Turn college rejection into opportunity

many arrows moving to one goal, different plans vector concept

I’d love to tell you that every student I work with gets into their dream college program on their first attempt, but that’s simply not the case. While being rejected can be a painful experience, you’re not alone. And you may even be able to turn that rejection into an opportunity.

headshot of Ace Hilliard
Ace Hilliard, student services coordinator, UW–Madison

It might sound cliché, but if you are rejected from a program, dust yourself off and try again. An initial rejection doesn’t mean you’re not qualified; the pool of candidates may have been especially large or competitive when you applied, but that doesn’t mean it will be so the next time around. While you’re considering your next move or waiting to reapply, use this time as an opportunity to bolster your application by considering the following:

Have a parallel plan. If you didn’t get into your first-choice college or program, research other ways to reach your goal. Check out other institutions — including online options — or think about how a different path might get you to the same place. For example, if you’re interested in human resources, you might consider earning a certificate in the field. This will allow you to get your foot in the door and prove that you can do the work. In many cases, the credits you earn in a certificate program can be applied to an undergraduate degree.

Think holistically. Increasingly, college applications are taking the whole person into account, not just grades and test scores. Demonstrating professional experience, community involvement, leadership skills and the ability to balance multiple projects can all help your application stand out. What experiences do you have — or could you build — that reflect these skills and talents?

Be honest. Build yourself up in your application, but be honest about your journey. Don’t make excuses, but don’t be afraid to tell your story. Colleges are looking for students who have real-life experience. Maybe your transcript reflects poor grades from 10 years ago when you were working two jobs, struggling with an illness or simply unprepared for college. Be upfront about that experience, then explain the actions you’ve taken to overcome it.

Start small. Just because you’re not enrolled in a college program doesn’t mean you have to tread water. Ask an advisor what types of courses you can take that will transfer into your desired program. Are there general education classes you could take that will also reflect your strength as a student today? If you need more academic support, consider online or community college courses, which may provide more flexibility and individualized attention from the instructor.

Remember there are multiple ways to reach your goal and that it’s fine to take things slow. In fact, diving into a full degree program and going from zero to 60 might do more harm than good. Make a plan, do what you can now and keep your options open. You’ll be more prepared and confident the next time you apply.

The Lifelong Learner is a monthly feature written by UW–Madison’s Continuing Studies staff. Ace Hilliard, student services coordinator, can be reached at ace.hilliard@wisc.edu. This article first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on July 18, 2021.