Last year at this time, Kendall Livingston felt like a failure. The Chicago 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. Livingston had no idea what to do next and considered taking the year off.
Instead, at the urging of her counselor, 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 at this time of the year, 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, say experts.
"The selection process is just so arbitrary," said Laura Docherty, Livingston's high school counselor. "It's really like gambling."
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 due to relentless marketing and the ease of online applications.
Other drivers include the popularity of early admissions along with a spike in applications from international students.
Livingston, together with 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. 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?" 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.
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 worst, transferring as a second year is always an option."
Many counselors recommend casting a wide net and applying to eight or so schools.
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.
Success is about a fit. "This is not a prize to be won, but a match to be made," said Patrick Tassoni, a sentiment frequently repeated by other Chicago area counselors.
Didn't get into your dream school? Consider that an opportunity.