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, but 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. Whichever you choose, you’ll need to take a totally different approach than your first attempt.

“Reapplying with more or less the same application a year later probably won’t make a difference,” says Tim Patterson, director of admissions at Sterling College, a private environmental college in Vermont. 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.

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. Straight As and solid recommendations from professors obviously can’t hurt. If you decide transferring colleges is the route you’d like to take, these tips can help you make the most out of transfer orientation.

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

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.”

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 Patterson. 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 field that interests you.

If you’re not sure what track you should take to improve your chances of getting in next year, you could always ask the admissions counselor who reviewed your application. It’s best to act quickly — ideally immediately after you receive the rejection letter. 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. By focusing on next steps rather than what went wrong, you demonstrate that you’re proactive and taking the application process seriously.

After the meeting, mail a handwritten thank you note and outline a plan to share with the counselor to show that you’re serious. Keep in touch every few months to let them know you’re making progress.

Whatever you do, though, be sure to avoid negativity. “I’ve had applicants we rejected follow up with poorly written diatribes questioning our judgment,” Patterson says. “Believe me, that doesn’t help.”

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.

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2017.