Did You Get In? An Etiquette Guide for College Admissions

Did You Get In? An Etiquette Guide for College Admissions

03 May, 2021

By: Kathryn DeBros

Nothing about senior year of high school year seems easy. On top of classes (and maintaining a solid grade point average [GPA]) and extracurricular activities, you’ve spent months on the admissions process-- the college search, filling out paperwork, writing essays, asking for recommendations, and sending forms in order to complete the college application process.  Completing the Common Application and meeting application deadlines is hard work!

Now, you may be in the middle of the hardest part — waiting for a college admissions response! Something about COVID-19 seems to make the wait even more grueling than it already is. Whether that fateful letter holds good news or bad, here’s some help with answering the inevitable questions you’ll get — and knowing how to talk to your friends about their letters, too.


Nothing parallels the feeling of opening the long-awaited college acceptance letter--especially if the news you find inside is good news! It’s always fun to answer questions when you like the answers--”Were you accepted?!” “I was!”. But be wary of your celebration. By all means, admitted students should rejoice with family and do a victory dance at home, but it’s really important to be mindful of not bragging at school — especially if you know that your friends didn’t get the admissions decisions they wanted or they’re still waiting (ugh).  Remember, early action and/or early decision applicants are likely to receive news from admissions offices sooner than those who applied regular decision. This means you likely have some friends who haven’t heard from their top schools OR who haven’t heard from any schools at all.  It's also important to keep in mind that some friends may have been placed on the waitlist at their first-choice college or university.  Waitlists and deferrals can be especially overwhelming so be sure to keep this in mind if you have friends who are waiting.  At selective colleges (Ivy League and the like), a common practice is to defer students to the regular admission applicant pool when they don't get accepted in the early round.  For some friends, a deferral may be good news, but others may be extremely disappointed that they did not receive the final decision they were hoping for from the admissions committee.

If someone asks, a polite “I was accepted,” is a good place to start. Take cues from the asker about how to continue the conversation. If she’s thrilled and wants to know more, by all means, celebrate along with her. If the person seems subdued, don’t continue the discussion. You never know what may be affecting their response and if they are already feeling not-so-great, you don’t want to intensify that.

Remember, even if your admissions letter isn’t the one you wanted, that’s OK. You don’t have to have everything figured out yet. You may want to wait and see what other options you have, particularly as you plan your finances. Some schools may offer better scholarships than others. There’s nothing wrong with being honest about waiting to see what opens up.

We regret to inform you . . .

My apologies in advance. Most people will get one or more of these if they applied to a range of schools, but that doesn’t mean getting a rejection letter is anything less than disappointing. Remember that it’s not personal. It’s one group’s decision, based on a relatively small amount of information about you — in the context of thousands of other packets of information. It’s not a judgment of you as a person.  Your acceptance and rejection absolutely do not define who you are. There are always other options — the path to your perfect school might just be a little more torturous than others’.

Naturally, everyone reacts to rejection differently. For some, sadness sets in immediately, and for others, anger is more apparent. Some people may feel angry at the college or the entire higher education system in our country, while others may feel disappointed. In certain cases, some students may not feel particularly upset by a decision. Maybe the school they were rejected from wasn’t really a great fit anyway or maybe they are already planning to attend a different college or university. Whatever you are feeling, give yourself space to process your emotions in a healthy way. If talking it out would be helpful, reach out to someone you trust, and share what you are going through. If you prefer to keep to yourself, write about how you’re feeling in a journal, or write a letter back to the college with everything you wish you could say (but don’t send it!). If you need an outlet for your anger, make a dartboard out of your rejection letters.  These strategies can help you to get some frustration out so that you feel ready to move on.

When answering questions related to bad news, people will be looking to you for how to respond. If you are able to keep it upbeat, as in, “Well, I didn’t get into Dream School, but I’m still looking at other options,” then people will respond accordingly. If you aren’t in a place where you feel like sharing, you can always say something like, “I didn’t get in, but I’d rather not talk about it right now.” It’s up to you to steer the conversation in the direction you’re comfortable with.

Dealing with a college rejection can be especially hard if your teachers or friends are celebrating outcomes. It’s OK to ask your friend group for some space, or request that they hold off on conversations about college for the next couple of weeks.  Your friends are likely to respect your wishes after you share how you’re feeling.

At the present time . . .

Don’t lose hope if you’ve been waitlisted. Some schools still keep a pool of qualified candidates handy, knowing that not everyone they accepted will actually enroll. On average, about 25 percent of waitlisted candidates are eventually accepted, according to CollegeData. Your letter may even indicate where you stand on the list. For advice on how to move forward, read How to Go From Waitlisted to Accepted. If you were deferred when you applied early, consult Deferred for Admission? Here’s What to Do.

Answering questions about your state of limbo can be uncomfortable. Feel free to give a short answer, such as, “I’m still waiting to hear back,” and change the subject. If you prefer, you can explain the next steps you are considering, “I got waitlisted at X school, but I got accepted into Y school. I’m putting a deposit at Y, but you never know.” Remember, you are always entitled to say that you’d rather not talk about the outcome if you aren’t in the mood.

What about my friends?

It’s a tense time for everybody as students wait to see what their futures hold. While some people may want to talk at length about their acceptances and rejections, others may want to avoid the subject. Your best bet is to ask about having the conversation instead of asking about the outcome. For example, “Want to talk about X college’s decision?” or “Let me know if you want to talk about college outcomes.” This way, your friend has the option of participating in the conversation only if she wants, and there’s an easy way out if she doesn’t.  This also reminds your friend that you are there for them should they decide that they are ready to talk.

If your friends volunteer the information themselves, go ahead and listen attentively. If you’re up for it, celebrate their successes. When it comes to undesirable outcomes, be empathetic. Keep the focus on your friend instead of bringing in your own experiences. Focusing on your friend instead of bringing the conversation back to you is important because it shows your friend that you truly care. It’s a good idea to acknowledge how difficult the situation maybe instead of trying to change the subject or problem-solve. Saying something like, “That’s so frustrating! I know how hard you worked on your application,” or even, “This really stinks, I’m so sorry,” can go a long way. Often, our friends just want someone who will listen and not necessarily someone who will provide advice or feedback.

And if you’re blanking on what to say, that’s OK, too. You can always offer, “Let me know what I can do to help.”  Your friend will appreciate knowing that you care and plan to be there for them if they need anything from you--even if it just supports.

This time of year is certainly stressful, and talking about and comparing outcomes can feel like a lot to deal with. Remember that at the end of the day, these are all just conversations. The words may sting now, but you may not even remember them when you’re in college, thriving.

Besides, getting in is only half the battle. The journey really starts next September, with the beginning of your college career and lots of exciting experiences that are waiting for you.

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