For some independent school admission offices this month, it’s all over but the shouting. The admission season is winding to a close, and the enrollment management team is heaving a sigh of relief. You’re cheering about the wonderful students you’ve admitted and feeling lingering twinges of sadness about those kids who didn’t get accepted to your school. But, even at the most selective schools, you’re also feeling regret about the talented candidates who turned down your offers—even offers with generous financial aid attached.
For most independent schools, however, the admission process continues unabated as visits, tours and admission decisions are made through September’s opening day (at Avenues: The World School in New York City, they’re taking a page from the higher ed. playbook and inviting candidates to apply for early admission for three-year-olds through grade 10 for fall 2013!).
In this decision season, dealing compassionately and calmly with disappointment should be part of any admission director’s repertoire. You’re the one who has to field the phone calls from the disappointed dads, the incredulous trustees, the irate alumni who have always, always dreamed that their children would go to the school they attended themselves. Taking these calls can be wearing, and - for many admission professionals - is the most challenging part of the job.
At Phillips Academy (Massachusetts), dean of admission and assistant head for enrollment, research and planning, Jane Foley Fried, made an effort this spring to anticipate the disappointment of many students who did not gain admission to Andover—as well as the letdown felt by their families. Applications to Andover hit a record 3,130 this year and Andover’s overall admit rate was 14 percent. That equates to a lot of disappointed students and families.
In her blog, “The Dean’s Journal,” Jane wrote a post called “Anticipating the Envelope,” in which she discussed the disappointment that rejected families and students would feel. “We live in a culture that does not readily present opportunities for disappointment. Failure is too often perceived to be an experience to be avoided at all costs. But is it better not to try than to be disappointed?” she asked.
You can read Jane’s full blog post at http://padeansblog.wordpress.com/author/janefoleyfried/ and I recommend it highly. All admission officers should think about proactive communication in this manner in order to manage expectations (by the way, congratulations to Jane on taking up the headship at The Brearley School in New York City). Look for a Q&A about Jane’s transition to headship in the spring 2012 Memberanda and more our upcoming report on careers in admission.
We all know that disappointment is part of learning and of life, and discovering how to bounce back from it is a critical skill. There’s no denying that being denied by a school that seemed perfect is painful for students. As psychologist Wendy Mogel wrote in her wise book, The Blessing of a B-, failure is inevitable. “It is not loving to expect a child to be good at everything all the time—to be a smooth and sleek academic, social, artistic, and athletic machine,” she wrote. “It is not realistic to expect perfection of anyone. When we do, our teens suffer.”
I connected recently with psychologist Larry Cohen, the co-author with Michael Thompson and Catherine O’Neill Grace of Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children. He’s at work on a book about children and anxiety for Ballantine, so he’s been doing a lot of thinking about the stresses of modern life for kids.
“Grown-ups who are faced with a child’s despair or anxiety often jump too fast to offering perspective,” Larry said “They’ll say, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get in to another school and you’ll be very happy.’ While that’s probably true, it skips the crucial step of empathy—‘You really wished you had gotten in to that school...You really worked hard. That is such a big disappointment.’"
“We mistakenly think that distracting attention from the pain will make it go away faster, and that focusing on the pain will make it hurt more,” Dr. Cohen said. “The opposite is true. Children need to know that adults understand, empathize, and would feel exactly the same way if they were the ones who had been rejected from their top choice school. And we would. When we are dealing with ourselves, we are much slower to get to the broad view that everything will work out all right in the end—even though it will, most of the time.”
Also, realize that when adults feel they have failed, they suffer, too. Try, as Mogel and Cohen counsel, to be realistic with parents but take the time to acknowledge their loss and disappointment if their child has been denied or wait listed.
At the end of the day, admission directors need to celebrate the many successes of this season. Think about the joy on the faces of those kids who opened the letters from your school that said, “Yes, we want you!” Then get ready to do it all again this spring, this summer and to gear up for a new season next fall. SSATB celebrates your successes and is here to help at every stage of the process.