The Upside of College Rejection: Your Safety School Might Be the Smarter Choice

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Harvard Yard and Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., on Dec. 16, 2009

The headlines last week weren't pretty. As colleges and universities nationwide revealed their admissions decisions, news broke of a dramatic decline in acceptance rates — and not just at Ivy League schools. The shift means that for the legions of high school students who sunk all their hopes and plans into a dream school find themselves grappling with some serious disappointment this week.

Why were admissions so low? It's a numbers game. This year's graduating class is one of the largest on record. As a result, colleges saw the number of applicants soar to record-high levels, but budgetary constraints kept most of them from upping the number of spots they could offer. Harvard, the school with the lowest admission rate in the country, offered enrollment to just 6.2% of applicants, or a total of 2,158 students of the record 34,950 who applied. But it isn't just the Ivy League schools; both state schools and private liberal-arts colleges saw their acceptance rates decline as well. The University of California, San Diego, is poised to accept 34.3% of the 53,455 students who applied (down from 38.2% last year and a whopping 49% five years ago), while Amherst College in Massachusetts projects it will accept 12.6% of its 8,432 applicants.

It's not that most students won't get into college at all — there are more than enough spots nationwide for every qualified student to find a place to study — but for many, the school they end up enrolling in may not have been their first, or even third, choice. The initial sting of rejection can take a toll on a student's psyche. These are kids who are used to being the best of the best, says Julia V. Taylor, a school counselor at Apex High School in Raleigh, N.C.

But some of that letdown is self-inflicted, says Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University and author of You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10-25. He says our nation's obsession with rankings and prestige means that high school students — and their parents — form intense emotional commitments to schools long before admissions decisions have been made. "When they're rejected it's like being rejected by a boyfriend or girlfriend," Steinberg tells TIME. "They internalize it: What's the matter with me? What could I have done differently? Why did they choose that person and not me?"

That emotional attachment is often only about what decal students will paste on their parents' minivan, Steinberg says, but it may lead to families overlooking what may actually be the better school for the students. Taylor agrees. In her state, students most often clamor for admission to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "They don't know a thing about the university. They just know they want to wear a Tar Heels sweatshirt," she says of the university's mascot.

But the good news is, as painful as rejection is, in terms of long-term success, getting into a prestigious college doesn't matter much. A study released in March by Alan Krueger of Princeton University and Stacy Dale of Mathematica Policy Research shows students who are rejected by highly selective schools go on to bank the same average earnings as Ivy League graduates. Krueger tells TIME his study shows too much attention is paid to the schools and not enough to the students. "Students can get a good education at many places," he says. "What matters most is what students put into their education — how seriously they take their studies and how much work they put in." It's what he calls the "Spielberg effect." (Steven Spielberg, one of the most famous directors of all time, was famously rejected twice from the University of Southern California's film school. He went on to attend California State University at Long Beach, a less selective school.) "Even if students don't get in, the fact that they are confident enough to apply indicates they are ambitious and hardworking, which are qualities that will help them regardless of where they go to school," Krueger says.

Additionally, when it comes to seeking admission to graduate school or employment, those who attend highly selective schools may not always have an edge. Krueger's study also showed high-achieving students who attended less selective schools tended to rise to the top of their class at college and receive higher grades than their Ivy League counterparts, all of which could give them an advantage when applying to graduate school. Further, a study issued on March 13 by Rasmussen Reports, found only 3% of employers thought Ivy League graduates made better workers. Still other surveys, such as one released by Newsweek in July 2010, show employers say experience, confidence and, yes, even looks, are more important than where a job applicant went to school.

It's also worth noting that even with all the bad news this college-admissions season, many other schools still have open doors for applicants. One such school is Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman, Wash. Despite receiving more than 13,000 applicants — a record for the school — WSU managed to enroll about 80%, leading to an increase of 400 freshmen over last year's figure. While WSU may or may not have been the first choice for students, in a year that saw the leading in-state competitor, the University of Washington, drop their acceptance rate by nearly 4%, going to a school attended by the likes of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow isn't a bad alternative. John Fraire, WSU's vice president of student affairs and enrollment, says students who attend WSU will get an education on par with that of any other university in the nation. "Highly selective schools say they give a better education, but I think, like most educators, that it's really about what school is the best for the student," he says.