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College Counseling
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College Admission Decisions and Sympathetic Joy

Brennan Barnard
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” At least that is what Andy Williams’ Christmas album has reminded us each December for decades. No matter what holiday you celebrate, it is hard to deny the cheer in the air this season. Something is exciting about unwrapping that first holiday present with joy—regardless of what is inside—simply because someone was thoughtful enough to share a gift with you. We are in an era when “unboxing videos” (yes it is a thing) and reveal parties are all the rage. Whether it's opening up a new iPhone, disclosing the birth gender of a baby, announcing a new job, or celebrating an engagement, a whole industry has emerged around anticipating surprises and sharing good news. Like many other cultural crazes, these trends have infiltrated college admission. We read stories about exciting acceptance deliveries, see videos of applicants opening decision letters, and even learn of students announcing their college choice through elaborate reveal schemes.

While we are immersed in holiday parties, gift-giving, and connection with friends and family, many high school students receive “presents” in the form of college admissions decisions. This brings a range of emotions as dreams are fulfilled, crushed, and deferred. As a school counselor, I am struck every year by the way that students deal with this news. In the months leading up to application deadlines, high school counselors and teachers are inundated with requests and questions from college-bound seniors, but then suddenly, all goes quiet. Colleges send decision notices to students, who may or may not pass it along. Maybe we learn of an acceptance through the grapevine or a denial from a parent, or perhaps the college sends us an update directly. Students seldom feel confident disclosing information, either uplifting or disappointing. For many, this news is their life’s first major turning point, and how to process it is a foreign concept. Then, of course, other students post news on their Snapchat feed and overlook the fact that most adults in their lives will not be aware of their good fortune.  

Physician, academic and mindfulness teacher, Christiane Wolf, MD, Ph.D., writes about the practice of “sympathetic joy.” She recounts the German proverb that says, "shared pain is half the pain, and shared joy is twice the joy." This is especially relevant for college applicants. No matter whether one has been accepted to their dream school or to a college to which they applied as a “safety,” this should be celebrated. Find some special way to acknowledge your accomplishments and be proud of your good news. Go to dinner with family, gather with friends or treat yourself to something special. Share the joy. Reach out to the teachers, counselors and school staff who supported you. Allow them to duplicate your joy. Let your good news lift them up, as well, this holiday season. We are programmed by our culture for humility and this is a noble pursuit. Sharing joy, however, does not have to be an act of conceit or self-promotion, but rather one of gratitude, excitement, and opportunity. One need not announce an acceptance to their whole school or community or share news widely on social media. Likely they have friends who are dealing with disappointment and it is good to be sensitive to this hurt. But it is also not something that needs to be hidden under a bushel, so spread your joy.  
There are as many—or more—college applicants who will be coming to terms with being let down this month. Share the pain and watch it dwindle. Find support in those who care about you and don't try to feign indifference. "It's fine," one might say as an exercise in self-preservation. But it doesn't have to be fine, and sharing that disappointment is often the best way to move forward. It is as important, if not more, to connect with others and treat yourself to something special when dealing with pain. Go out for that dinner with family, catch a movie with a friend or take time to indulge in what you enjoy (chocolate always works). Then practice sympathetic joy and follow Wolf's advice. She suggests an intentional and mindful process of rejoicing in “your own good qualities,” “your life,” and “in the happiness of others.” Remind yourself of your many strengths and contributions and identify the joyful aspects of your life, no matter how small. Next, instead of letting envy and blame get the best of you, celebrate the good fortune of classmates or even consider applicants who you don’t know. Instead of ruminating on the idea that they took your spot, be grateful for their opportunity and joy. Have faith that despite your immediate discouragement, the best is yet to come. This sympathetic joy can have a freeing effect and though it might not feel like the most wonderful time of the year, it certainly will not be the least. Good news or bad, ‘tis the season to spread joy.

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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