College Plan B: Bouncing Back from Rejection

Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression… Acceptance.

The cycle of mourning may be new to teens who have likely not experienced much disappointment in life, but those who have recently been rejected from their top-choice college will need to embark on the cycle and move through it quickly. With many decisions already in hand and the rest coming by April 1st, it doesn’t leave much time before May 1st deposits are due to the college. Once you’ve reached the acceptance stage, you need to dig deep to come up with PLAN B.

“How Is This Possible?!”

College discussions boards are full of students in denial that they didn’t make the cut. They had the grades, the scores, a superior résumé. “Why me?” they cry. The truth is, for the most selective schools, there’s no such thing as a “shoo-in.” As an independent college counselor, I’ve never looked a student in the eye and told them an Ivy or other highly selective school was a safe bet. Furthermore, it’s entirely possible for a student who got into a selective school last year to be rejected this year; it’s all about the changing demographic of the applicant pool in a given admissions cycle. So, go ahead and get angry, but move on quickly as there’s not much time.

Bargaining—The Wait List

If you were offered space on a school’s wait list, remember there’s a reason we commonly refer to it as purgatory. It’s not necessarily a good place to be, so carefully assessing whether you should take your chance is important. Perhaps moving on is really best, even if it means letting go of your dream school. Regardless, you’ll need to forge ahead, since the most likely outcome of the wait list is not being offered a spot at the school of your dreams. Statistics vary greatly year to year, but the overall prospects are slim.

Find Common Ground

Why was it your dream school? Prestige usually tops the list. What commonality does the dream school have with others where you were accepted? When you let go of the prestige factor, something more important might surface. It may not feel like it at the moment when you are depressed about the school’s decision, but you must dig deeper to find your Plan B. Cost? Major? Location? Perhaps the details of schools visited long ago are hazy—jump back in and visit them first virtually and then, if necessary, in person.

Starting Over

A staggering 90 percent of college freshman say they are ultimately satisfied and happy with where they land for college, despite the fact that only 57 percent of students end up at their first-choice school. It’s unlikely you’ll be disappointed with your Plan B school, but starting over can still feel daunting.

Each May, the National Association of College Admission Counseling releases their annual list of schools that still have space. In 2013 there were 210 four-year colleges on the list. Decide whether one of these would be a good fit for you. If so, you’ll need to quickly apply. If not, some students opt to stay close to home and enroll in a community college with the idea of transferring to their Plan A school after a year or two. While it’s unlikely that a school that previously rejected you would want you later as a transfer, following this strategy could buy time to find other great fit schools where transferring is a possibility.

Take a Break

If you’re still unsure what to do, taking a gap year is an option that’s long been popular with European students and is a growing trend in the United States. Parents may fear that delaying college will result in never embarking on the journey, but statistics say otherwise. There are many approaches to creating a meaningful gap year. Travel abroad, intern, work, volunteer, or focus on personal growth, but the main thing to remember is: it’s not a vacation.

When you return from your gap year, colleges will want proof that your time was well spent, so record your experiences in journals, blogs, pictures, and videos. You should also be sure that the pursuits of your gap year give you time to restart the college search, application, and financial aid processes. This can get complicated if you choose to travel abroad and don’t have easy Internet access.

As tempting as it might be to lick your wounds while your friends celebrate, there simply is not time. Move to acceptance quickly then evaluate your options for a flourishing Plan B. You might just find it’s your best fit yet.


This article was written by Lisa Mader

Lisa Mader relies on extensive teaching experience, a master's-level education, and affiliation with some of the industry's most important accreditation boards to help college-bound students maximize their performance and find their best-fit college. Through her company LEAP, Lisa has helped countless families in the areas of test preparation, college selection/application, choosing a major and future career, and much more.


  1. Pam

    Hi, so my son applied to 10 school, why too many, trying to decide by aid, but he wants a school that is costly, uvm. We did get good package, but he must maintain high GPA, or esf SUNY instate, umass, uri, Delaware, Vtech. So confused. He will also use services from school. Ex time on test etc… Any hpful time on the schools themselves? Thank you

  2. Pam

    What schools do you feel are worth the money,best education

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