: their sense of humor, kindness, resilience, creativity, curiosity, and so much more.
Help Them Embrace the Good News
Along with rejection letters, it’s likely your teen also received some acceptance letters from other schools. Maybe these weren’t their dream schools, but one of those “safety schools” could end up being the perfect fit. There’s a reason they chose those schools to apply to as backups. And there’s a reason those schools chose them and are excited about welcoming them to the freshman class. In fact, excelling at less elite universities can be less stressful and ultimately more satisfying than striving to keep up at more selective schools.
Furthermore, research by the Stanford-affiliated nonprofit Challenge Success shows that attending a selective school is not more likely to result in future job satisfaction or well-being. The report found that engaging fully in the college experience is the most important factor for success, regardless of the school you go to. For example, after getting rejected from Princeton, Tina Fey went to the University of Virginia. The actor, writer, and director has said she “found her home” in the drama department there and had a “wonderful experience.”
Access Additional Support
For teens who can’t shake college rejection depression, mental health support may be the next step. A high school guidance counselor, pediatrician, or family physician can recommend local therapists or treatment centers.
Because depression from college rejection may be a sign of more serious issues, it’s very important to access care as quickly as possible. A mental health professional can help identify underlying issues like trauma and PTSD, clinical depression, or anxiety. Once they determine a diagnosis, they can recommend the right level of care.
Treatment for Depression and Anxiety at Newport Academy
At Newport Academy, our clinical model supports teens to gain self-worth and self-esteem that isn’t connected to academic achievement or acceptance letters. If your teen is struggling with depression after college rejection, contact us for an assessment at no charge. If Newport isn’t the right place for your teen and family, we’ll help you find a program that is—one that we have personally vetted.
We also work closely with school professionals, doctors, and mental health providers. Our National Clinical Outreach team can assist with referrals and placement, and help families navigate the insurance process. Learn more about how we partner with school and healthcare professionals to help teens get the care they need.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it common to consider suicide after college rejection?
Any stressful event increases the likelihood that an individual will have suicidal thoughts. And receiving a rejection letter is a stressful event. Therefore, parents, school professionals, and healthcare providers should take depression after college rejection seriously, and ensure teens get the support they need.
Is it normal to be depressed after rejection from college?
Getting depressed from college rejection is common. However, if college rejection depression does not get better, a mental health assessment can help a teen and family determine whether more serious mental health issues are occurring.
How do you deal with being rejected from college?
First, give yourself some time to grieve the loss of your dream school. Then shift your mindset to focus on your college acceptance letters and the many other schools that can offer an exciting and meaningful experience.
How do I stop being depressed after rejection?
Self-care and positive thinking can help ease depressive feelings for rejected students. However, teens or young adults who are continuing to experience depression from college rejection should access mental health support. Depression from college rejection may actually be clinical depression that needs to be addressed with treatment.
What are the 5 stages of rejection?
Some experts believe the 5 stages of rejection mirror the 5 stages of grief. These could be applied to the college rejection experience. The first stage is denial: They must have sent me the wrong letter! Second is anger: How could they reject me, I worked so hard! Next comes bargaining, which might mean appealing a college rejection. Stage 4 is depression. And the final stage is acceptance—moving on to consider other schools or other options.
Can rejection give you PTSD?
Being repeatedly rejected by parents or caregivers as a child is a form of trauma. And being bullied or rejected by peers as an adolescent is also traumatic. Individuals who have experienced these types of trauma may develop PTSD or a condition known as rejection sensitivity or rejection sensitive dysphoria. As a result, experiencing other rejections can trigger their trauma.
Can you appeal a college rejection?
Many colleges, including some highly selective schools, will consider appeals to the admissions officers’ decisions. Students can call the college admissions office to get answers to their questions about appealing a rejection and restarting the application process.
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