NEW YORK — Many high school students simply don't recognize the word "rejection." So, when a thin envelope arrived in Laura Budzyna's mailbox, she was shocked to discover she was on the waiting list at Williams College. "It had to be the one I wanted!" moans the class president and editor of the school newspaper at High Technology High School in Lincroft, N.J.
Laura is hardly alone in her disappointment: Across the country, high school seniors are now checking to see if their mailboxes contain thick envelopes - usually bearing good news - or thin ones - often meaning rejection - from the colleges they applied to. When the response is negative, they face one of life's most difficult lessons - how not to take rejection personally and how to keep a positive attitude about Plan B.
"You just have to refocus and not let it be some huge failure. Because it's not really an attack on you," says Laura. "There are so many talented people - the competition is just absolutely insane."
Today it's not just the less desirable candidates who receive thin envelopes. With a greater number of students aiming for top schools, even the best struggle to find slots at their dream schools. "The college-age population is going up, and the percentage of that population who are choosing to go to college is going up," says Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges.
But even with increasing competition at both first- and second-tier schools, students tend to brave the admissions process from beginning to end with a surprising amountof strength. The negative responses do sting. But for most, the excitement of getting in somewhere else helps them shift toward thoughts of the future.
At Vanguard High School, a public school in Manhattan, Lai Ara Reagans applied to 10 schools and got into several, but the bad news from the State University of New York at Stony Brook left her wondering what went wrong.
"Of course it's going to be disappointing, especially if it's your top choice," she says. Longing to understand the decision, she called the admissions office and learned her SAT scores had not been strong enough. But Lai Ara was then able to get excited about studying sociology at the College of New Rochelle, where she was accepted.
J.J. Rivera, a Vanguard senior interested in law and journalism, received several rejections before an acceptance arrived from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "It was the best feeling I've had in a long time," he says.
Guidance counselors say level-headed planning can also minimize disappointment. "If they get a wide range in the schools they are applying to, and in the selectivity of the schools, there is less pain in the spring," says Barry T. Baker, director of college counseling at the California Academy of Mathematics and Science. And when the letters are in, counselors try to get students to find the school that is right for them, rather than the one that will seem the most impressive to others. In the fields of math and science, Mr. Baker says, "Cornell can be a much stronger fit than Harvard."
At High Technology High School, where many students aim for the Ivy League, Aimee Babbin received three rejections on the same day.
"My first rejections really upset me," she says. "But then after that, I was like, well, I got into four really great schools."
Adrienne Felt, another High Technology student, took it hard when she got rejected from a top school. "I was a bit upset, because I had never been rejected from anything before," she says. But, with more research she realized that the University of Virginia - where she was accepted - was just right for her. Her classmate Mike Finley applied to eight schools with strong programs in architecture. He got into most but was rejected by Drexel University in Philadelphia. But Mike kept a positive, realistic attitude.
"Architecture is very difficult to get into," he says. "Drexel had accepted, like, 32 people into their program. I think they had a couple hundred people apply. " Now he's focusing on plans to attend the New Jersey Institute of Technology in the fall.
Laura also realizes that chances of getting off the wait list at Williams are slim. But she's now excited about the idea of attending Middlebury College in Vermont, where she can study languages, politics, and history - when she's not skiing on the college's private mountain.
"It's not always about going to the best school. It's about the right fit," she says.