CHICAGO — Last year at this time, Kendall Livingston felt like a failure. The Fenwick High School senior applied to seven colleges and, despite her stellar academic record and test scores, didn’t get accepted at any of them.
Suddenly, her carefully orchestrated future imploded. Ms. Livingston had no idea what to do next and considered taking the year off.
Instead, at the urging of her counselor, Ms. Livingston hastily applied to a small liberal arts college that she never heard of before — in Scotland, no less — and today she is thriving.
“People need to know that there is life after rejection,” she said. “Looking back now, I know for a fact I would never have been nearly as happy in any other school besides St. Andrews.”
With acceptance letters from highly selective colleges hitting mailboxes right about now, many applicants will face heartbreak, disillusionment, and self-doubt. The fact that admission rates at top-tier schools are at record lows will be of little comfort.
But there are also more than 2,000 four-year colleges in the United States, and a hard-working student can find success at any number of them, experts say.
“The selection process is just so arbitrary,” said Laura Docherty, Ms. Livingston’s counselor at Fenwick and former president of the Illinois Association for College Admission Counseling. “It’s really like gambling.”
Still, for students who receive the dreaded thin envelope — or a curt “no thanks” online — it’s hard not to take it personally. Was it that C in biology sophomore year? Not enough extracurriculars? The essay’s limp finale?
None of the above. It’s not about merit, but math, say experts. The number of students who applied to seven or more schools has risen steadily during the last 20 years, reaching 25 percent in 2010. In 2000, the number was 13 percent. In 1991, it was 8 percent, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.
It’s not just the larger applicant pool — it’s also that more seniors are vying for slots at the same 25 to 30 schools as the result of relentless marketing and the ease of an online application. Other drivers include the popularity of early admissions along with a spike in applications from international students.
Then, subtract slots reserved for athletes, legacies, geography, big donors, first-generation college-goers, and other factors and it’s no wonder every Ivy League school admitted less than 10 percent of applicants in 2012. Harvard gave the nod to a mere 2,032 of 34,302 applicants, a measly 5.9 percent. The figures were not much more encouraging at top-tier institutions in the Midwest, which included 13 percent at University of Chicago and 15 percent at Northwestern University.
“Admissions is not about students — it’s about assembling a class on institutional priorities, whether that’s athletics, orchestra, or getting more women into science and engineering,” said Patrick Tassoni of North Side Prep. “You can’t take it personally ... but everyone does.”
So, it’s time for Plan B.
For Ms. Livingston, that meant starting over. The Hinsdale, Ill., resident was denied by five schools and wait-listed — the equivalent of purgatory — at Baylor University and University of Wisconsin.
Ms. Docherty knew that her student was a strong candidate. Together, they ignored brand names and went back to her original list of interests, which included studying abroad. Ms. Docherty reached out to the admissions office at St. Andrews, a liberal arts college founded in the early 1400s, to test the waters. “The last thing I wanted to do was set her up for more rejection.”
St. Andrews immediately gave her a “yes,” and now the freshman can’t imagine being anywhere else. “I live in a castle. How couldn’t I love it?” Ms. Livingston said.
She ticks off the pluses: Tutorials with an instructor and a small group of students for really delving into material presented at large lectures, classmates who come from all over the world, and using school breaks to travel. Her biggest stumbling block so far: No Jif peanut butter.
The wisdom she gleaned from her experience was to not allow a rejection letter to define you.
“The key to surviving the process ... is to keep a positive attitude and not give up, be open to other alternatives, and to remember that, if worse comes to worse, transferring as a second year is always an option.”
North Side Prep’s Mr. Tassoni said he generally recommends casting a wide net and applying to eight schools.
“If we do our work at the front end, there should be eight dream schools,” he said.
The due diligence includes paying attention to a school’s strategic goals, which can change from year to year, but also open new doors. For example, Stanford just launched a music school, while Yale has unveiled a Center for Engineering Innovation and Design — a discipline not usually associated with the New Haven, Conn., campus.
But success isn’t about the sticker on the back of the car; it’s about fit. “This is not a prize to be won, but a match to be made,” Mr. Tassoni said, a sentiment frequently repeated by area counselors.
Fanny Lau, who graduated from North Side in 2010, ignored that advice, she said. “I was so blinded by prestige that I refused to even consider schools that my parents never heard of.”
Ultimately, she was turned down by 10 schools. And in the digital age, the denials get magnified, with jubilant peers posting their good news, along with photos of themselves wearing Dream U. gear.
“When I received my final rejection letter, I broke down during dinner,” she said. “I thought that there was something wrong with me.”
Ms. Lau regrouped and applied to Mr. Tassoni’s alma mater, Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. She was still wary when she stepped on campus three months later. “I fell in love and never looked back,” said the anthropology major.
Her brother, who is just starting his college search, has been the beneficiary of her setbacks. “My parents are far more open ... I transformed their idea about what is a good school. Know that you are going to college for you, not your family.”
Isha Mishra had her heart set on Georgetown University when she graduated in 2010 from Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Ill.
When she was passed over, she ended up at University of Illinois — a choice she was not initially excited about because she thought it would be just a larger version of her high school.
“I’m so happy with how things worked out, and saving the money was definitely worth it,” said Ms. Mishra, a junior majoring in supply chain management who snared an internship at Boeing in Seattle this summer. “There’s a better balance between social and academics. Here, everyone wants to succeed ... but we succeed together.”
Each year, Marybeth Kravets, a now-retired college counselor at Deerfield High School, sees applicants delaying a decision until mid-August, clinging to the wispy hope that they will be plucked from a wait list.
Her advice: Be disappointed for a while, then move on. To help with the letting go, the counselor would hold a “rejection” party in her office each year. Only those with a “We regret to inform you” letter were invited.
For Ms. Kravets, it wasn’t just terrain she knew professionally, but personally. She was turned down for admission three different times by Northwestern — for a high school enrichment program, as an undergraduate, and for a Ph.D. program.
“I got to do exactly what I wanted with my life,” she said. “I just didn’t do it there.”
Rebounding from rejection
Thousands of students are denied admission into their dream colleges and go on to have a happy life. Experts offer the following tips on how to rebound:
■ Even if you’ve been rejected from your top school, be sure to thank your teachers and those who wrote letters of recommendation for all of their help in your application process, according to IvyWis, a private, college consulting firm. You never know when you’ll need to lean on a teacher for help down the road.
■ Once you’ve settled on an alternative, do a pre-orientation program over the summer to dive right into campus life. Research shows that students who do pre-orientation programs have higher retention and graduation rates.
■ If your friend got accepted but you didn’t, try to rise above it, says Allison Singh, author of “Getting Over Not Getting In,” who runs collegerejection.com. “The fact that they got in should be additional proof that the process is flawed,” she said, adding that humor helps maintain a healthy perspective.
■ Don’t dwell on the past. Embrace your new selection and be prepared to fall in love.