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The envelope (or e-mail), please: How to brace for college admissions season

“We have multiple selves. We’re not just a ‘college-going’ self.” Some perspective from incoming Dartmouth president Sian Beilock and college adviser Rachel Katzman.

When we don’t have control, we get anxious. And college acceptance — generally — is the first big milestone we can’t fully orchestrate.D'Beranda Studio/Adobe; Globe staff

Over the coming weeks, you’ll probably see TikToks of teens checking e-mail and being accepted to their dream colleges. Instagram posts of baby photos with each child’s chosen school beneath, so innocent then and so successful now, will abound.

There will also be rejections. Tears. The ceremonial burning of sweatshirts. And maybe true angst, a sense of: What was it all for? Why did I take AP accounting and play varsity toe-wrestling?

Meanwhile, as supposedly mature adults, we should convey neutrality in the face of our kids’ disappointments. But we’re also human, and we want to see our kids happy, safe, and settled (especially in an age when 1 out of 3 teen girls say that have seriously considered attempting suicide, up nearly 60 percent from a decade ago, according to the CDC).


When we don’t have control, we get anxious. And college acceptance — generally — is the first big milestone we can’t fully orchestrate, a true foreshadowing of a changing parent-child dynamic. We can’t ensure our kids’ happiness, and that’s hard to sit with. What now?

“Parents love their kids. Parents have worked for a long time to do what they feel is right by their kids — 16 or 17 years of buildup. There’s stress because there’s no control and so much buildup along the way,” says Rachel Katzman, a college adviser in Belmont who runs Katzman Advising. “What I try to [remind] my families is: You have more choices along the way than you think.”

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And, while being disappointed or anxious on our kids’ behalf doesn’t make us unseemly strivers, there are ways to make this bizarre process a little bit easier. First, accept that this an inherently taxing rite of passage for many people, and it’s not a reflection of your inability to be above it all if you’re clicking refresh 10 times per hour.


“It’s actually OK to feel anxious. Even talking about it, normalizing it to some extent, can be helpful. It’s about being compassionate with yourself and not beating yourself up for the feelings you’re having,” says Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist, outgoing president of Barnard College, and incoming president at Dartmouth College.

Plus, in many cases, college admissions is far more competitive than when we were kids — “radically different,” Katzman says. This is thanks in part to the proliferation of the universal Common App, which makes it simpler to apply to more schools. (From 2019-2020 to 2022-2023, Common App volume rose 24 percent.) The movement toward SAT-optional admissions also makes it tempting to apply to more places.

“Some of that’s positive. More families are out there saying, ‘Let’s take a shot.’ And it’s also negative, because this means more people are applying,” Katzman says. “The vast majority of schools admit 50 to 70 percent of applicants. We don’t just focus on this subset of schools.”

The upshot is that cynical realism has crept into the process. Katzman says she spends a lot of time “redefining success” for her families. “It doesn’t mean you’re settling,” she says, if you don’t go to your reach school. Katzman says that now, some kids aren’t even surprised by rejection because they know the odds and they’ve already been banged around by COVID. She tries to infuse a bit more optimism and excitement into the process.


“I’m keeping them optimistic and also honoring realism at the same time,” she says. Instead of “dream schools,” she encourages families to consider several “anchor” schools and not to affix their identity or happiness on just one. There’s a tendency to approach the process like a dating profile, she says, with a strict list of must-haves — even as kids grow and evolve. Moreover, “The college that has a 9 percent acceptance rate doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a better college,” she says. It’s about fit, which is subjective and based as much around feeling as it is around metrics.

Detaching the idea of “worth” from school is also essential. Katzman has a mantra: “You’re not too worthy for a school, and a school’s not too worthy for you.” This means: If a so-called safety school admits you, it doesn’t mean that the school doesn’t have amazing opportunities, even if you think you’re somehow overqualified. The flip side: If you don’t get in, it truly doesn’t mean you weren’t good enough. It’s a crapshoot, and admissions priorities can be mysterious. Maybe they needed a polo player or a mezzo-soprano who also wanted to study computer science and ceramics.

“The reasons why you didn’t get in might be completely idiosyncratic,” Katzman says. “You’re never going to know the answer why you got in, and you’re never really going know the answer for why you didn’t.”

It’s not personal. To keep things manageable, Katzman urges families to apply to between six to 12 schools with attributes that they uniformly like, from dream school to likely admission.


“I have a maxim with my families around ‘love your likelies.’ The school might have a 60 percent acceptance rate, but: Would you want to go skiing in Denver? Do you want to work near the film industry? That helps reframe it so kids don’t feel that they’re getting let down. There’s just a different version of ‘dream,’” she says.

That said: She also encourages applicants to have a post-rejection “mourning period” and to maintain a circle of trusted confidantes, far from the prying scrolls of social media.

“Try to resist the urge to know all the stats of everyone in your school in terms of where they got in and where they didn’t. It is not going to help you. It was idiosyncratic from the beginning. It’s like an absurdist play,” Katzman says.

So step away from your phone, everyone. You too, parents.

“I’m a big fan of power-worrying: You give yourself a timer to worry for 10 minutes, and then you’re done. This is also true with scrolling social media and deciding that you’re going to look at every college acceptance that all your friends got. We know that being in nature is great for how you think and feel: walking in the park, getting up from your desk, physical exercise, surrounding yourself with people who help you feel good about yourself. All of this is important, and I think we tend to underplay that. It’s so easy to get locked into our computer … and not move,” Beilock says.


It is a big world out there, and life is long. That’s hard to grasp as a teenager, though, and this is when parents can share their own twists and turns and offer perspective, especially if your kid is a high achiever who hasn’t experienced much disappointment until now.

“I don’t know any adult who hasn’t failed to reach goals that they really wanted, whether it was a job they didn’t get or getting into a school. One of the most powerful things that adults can do is narrate the different turns in their lives and help students understand that this is just one of them,” Beilock says.

Because, while this month might seem like the ultimate turning point, someday it will just be a blip and, in most cases, things really do work out in retrospect. I remember getting wait-listed at an elite grad program (back in the days when disappointment was hand-delivered by the U.S. Postal Service). Because I got wait-listed, I ended up applying to a job at a literary agency, where I became friends with one of the agents, who helped me sell my first book. Life makes sense in hindsight. Remind your kids of that — and that they’re more than where they go to college.

“We have multiple selves. We’re not just a ‘college-going’ self. We’re a friend. We’re an athlete. We’re a family member. And research actually shows that focusing on some of those other parts of our identity and why they’re valuable can help take some of the stress off. Being disappointed in oneself then doesn’t necessarily have to carry over to how you think about yourself at large,” Beilock says.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.