Difficult conversations: addressing rejection

By Amy Jolly posted 03-26-2017 21:17

Difficult conversations: addressing rejection
Do you remember when your first crush ditched you?  Or when you were passed over for promotion?  Or remember when a family member said something deeply insensitive?  All of us have experience in varying degrees with rejection and while no one enjoys this part of the job, rejecting some lovely and not-so-lovely families comes with the territory. 
At this time of year we are all receiving these sad, and occasionally angry phone calls from parents of children who we couldn’t admit.  All of this happens when enrollment management professionals are exhausted emotionally and “fried” from the long marathon we call the “admission season.” 
I start this post with the questions about rejection because maintaining a healthy sense of empathy for families is truly the most important thing and one of our primary jobs is to sensitively and respectfully work with families.  I often reflect on ways I’ve been rejected before I call a family back so that I’m in an appropriately sympathetic place. 
For our applicant families, receiving a rejection letter from an independent school is the first time anyone has ever given them difficult news about their child.  Our clientele is well-educated, affluent and used to getting what they want -- so admission people have to be ready to have some hard conversations after March 10th.  I find that I am even more sensitive to those families where the student is wildly inappropriate for our program and the parents are completely unrealistic.  Here are the steps I take when I am called upon to defend an unhappy decision:
  • Be positive and open in tone on the phone.  If you feel stressed or annoyed, the family will pick up on this energy and things won’t get off on the right foot.  Remind yourself to take a couple breaths! We have a million things to do, but our institutions’ reputations rely on our addressing these hard conversations with patience and compassion.
  • Find at least one positive thing about the child that you can open the conversation with.  “Roger was so enthusiastic on the day he visited, he’s clearly a boy who loves learning’ or ‘I remember how Roger shook my hand and looked me in the eye.’  Parents work hard and we should validate their efforts and demonstrate that we ‘saw’ their child.  This also has the happy effect of disarming the parent.
  • If the parents want to tell you how disappointed or angry they are, then go ahead and let them have their say without becoming defensive.  People tend to self-actualize -- so letting them get whatever it is off their chests is a kindness and part of their grieving process.
  • Stay focused on the facts while being empathetic.  “Gosh, I can so appreciate how disappointed you are and it’s unfortunate there are a limited number of seats in the class,” or “Gosh, I want you to know that we could not offer a seat to many well-qualified students and that not being offered admission this year doesn’t mean you won’t find a seat next year.
  • Gently remind them that admission decisions are made by a committee of really qualified people who care deeply about the success of their students.  I often tell families, “I’m so thankful I don’t have to make these decisions alone, we have a committee with the director of learning support, our lower school head, someone from the Diversity Committee and of course, several teachers…I always think I know how these things will go but the collective wisdom of the committee surprises me each year.  The committee often sees things in the applicant that perhaps I didn’t appreciate which results in more thorough decisions.”  This establishes that you have a real process with qualified people making these tough decisions.
  • Try hard not to get specific.  You might want to say something like, “Roger wasn’t admitted because he pulled the fire alarm during our tour and bit me during the interview.” But if pressed, you could say something like, “the admission committee wonders if Roger would benefit from an academic setting which is perhaps more structured.”  In short, make the feedback about what is best for the student. 
  • In the end, we occasionally can’t get to a good place with a family and it’s okay to agree to disagree.  Most of the time, I am able to get families off the phone feeling as though I heard them, I understood their child, and while I couldn’t do what they wanted, at least I was on their side and validating.
Everyone has their own style in taking on these difficult conversations and practice is ultimately the only way anyone gets good at it.  As long as you are respectful, caring and authentic, you’ll do just fine!  

Amy Jolly
Director of Admissions and Financial Aid
Fenn School
Concord, MA

1 comment



03-28-2017 10:08

Thanks for writing (well!) on such an important topic that calls upon the strongest and most compassionate side of admission professionals.  A topic that we indeed might spend more time talking and sharing best practices (approaches) as you have done here.  I'd in fact love to hear from more folks be it here or off line on "opening comments" or "initial framing" on such calls with families. My approach changed over the years (e.g. I invited them to call me, I stopped "cold calling" families with disappointing news) and I got much better at it, but it was never easy, that's for sure! I have a PD session in mind for this and would love more real life examples.