Ask Amy: Responding to the Thin Envelope

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Syndicated columnist Amy Dickinson gives advice to parents on how to respond to a child who has just received a college rejection letter.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And now it's time to ask Amy. Every other Thursday, Amy Dickinson joins us to answer your questions. Many high school seniors can be seen lurking around mailboxes and checking e-mail even more often than usual, waiting desperately for colleges' decisions.

Thick envelopes traditionally bring good tidings. But as college applicant pools grow, more and more kids are receiving the dreaded skinny envelopes from colleges and parents must learn the right response to comfort a child whose been rejected.

Who better to help us navigate the tricky waters of rejection than Amy Dickinson? Her "Ask Amy" column is syndicated by the Chicago Tribune. She joins from our bureau in Chicago. Nice to have you with us, as always, Amy.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Columnist, "Ask Amy"): Hey, Neal. So this past week in my house it's been like a roller coaster ride. Our house is like Six Flags over college. It's been every single day a roller coaster ride because I have a senior in high school.

CONAN: And you're getting, from that reaction, some skinny envelopes and some thick ones.

Ms. DICKINSON: There have been many skinny envelopes. Like an increasing percentage of kids, my daughter chose to apply to a lot of schools. You know, they're trying to game out the whole thing, and they figure if they apply to more schools, then they'll get into something, you know?

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: But that's kind of gumming up the works because then you have kids who are getting into five and six schools. So one of those skinny envelopes coming into someone's house these days is likely to be a waitlist envelope, which is like, you know, this netherworld where you really don't know what to think.

CONAN: Of course we want to hear from listeners, as well. If you've got a teenager whose angst is moving to anxiety and hasn't heard the news they wanted, or if you're one of those teenagers yourself, give us a call. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And when your daughter got bad news, how did you handle it?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, you know, people don't believe this, but I practice. Like I try to prepare myself because I - you know, when kids are really little and they fall down and they're not quite sure if they're hurt, so they look at you. They look at your face and I feel that, you know, kids tend to look to their parents for cues.

And knowing this, I thought that I was going to try and be neutral. And when she told me some of the news was surprising, you know, some of her safety schools she didn't get into. So it's very surprising and sad. And what you have to do is try and maintain a pretty neutral face, and you say, wow, well, how do you feel about that? What are you thinking?

And you just ask an open-ended question, and some kids can't answer. They won't answer. And they need time to figure it out. One thing - my daughter was lucky, she received an acceptance along with all these other skinny envelops. She got a fat envelop, and the acceptance, which again from a school, it was kind of a surprise. And I chose to say, you know, yippee, you know what happened? My dream for you just came true.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: You will be going to college. And then I thought to say pretty quick, thank you so much for all the hard work you've done. And look at this, it's paying off. You know, you - this process for a lot of kids - I don't know if a kid who rolls out of bed one day in January to apply to college, you know, they've been working at it for sometimes over a year. And one thing we parents need to do is acknowledge that and say, wow, you worked so hard on this, and now, you know, it's ending. And we're going to see what's going to happen.

One of the things parents can do, which is so fantastic, you can run to the Web and go to the school that your kid got into, even if it's not that first-choice school. And you say, oh, check it out. You know, what I just noticed, this is a pretty cool place. Let's go out and visit. You know, you really need to embrace the possibilities that you do have.

CONAN: Let's see if can - one other thing mentioned just before the break, for a lot of kids, you know, this is almost the first adult hurdle. This is the first time that they're really dealing with the harsh realities of the world outside of this, you know, the K through 12 cocoon that they've been in their whole lives.

Ms. DICKINSON: I know, and you know, some of the best preparation for this starts years and years ago when they have these little hurts and these little disappointments, and you help them to - you celebrate it when they're resilient. You appreciate the fact that they - you helped to teach them how to get over these things, and you appreciate their resilience, and then they start to see that demonstrating resilience feels good.

CONAN: Yeah, I always thought sports was particularly good for teaching that, baseball in particular. You fail a lot, and three times out of 10, you're a big star.

Ms. DICKINSON: And you know it's funny because the baseball metaphor, I've had this really strange career, and one of the things I say - and this works for college, too - is man, you know, I try 10 things. If three things work out, I'm doing really, really well, and that's really apt with the college situation.

CONAN: I always remember as a manager, I used to think if I was only wrong half the time, I was doing pretty well. Let's get some callers in on the conversation, though. Again, if you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Ask Amy. Our first caller is Sara(ph), Sara with us from Red Line in Pennsylvania.

SARA (Caller): Hi, Neal, thanks so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

SARA: I just wanted to comment. I taught for five years in the public schools in Maryland, and I taught the gifted and talented students in their junior -well actually, it's all four of their years - and saw a lot of this, especially with the seniors getting these envelopes, or especially with this group. There was a real sense of expectation that all of the letters would come back as acceptance letters.

And I think one of the things that I kept seeing the longer I was there was that there was this sense of entitlement that was bolstered by what we called helicopter parents - that were always there to smooth things over, to make excuses, to pass the buck. So that, you know, a lot of students didn't have to fail, didn't have to face any hurdles, long before even just this first adult hurdle; that there was no real sense of learning the coping strategies for when you did fail, so that you would get back up and try again.

And I sort of have the feeling that we're, you know, we're testing a lot of skills and a lot of data sets and looking at education that way. But I sort of feel that, you know, if Thomas Edison were in the school system today, he wouldn't have failed 10,000 times before that one time that he figured out the real one - you know, the answer to the question. We're not teaching students to be that way anymore.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right, and we learn so much from our challenges and our failures, and it's an absolute shame that parents don't allow children to see them doing that; to see parents pick up and say well, that didn't work out. Boy, that was a mistake.

SARA: Right, that we're (unintelligible) superheroes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Years ago, I interviewed the dean at Cornell University, which is near my hometown, and we had a really long talk about this. And he said he had just put his name to something like 23,000 letters, and under 20,000 of them were rejection letters. And he said to me, you know, the saddest thing is when - he said I have had parents show up on this campus with their kid in tow, challenging this decision.

CONAN: Really?

Ms. DICKINSON: That is such - that is a terrible, terrible message. Because, you know, one of the things my daughter and I talked about 10 days ago, before the mail started coming in. You know, these kids are in the middle of the boom of the baby boom. There's this huge bubble passing through the anaconda here, this bulge, and so the competition is very, very fierce.

And I said to her, hmm, let's think about like what would happen if you were wait-listed everywhere? Like what - we talked about what if. And I was so happy to hear that she had some kind of a - she had a bit of a strategy. She said well you know what, I think what I would try and do is I'd work, I'd get an internship, I'd try again next year.

You know, she had this thought that it might not work out, and she had developed, you know, a serious of ideas, which I think is absolutely the ticket.

CONAN: And it's not the idea that, you know - of course, parents want to protect their children, and it's not that loss, even in a little league baseball game, isn't heartbreaking, but you have to learn how to lose.

SARA: Right, and that's - I'm just not seeing that - and I'm not saying the parents are bad for wanting to protect their children. You know, I want to do everything I possibly can for my own child, but I think, you know, that there's this loss of the value of learning those lessons from failure, and I think it's just getting worse, and it definitely worries me.

CONAN: All right. Sara, thanks very much for the call.

SARA: Thank you.

CONAN: I wonder, amidst the possibilities, Amy, did you discuss the idea of well, you know, if we strike out, maybe we can put college off for a year?

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh you bet we did. Oh - we talked about this as recently as a week ago because I felt that, you know, you never know how - there are these urban myths, you know. Everybody knows one kid who got wait-listed everywhere, or one kid who just, who applied to the wrong set of schools. And I think, you know, it's something you have to think about. It happens.

CONAN: And prepare for the possibility, in fact, that your child might not get in anywhere.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh absolutely, and you know, we even made a joke of it. I was like now, the Coast Guard. What about protecting America's coastline? She said mom, I could never get into the Coast Guard Academy. Are you kidding me? You know, we really strategized, and I think it was a very healthy way to at least acknowledge that the possibility of failure is always - it's out there every second, looming.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Alex in Sacramento. I was fortunate to be accepted into the schools I was interested in. However, once I was in college, I was surprised to hear how people reacted to being rejected by a college and that their choices for safety or last-resort schools were ones I considered fairly high up on the totem pole.

High-school students seem obsessed with the value of the name of an institution. If it sounds good, then it must be good, but this mentality discounts many other good schools. Plus, some people didn't seem to completely discount community college. Though I didn't take that route, some of the brightest students I met in college came from a community college.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. Another thing this very wise dean at Cornell said to me was, you know what - we love community colleges. And he said any student coming here from a community college, we know several things about them. They value their education. They value getting a value out of their education. They're motivated. They're older. They're mature.

You know, community colleges are fantastic, and actually that was one of the things my daughter and I discussed.

CONAN: We're talking with Amy Dickinson, author of the syndicated column "Ask Amy" for the Chicago Tribune. She's with us from our bureau in Chicago, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's see if we can get another caller up. This is Raj(ph), Raj with us from Houston, Texas.

RAJ (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

RAJ: Thanks for having me, Neal, I appreciate it.

CONAN: Go ahead.

RAJ: I actually just did all the application process and got a bunch of rejection letters, and you know, trying to deal with that.

Ms. DICKINSON: Hey, Raj, let me ask you a question.

RAJ: Shoot.

Ms. DICKINSON: Does your school - my daughter's school does something I think is really cool. All the kids come in - this started spontaneously. Some brave kid started. The kids bring their rejection letters in, and they put them on the wall. What do you all do with your rejection letters?

RAJ: Rejection letters, I look at them. I say well screw that, and you know, we'll move on to the next school, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: That's great.

CONAN: Burn them maybe.

RAJ: Yeah, you know, well, it doesn't get too cold down here in Texas, so we try not to burn things.

CONAN: That's true. You certainly - anyway, but how are you coping emotionally with this? It's like a kick in the stomach sometimes.

RAJ: It is because - especially because, you know, my top school, I got a rejection letter. My second school, I got wait-listed, and my third school, I got put into - at the University of Texas, it's called the coordinated application program where you go to a satellite school for a year, and then you transfer in.

And I checked the stats on the satellite school, and the acceptance rating there is some 99 percent. So it makes the decision a little tougher. You know, I don't know if I want to do that, or you know, if I might as well just take a year off and, as you were talking, maybe get an internship or work or something.

Ms. DICKINSON: Raj, what's your strategy about your wait-list school?

RAJ: About my wait-list? Don't think about it.

Ms. DICKINSON: All right, here's an idea. Now, this I know - I think this is true. The wait list, every kid on the wait list is qualified to go to the school. Most wait lists are not ranked, they're not weighted, so it's - here's how I see it. It's your opportunity to go for it.

If you are really super interested in that school, let them know, send them some supplemental stuff. We all hear about kids who show up with a sandwich board and parade outside the admissions office. I'm not recommending that, but this is how to get their attention because you don't have to be classy and cool trying to get off the wait list. This is the time to pull out the stops.

CONAN: Whatever you do, don't put a $50 bill in the envelope.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Right.

CONAN: Good luck, Raj.

RAJ: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk with - this is Jill, and Jill's with us from Oxford in Mississippi.

JILL (Caller): Hi. I actually have - I'm a Ph.D. student. Right now I'm finishing up my master's degree, and I applied knowing what the market was out there for Ph.D. programs - I actually applied to 14 different programs and got rejected from 13.

CONAN: Ouch.

JILL: And I had one day of just a major breakdown. I just lost it one day, and finally accepted. I got accepted at the university that I'm currently at, but the biggest hurt for me, actually, was the amount of money that I lost in the process. It cost me about $1,500 to apply to all those places.

CONAN: Yes, but a drop in the bucket compared to what the college actually costs.

JILL: Yeah. Luckily, I'm on a teaching scholarship, so I don't have to pay, but I just wanted the high-school seniors out there to know that it's even tough for those of getting advanced degrees, that we have a very hard time getting into programs sometimes.

CONAN: I wanted to get Amy's response, but I want to also read this e-mail we got from Jesse(ph) in Vancouver, Washington. As a hiring professional for entry-level to senior positions, I can tell you with all honesty that the college somebody graduates from is far less important than the fact that they graduated from college. The pressure, she writes, is unreasonable for high-school seniors.

Ms. DICKINSON: Boy, I agree, and you know what? Another thing we parents need to do with our kids, and sometimes this sounds like platitudes, but most of us have a story like this in our own life. If I had gone to the college of my first choice, I would not have met my closest friends. I would not - you know, like the road that you end up taking, it takes you such surprising and interesting places, and you - that's what you need to embrace.

CONAN: And Jill, are you happy with the college program that you finally got into, the Ph.D. program?

JILL: I really am. It's funny that Amy said that. I have met my husband-to-be while I'm down here, so I'm okay with it. I'm really good with it, and I've gotten in with the faculty, and it all works out. It really does.

CONAN: Jill, thanks very much, and good luck.

JILL: Thank you.

CONAN: Amy, thank you.

Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you, Neal. Fingers crossed.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson is part of our regular Ask Amy segment. Her syndicated advice column is published by the Chicago Tribune. She joined us from our bureau in Chicago. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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