You’ve spent countless hours perfecting your essay and application to your dream school, and you’re sure you’ll get in.

But after waiting months for that magic email to arrive, you click “open” expecting an acceptance, and are shocked to find a kindly worded rejection.

What now? Take a deep breath, regroup, and plan your next steps—just don’t try to appeal the decision. “Requesting that an admissions decision be changed from denial to acceptance is so exceedingly rare that it’s virtually nonexistent,” says Scott White, a retired high school guidance director who now runs SW College Consulting.

Many students opt for one of the other schools on their list. But if you are determined to get into your first choice, you essentially have two options: attend another school and transfer or reapply after taking a gap year. The good news: you can get accepted into a college after being denied. But it does require a bit of work on your end—and it also may require some soul-searching to make sure your first-choice college truly is the right choice for you.

First steps: What to do when you receive a rejection letter

Immediately after you receive the rejection letter, reach out to the admissions office. Write a thoughtful letter and explain that you still believe that the school is the best fit for you, you plan to reapply, and you are fully committed to attending if accepted. A positively worded letter ending with a request for a meeting could go a long way.

It’s entirely possible that the school will refuse to meet with you, but if they do agree to a meeting, get busy. Start by devising a list of questions—ask them which schools they recommend you attend in the meantime and the best courses to take, and ask what else you can do to increase your chances of admission. By focusing on next steps rather than what went wrong, you demonstrate that you’re proactive and committed to putting in the work to be admitted.

After the meeting, email the counselor a thank you note that briefly outlines your plan for the next year, touching on any suggestions they may have made, such as choosing a rigorous course load at the college you’ve chosen to attend for your first year. Keep in touch with a brief email every few months to let them know you’re making progress. They may not write back, which is completely fine. Keep your emails short, courteous, and to the point. You also may need to make a decision about where to attend college in the meantime. Some people start their first year at their second-choice school. Others decide to stay local and save money by attending a community college.

Apply as a transfer student

Your chances of being accepted as a transfer student can be quite good. “When you’re applying from a college rather than a high school, the admissions officers can actually see how you would do in a college setting, instead of predicting it from your high school performance,” says Arvin Vohra, author of Lies, Damned Lies, and College Admissions.

But transfers can still be unpredictable, depending on the size and selectivity of the school. White notes that at some colleges, “transfer admission is wholly dependent on the number of open dorm rooms, and once those are filled, admission stops. A school may take 70 transfers one year and none the next.”

Consider a gap year

Taking a gap year can also boost your chances the second time around. “A gap year can really help an applicant who may have done well in high school but whose application lacked evidence of life experience,” says Tim Patterson, former director of admissions at Sterling College, a private environmental college in Vermont. While there are programs with itineraries specifically designed for gap year students, he adds that a gap year doesn’t need to involve extensive—or expensive—travel. Instead, waiting tables or working as a landscaper in your hometown could provide valuable experience and growth. You can also volunteer for a cause that you’re passionate about or intern for a company or in a field that interests you.

A gap year can really help an applicant who may have done well in high school but whose application lacked evidence of life experience.

Tim Patterson

How to reapply to a college that rejected you

When you reapply after a rejection, approach the application the same way you would a brand new institution. Rather than focus on the rejection and why the college made a mistake, focus on all you’ve learned and achieved in the year in between applications.

Reapplying with more or less the same application a year later probably won’t make a difference,” says Patterson. Most colleges will read your new application alongside the old one, looking for evidence that the new-and-improved you will be an asset to the school and the student body.

And remember: While a rejection can sting, it can also steer you toward opportunities you may not have had. You may find you love your second-choice school, or that taking a year to work has given you a renewed perspective on what you want to study and how you want to spend your time. There are no guarantees of acceptance, but whatever you do to pursue your second chance will certainly help you stand out from the crowd—a good lesson for college and for life.