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What to Do When Someone You Love Gets Rejected from Their Dream School (Personal Essay)

And what to do when you go to their dream school.

The Build-Up to Broken Dreams

Our family has been anticipating the result of my sister’s Duke Early Decision application. She spent the better half of a year working on her personal statement and supplemental essays. I watched her anxieties grow with every new edit. She often asked me to “chance” her for admissions, and I never knew what to say.

I sincerely believed that she deserved a spot in the incoming class (not just because she’s my sister). She’s smart, artistic, industrious, kind-hearted, and athletic. But I had no way of knowing what the outcome would be.

Admissions feels like a black box. Tens of thousands of excellent applications come in, and only a select few fly out the other end. Maybe it was the jersey I bought her for Christmas, or the men’s basketball game I snuck her into my sophomore year, but she was sold. Duke was her dream school. She submitted her application in October and waited… And waited.

Finally, decision day came. My sister didn’t want me down there with her for the big moment unless the news was positive. I poked my head out of the doorway of my room to get a listen of what was happening downstairs. I counted down the seconds, watching as the clock struck 7PM.

First there was silence. Followed by disbelief, and then grief. She was rejected.

Gut Reactions

My first and foremost response was anger. How could they not accept my sister? I wanted a flamethrower, and, as far as I was concerned, the Blue Devils could go right to hell.

It’s a natural reaction. But it’s emblematic of how intense and suffocating applying to college has become.
A large part of the mental health epidemic in today’s youth is fueled by the college admissions process. In a survey of 75,000 high school students, Challenge Success, an educational research-based organization, found that over half of the responses reported an increase in their worries about the college admissions. So what do you do?

The instinct is to comfort when someone that you care about is hurt. You may be tempted to soothe them with your words or pledge to commit arson on their behalf. Maybe that’s what they need: to know that everything will be okay, that it’s not about them, and that the system sucks.

But it’s a bit more nuanced than that.

Putting Rejection into Context

The “holistic” admissions ethic trumpeted by colleges and universities is illusory.

On the page, students become numbers, demographics, and key word identifiers. Still, it seems arbitrary. The head admissions officer may be better off procuring a Magic 8 ball and going through applications one by one. Admitted, Deferred, Rejected, Rejected, Deferred, ad infinitum.

When decision day rolls around, dreams built over years are either made or killed in an instant. And maybe even for no reason at all other than supply and demand.

You can expect the pain and residual feelings to linger for some time. That’s why it’s important to know that colleges, especially elite institutions, weren’t intrinsically designed to accommodate or democratize access to higher learning.

Meritocracy favors the wealthy and connected. It’s not about you it’s about the institution.

This can help you be transparent with your loved ones about the unfair realities of competitive college admissions. But what do you do when you aren’t the person they need? How do you show support without saying a word?

Giving Space

My sister didn’t want me by her side when she opened the decision portal, and it makes sense. Duke is the place I’ve lived and learned for the past four years. It was the path I landed on, but it wasn’t my dream — it was hers. Even though I’ve been at her side at every stage of the college admissions process, she didn’t need me in that moment.

When I heard the muffled sobs from downstairs, I retreated back to my room, shut the door quietly, and stayed silent for the rest of the night. My parents were able to support and comfort her, but I felt helpless. How could I be there for her when I was one of the last people she wanted to see?

It was lucky that I was quarantining from COVID because I haven’t seen or heard from her in over six days (which is remarkable because her room is literally right next door to mine). Rather than acknowledge what happened, I worked behind the scenes. I spoke to my mom in whispers as she delivered me food to my room and sent texts to trusted friends who could counsel and guide her to next steps.

When you’re not the right person to talk, leverage the people you know. Choose people whose whose experiences are in alignment and will be well received. In my case, I connected my sister to a friend recently out of college who faced similar bouts of rejection in their admissions journey.

Just because you’re giving space doesn’t mean you should be passive. Find resources, do research, read Twitter threads — whatever you feel is necessary. Be informed and do your due diligence to understand what they are experiencing.

In Rain or Shine

As I ease out of quarantine, one of these days I will run into my little sister. And I need to be ready to have that conversation — or not. I may not talk to her about her rejection in weeks, months, or ever.

I mentioned that my sister is smart and talented. But she’s also strong. If anything, I need to keep myself in check. My desire to prove I’m here for her isn’t as important as her need to heal. I prove my love by giving her the space to be resilient and challenged.

We each grow at our own pace, and I have a feeling that a new season is around the corner.

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