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You trained your booty off all winter, and when it came time for tryouts, the competition was too stiff; there just weren’t enough spaces on the team. Then you received your college acceptance and rejection letter and things didn’t turn out as you hoped.
“I didn’t get accepted into this dance program that I had been working really hard for,” says Natalia, a freshman in Boston, Massachusetts. “I had an injury earlier that year and it really set me back. I cried for a weekend.”
Disappointment is inevitable—at some point, everyone faces it.
“Failure and disappointment are a natural part of the life course,” says Dr. Glenn Geher, chair of the psychology department at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “I guarantee that if you talk to the people in your life that you find most successful, you will find that they have buckets full of stories of their failures. It means you’ve tried—and that’s way better than not trying at all.”
It’s not easy to handle major setbacks, but there are ways to make the best of it—and as hard as it might be to believe, there’s almost always something to be learned.
Here’s how to handle some of high school’s common disappointments.
You can’t go to your dream college
Maybe you didn’t get in, or maybe you did but you can’t go because it’s way outside your budget (or other complications).
Here’s how to deal with it.
When your classmates are posting selfies with their acceptance letters, it’s not easy to admit that your academic future might not be headed in the direction you’d planned. Whether you weren’t accepted or tuition just isn’t in the budget, you’re probably feeling cheated, frustrated, and embarrassed. You’re definitely entitled to a good sulk—but then it’s time to pick yourself up, research a plan B, and rehearse what you’ll tell everyone who asks about it.
“You’d be shocked at how many great colleges there are out there—even schools that you’ve never heard of. These days, there is less of a divide between the ‘upper tier’ schools and others. I teach at a very solid state school; however, it’s a far stretch from Columbia or Cornell. But you know what? Each year, we have lots of our alumni get into exactly the same PhD programs and careers that the students at the Ivy League schools are getting into. These days, it’s much less about the prestige of the school—it’s more about what you make of it.”
—Dr. Glenn Geher, chair of the psychology department at the State University of New York at New Paltz
Talk (or cry) it out with people you trust until the topic of college stings a little less. You want to be prepared to give a well-thought-out answer when acquaintances or relatives inevitably ask about your plans. Then, come up with a line that clearly explains what happened (to avoid further questions) but ends on a high note:
- “I wasn’t accepted into X University, but I did get into Y University, so I’ll be studying a little closer to home.”
- “Tuition was pretty steep at X University, so I won’t be attending. Instead, I’m going to Y University—they’ve got a great science program.”
- “I’m not enrolled in a university right now, but I’m planning to study at X junior college. We’ll see what comes next.”
Hollywood director and producer Steven Spielberg was rejected twice from film school at University of Southern California.
You didn’t get picked for the sports team
You trained harder than ever but still didn’t make the cut. What’s even worse is that some of your friends did.
What do you do with yourself now?
Before you throw out your gear and vow to never step foot on the field again, give yourself some time to cool off (nobody makes logical decisions when they’re angry or upset). Once you’ve accepted that you didn’t make the team this season, plan what you can do to change the outcome at the next tryouts.
“Sit down with the coach and try to understand why you didn’t make the team. This will narrow down the areas you need to improve. From there, use the coach’s tips to set personal goals. Don’t worry if some of them feel unattainable—it’s always best to have a mix of goals that you feel are achievable and ones that seem unattainable in order to keep pushing yourself further and ultimately strengthen your weaknesses.”
—Dan Monroe, head girl’s varsity basketball coach, varsity softball coach, and health science teacher at San Luis Obispo High School in California
As much as you might want to avoid talking about it, it’s best if you face the music as soon as possible. Be honest and tell your friends (some of whom might have made the team) that you weren’t chosen, that you’re bummed about it, but that you’ve already met with the coach and are working on improving (your time, score count, speed) for the next round of tryouts.
Known as one of the greatest basketball players in the world, Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team in his sophomore year.
Your grades are suffering
The academic year is coming to a close, and your grades aren’t up to par. You’re worried that this might hurt your chances of having the future you envisioned for yourself.
What do you do?
Having nightmares about being held back and forced to retake a year of high school? If there’s still a chance that you can get extra credit to give your grades a boost, schedule a one-on-one meeting with your teacher. Be honest and take responsibility for your situation: Saying something like “I really regret not paying more attention, but I’m committed to improving now. Are there any opportunities for extra credit?” will be more effective than “I can’t believe you’re not going to pass me.”
If you’re afraid that your grades will keep you from being accepted into college, now is the time to find your plan B. Take some time to evaluate your career goals. If you always liked the idea of becoming a doctor but can’t keep your eyes open during biology class, it might be time to rethink your plans. Aim to choose a career path based on what you’re good at and what interests you—not something you just like the idea of.
“Try to avoid the all-or-nothing frame of thought that says: ‘I either get what I want or I’m a failure.’ The reality is that there are many different paths to success. When you have one plan and it falls through, the benefit is that you’re forced to start evaluating other options. In putting more thought into it, you might just find a better fit than you would have if your first choice had worked out.”
—Dr. Mary K. Alvord, psychologist and director of Alvord, Baker & Associates and co-author of Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents (2011), Rockville, Maryland
Have poor grades put your college application in jeopardy?
Here are some things to start thinking about:
- Is there a community college or trade school offering a program that would qualify you for the career you want? Give it a Google and find out, but make sure the schools are licensed and accredited.
- Are you passionate about something that you could be gaining experience in without a diploma? If you can land a job that will help your career (say, working as a restaurant cook if you’re an aspiring chef), it might be worth taking a break before college to gain real-world experience. Bonus: You’ll learn if an industry is a good fit before ever shelling out tuition money.
- Even with a solid backup plan (or three), be prepared for the potential of your family feeling disappointed when they learn that your grades are poor.
- Low grades might get you grounded at home, or your school might prevent you from playing on a sports team. Instead of letting these consequences send you into hysterics, remain calm and composed—you’re more likely to be able to negotiate and get support from those around you if you do.
Stephen Hawking is a brilliant theoretical physicist and scientist, but he had mediocre grades for most of his early academic career.
You’re missing out on the “trip of a lifetime”
Your parents won’t let you go on the awesome summer trip that all your friends are going on. Frustrated doesn’t cut it—you’re furious.
Here’s how to handle it.
Despite what you might be thinking right now, your parents aren’t out to ruin your life. They might’ve said “no” to your dream vacay, but they probably have some legit reasons for it:
- Money might be tight (especially if they’re planning to contribute to your college tuition). Even if they didn’t specify this as a reason, they might’ve omitted it because they don’t want you to worry about finances.
- They might be concerned about your safety. Even if you’re convinced that there’s nothing to worry about and they’re just being overprotective, stop and reflect for a moment. Are there any legitimate risks? Your family trying to protect you is just proof of how much they love you—so even if it’s frustrating, recognize that it’s coming from the right place.
- Did you slack off at school or do something to get in trouble? If they’ve said no as a form of punishment, it’s not because they want to hurt you—they just want to teach you a lesson. Of course you don’t like it, but your parents are trying to do the best they can. And let’s be real, disciplining a teen is no easy task.
Instead of locking yourself in your room in self-pity, try this:
- Don’t torture yourself with FOMO (fear of missing out): Disconnect from social media, at least for as long as your friends will be posting vacation pics.
- If a lack of funds was the reason you couldn’t make it on this trip, why not work on getting a part-time job so you’ll have the money next time? Start by creating your résumé, then research student jobs online or through your school and send it out.
- Treat yourself to a day trip or a staycation. With your parents’ permission, grab a friend and check out a nearby city or a new (to you) spot in your own town.
- Host a sleepover or a get-together with friends to help you forget about what you’re missing out on.
- Why not tackle some things you’ve been meaning to do? Take that art class, sign up for a 5k race, or get some Pinterest inspiration to redecorate your bedroom.
- “When you’re disappointed, it’s okay to feel sad, but don’t get in a rut of feeling sorry for yourself. Get up and do something productive to get your mind off things.” —Benoit, junior, Boston, Massachusetts
Some things are worse than being stuck at home. When Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry was struggling in her early 20s, she ended up sleeping at homeless shelters because she couldn’t afford rent.
5 steps to increase your resiliency
Help yourself bounce back from adversity with five expert tips to becoming emotionally resilient:
1. Relax and self-regulate
Maybe tears are welling and your blood is boiling. When you feel yourself heading into full-blown panic mode, catch yourself and recognize it. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing (using the muscles in your abdomen instead of the shallow chest breaths that often accompany anxiety) has been proven to help calm down and moderate emotions.
+ Try diaphragmatic breathing with this easy how-to.
2. Seek support
It’s easy to obsess over your issue and “catastrophize” (build up a situation to be worse than it actually is). Get some perspective by talking to friends and family. They might offer solutions and ideas you haven’t thought of.
3. Be proactive
The best way to feel better is to take positive actions and start looking for what comes next, whether that means joining a community sports team, researching junior colleges, or finding things to do when you’re stuck at home. Take some time to reflect, then start thinking about plan B.
4. Know your strengths
The University of Pennsylvania Resiliency Program recommends thinking back to past difficulties you’ve faced and focusing on the strengths that got you through them. For instance: Remember that time you got a less-than-stellar grade on a project you worked really hard on? You were disappointed, but then you talked about it with your friends, cheered yourself up by watching a funny movie, and made some notes about how you’d step up the next assignment.
5. NUMB your negative thoughts
This four-step process for redirecting your thoughts was developed by Dr. Ilena Boniwell, professor of applied positive psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK.
N: Notice your negative thinking.
U: Understand what’s causing you to have these thoughts.
M: Manage it. Try active intervention (doing some physical exercise), calm intervention (doing some meditation or deep breathing), and talking intervention (discussing with a friend, family member, or therapist).
B: Build on the positive emotions.
Steven D. Cohen, PhD, assistant professor, Klein Family School of Communications Design, University of Baltimore, Maryland.
Matt McGarrity, PhD, principal lecturer, Department of Communications, University of Washington in Seattle.
Sylvia Merschel, co-director, UCLA Summer Institute in Communication Skills for International Students, California.
Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York: Random House LLC.
Cain, S. (2012, February). Susan Cain: The power of introverts. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts?language=en
Laney, M. O. (2002). The introvert advantage: How to thrive in an extrovert world. New York: Workman Publishing.
Student Health 101 surveys, October 2014, August 2015, and May 2016.