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Dear Admission Dean: What Parents Can Learn From Their College Applicant

Brennan Barnard
Everyone has heard that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” What fatherhood has taught me, however, is that “the tree doesn’t grow far from the apple.” In other words, the lessons I have learned from my two children—as they sow the seeds of untainted virtues—force me to grow in important ways, beyond what years of schooling and life are able to teach. Patience, humility, wonder, playfulness, and optimism are just a few of the many values that I “harvest” from my children. Young people are often more forgiving, less jaded, and unburdened by the same expectations and complications of adults’ lives and perspectives. In this season of inevitable disappointment from college admission offices, we would be wise to adopt this approach.

This is abundantly clear in two separate emails received this month by a college admission leader at a highly selective university. The reality is that admission to college can be complicated. While full of opportunity and excitement, this experience can also be riddled with emotion, fear, disappointment, and frustration. How we respond to unfortunate news says a lot about who we are, and we have much to learn from the following responses to a denial of admission. Identifying details have been altered or omitted to protect the writers, but the tone, intent and overall message are the same. In fact, these emails mirror hundreds of nearly identical communication received by admission deans every year. They are both notes of thanks—one sarcastic, and the other genuine.

From a Parent:
Dear Dean of Admission,

I am writing to express my appreciation for not accepting my gifted son. As you probably noticed, he is highly ranked in his class while taking a rigorous AP curriculum at his top-rated high school and his ACT score is almost perfect! Not only was he chosen for a highly selective state orchestra and is a competitive soccer player, but he also held multiple leadership roles while in high school. All of these accomplishments just go to show that he can and will do much better than your school. Frankly, his denial only demonstrates that your mission is misguided. I know that life is not fair and that the job of admission officer is difficult, but I also know that my son exemplifies the lofty goals of higher education in today’s world and his denial proves that you don't value these same goals.

Sincerely,
A Frustrated Father
From a Student:
Dear Dean of Admission,

I received my decision letter today and I was disappointed to learn that I was denied admission. While I am really sad about this decision, I understand why it was made. I distinctly remember when you spoke at my high school last year and you said that admission decisions really aren't personal, and this is something that I've been thinking about a lot lately and it has given me some comfort.

I find myself dwelling on the fact that I took choir in 9th and 10th grades and decided not to take Honors Biology and Chemistry because I was worried my schedule would be too full. I also realized that I forgot to mention one of my activities on my application. Then I started questioning the essay topic I chose to write about and it helped me to remember the talk that you gave and how decisions are made in the best interest of an institution, with my ability to be successful in mind. While I am not happy about the decision and I will never know why I was not accepted, I know that it wasn't personal or a judgment on what I have accomplished.

I know that you cannot admit every applicant or even the majority of those who want to attend.  The reasons that you did not choose me are nuanced I am sure. Maybe my grades or test scores were not competitive in this group of applicants or maybe the activities I am involved in do not match up. While I could argue many reasons why I could have been accepted, I understand why the decision was made.

I imagine that you are hearing from a lot of angry students and parents who are calling and emailing to tell you that your admission committee made the wrong decision and are demanding to know why they were not accepted. Yours is a thankless job and I wanted you to know how much I appreciate the work you and your team do in making difficult decisions and then dealing with the fallout. It is your caring approach to this stressful time that was so clear when you presented at my high school and I want to thank you.

Thanks,
A Grateful Student
The Take Home
Undoubtedly, parents reading these notes have two immediate reactions. The first is, “I would never be that father.” But then our child is passed over for a summer job, or gets cut from the team, or is not chosen for a part in the play, or receives a disappointing admission decision. Suddenly our defenses spring up and we experience their hurt or frustration as though it is our own. Through our lens, our child “deserves” better and has “earned” more. This is when we need to pause and not be “that parent”. We need to manage our own emotions and be aware of the messages we deliver with our reactions and responses. Don’t send the vindictive or sarcastic email, or make the angry or hurtful phone call.  Take the high road. As Jim Henson said, “Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”

The second reaction to reading these notes is likely, “Wow! I hope my kid shows such character and grace in the face of adversity.” The young person who wrote this letter can teach us important lessons. It is optimistic, grateful, and self-aware, acknowledging that despite this setback, life goes on and “success” does not hinge on acceptance to any given college or university. This student clearly took the time to process the disappointing news, and then paused to craft a thoughtful response—rather than a knee-jerk reaction. This is a skill that we can all benefit from in many areas of life, not just college admission. Let us each choose to grow from the apples that fall from our tree and when decisions come back, just let them be. We will all be better for it.

Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project
for www.forbes.com
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