What does being denied mean?

This is part 2 of a 3-part series looking at different admission decisions: what they do and do not, mean; what you should you do and avoid doing in their wake; and what, if anything, is different this year due to Covid-19.  

While nobody loves being told maybe (as discussed last week with deferrals), I think we can all agree that a straight “no” is even harder. 

Bad news: that is where we are going today. Good news: I have as much experience hearing “no” as I do saying it. I was denied admission as a high school student; again by a few graduate schools; and in more recent years for jobs at other colleges. I may not hold the record on university denial letters, but I could make a run at the title.  

Whether you have recently received a deny, or you are waiting on an admission decision to come in the next few days or weeks, the tips and advice below come from lived (and deeply felt) experience.   

Denied Admission 

Prediction: In contrast to last week’s prognostication about more defers (and likely waitlist offers) across the board, I think denies will be like the relationship of a couple in a romantic comedy or the stock market during this pandemic—up and down… not always in that order.   

While overall I do think the percentage denied by most colleges in early rounds will go down (see this blog for rationale), some of  the colleges releasing decisions around this time of year are currently reporting bigger applicant pools. If the college you applied to is not increasing its class size, even if they both admit and defer more students, the raw number of denies could essentially be flat or even increase. 

In other words, still a lot of dream killing and tears in December.

What does being denied admission mean?   

It means “no.” Band-aid off, short letter, 86, time to move on. Some of you may not have needed all of those examples, but as a talented student and likely a really great person in general, I am guessing this is neither a word nor a concept you’ve experienced often.   

Being denied admission means that based on supply and demand, institutional priorities, or some combination of the two, they are unable to offer you admission. It means that even if you cheer for their team each season or just overpaid for a hoodie from their online bookstore or have eight family members who attended, they have closed the door.  

While I do not love being the one to put it so abruptly, I’ve seen some admission letters take three paragraphs to say “No” and others leaving you wondering if that is really what they said at all. Hint: If they don’t say “Congratulations!” in the first word or sentence, it’s likely a “No.” I’m not going to do you like that. Trust me- we have to start quick and rough in order to provide perspective and move on. 

What should you do?   

Scream, cry, beat your pillow, cook, or eat a lot of something. Whatever it takes to begin clearing your head. We all have different responses and emotions surrounding notifications of finality. And since I feel like we have already gone there at this point, I might as well be the one to tell you this is not the last time you’ll encounter these kinds of disappointments.  

One thing you need to hear, and maybe repeat back to yourself in the days and weeks after being denied, is that however you are feeling is both reasonable and understandable. Mad? Sad? Frustrated? Disappointed? I get it.   

What brings you joy or clears your headDo those things. Go for a long drive, watch a funny movie, or eat a gallon of ice cream. What brings you perspective? Who totally gets you or can make you laugh or feel like the only person in the room? Be intentional about being in those spaces and with those people right now. 

Then you should start to move forward. Take some time to look at some of the college brochures laying around your room. Check your email from the last week and be reminded that you have lots of options and lots of choices.  

You are likely going to need to submit another application or two. If you’ve already got this covered, that’s great. If not, then good news—many great schools have deadlines in January. Look for colleges that interest you who have higher admit rates and lower academic profiles than the one(s) that denied you. 

What does being denied admission NOT mean?   

Being denied, especially from a selective institution (i.e. a lot of them releasing decisions right now) does not mean you are not smart, talented, capable, bound for future success, or a good person. These decisions are not perfect or perfectly fair.  

Being denied does not mean your effort to this point has all been in vain; that you did something wrong in your application; or that if you had either sent or not sent test scores the result would have been different. 

Do not second guess yourself—a denial from a college(s) does not mean that you are not going to get into the other schools to which you applied (an actual question/comment from my neighbor’s daughter last week).  

What should you AVOID doing?  

Do not look backward. Please do not accuse Mr. Wilson of writing you a crappy recommendation letter; tell Mrs. Jenks that if she had just bumped your 9th grade Geography grade from an 89 to a 93 (especially after turning in your amazing extra credit project on the “Primary Tributaries of the Mississippi River”) you would have been admitted; or question if you should have joined the Spanish club as a sophomore.  

Do not conflate or confuse the message. Please do not convince yourself the school that denied you was the only school where you could be happy (note: this is also true of relationships, jobs, etc. for the future). In my opinion, the terms “dream school” and “top choice” should be banned. 4,000 schools in the country. You may not feel okay right now, but you are going to be.  

Do not go for a long drive, watch a funny movie, and eat a gallon of ice cream simultaneously (just wanted to be sure you caught that “or” from earlier and did not think I was suggesting combining those).   

Please keep perspective. Do not send an expletive laced email rant to the college’s admission counselor cc’ing the President, Provost, multiple congressional representatives, and the entire Board. As I said earlier, this is all based in lived experience. In fact, we had one a few years ago that also copied—wait for it— our Governor, as well as the President and Vice President of the United States. (For those scoring at home I kept that one.)

Do not burn articles of clothing with that college’s logo. Instead, take a breath, do some good, and locate your closest Goodwill.   

Over the years I’ve written extensively about my own personal re-routes, as well as the experiences of students, family, and friends in hopes of providing solace when something you hope for doesn’t go as planned:

Please hear me say again: however you are feeling right now (or in the days and week after receiving a denial) is both reasonable and understandable.

What you need to avoid is sitting in that particular emotion for too long. Do not get stuck; do not stay down. understand if you do not want to hear or believe this right nowbut I can say with absolute confidence through repeatedly lived experience,  It Works Out.  

I’ll see you on The Other Side. 

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Author: Rick Clark

Rick Clark is the Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech. He has served on a number of national advisory and governing boards at the state, regional, and national level. Rick travels annually to U.S. embassies through the Department of State to discuss the admission process and landscape of higher education. He is the co-author of the book The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, and a companion workbook published under the same title. A native of Atlanta, he earned a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a M.Ed. from Georgia State University. Prior to coming to Tech, Rick was on the admissions staff at Georgia State, The McCallie School and Wake Forest University. @clark2college