To All The Privileged High School Seniors Awaiting College Admissions Decisions
When I was in eighth grade, I think I had the chance to fall in love, but I actively chose not to. See, this kid was endearing and blushing and quite boyish. He adored all the same bands I did, and he always seemed to know exactly what to say to make me laugh. I had it bad. To make matters worse, he liked me back. At least from my side of the story, I was so afraid of losing his friendship by confessing my feelings that I suppressed them until I finally lost him as a friend, anyway. I was a coward, sure, but so was he. Simply put, I had an incredibly vivid phobia of rejection. Saying nothing was better than possibly hearing no.
Fast-forward to four years later, the first semester of my last year of high school. This version of me was still reeling in the guardedness her unrealized eighth-grade crush unraveled, but this time, there was no running away. This time, it wasn’t a boy I wanted — it was that deeply coveted sexy college acceptance letter that parents, kids, and guidance counselors in elite communities like my hometown tend to salivate over.
I graduated from a prominent suburban New York high school, where the price tag is in the town’s astronomical taxes, but students receive a private school caliber education. Unlike most public schools in the country, attending college is not an accomplishment for my district— rather, it is a basic expectation. Even the so-called slackers, by and large, go on to succeed at top-tier universities. The Class of 2017’s mean ACT score was a 29 out of a possible 36, and out of this year’s graduating class, only 23 of 206 students have below a 3.0 GPA. As for the demographic makeup of my town, there is little to no diversity. Plenty of families have huge houses, lavish vacations, posh cars, and no financial aid to worry about, even with college tuition prices spiking every year. We are the lucky ones. We are the 1%. And yet, mysteriously, many of us privileged kids, myself wholly included, weren’t happy.
In retrospect, perhaps I feared rejection so intensely because my charmed life never allowed me to experience it (or, in the case of my eighth-grade crush, I deliberately avoided it). There is nothing quite like the unknown, and though I don’t consider myself a spoiled brat, I do think that I approached the college process with some embarrassing degree of entitlement given not only my socioeconomic status, but my stellar high school profile. As soon as I stepped foot on the campus of Hamilton College, a tiny liberal arts school in Clinton, New York, I knew that I had finally found my dream school. I worked so damn hard in high school that I had to believe it would shine through to Hamilton’s admissions department. After all, it couldn’t have been for nothing! High school had given me Generalized Anxiety Disorder, acutely knotted shoulder muscles, and a whole lot of tears in the bathroom next to my geometry classroom. Hamilton would finally allow me to escape a town where people apparently only cared about Ivy League bumper stickers, where guidance counselors would plaster college acceptance logos on the window, and where my peers evaluated each school that everybody and their mother was applying to so they’d know the competition. I often recall the day I came home sobbing because I got my first B+ ever on a math test in seventh grade. “Mom,” I whined between sniffles. “I’m never going to get into Harvard now!” Frankly, I think the reason why I mentioned Harvard was that it was the only college I had ever heard of, but still, why was that the first thought to pop into my twelve-year-old head? These days, I find it mind-boggling.
Now, I have to give an immense amount of credit to my parents. Through all of the bullshit and all of the townspeople armed with warped values of wealth and prestige, they have always been honest people of virtue. Most likely, the ruthless parents simply want their kids to be wildly successful, but they often don’t channel that desire in a healthy way. Even in an environment like our town, like our school, somehow, my parents never lost sight of what mattered to them, which was always that my twin sister and I would be happy wherever we went to school. I was not as noble in my process, and for that, I am truly sorry, because poring over college admissions data singlehandedly ruined my senior year. The regret I feel for allowing admissions people determine my sense of self-worth is overwhelming, but at least it is over.
The obsession of getting in heightened my anxiety so much that I was finally prescribed Zoloft, and after getting deferred in the Early Decision round from Hamilton, I experienced what was later characterized as a depressive episode. For kids like me, the kids who have been compared to Chicken Little more than a few times (there’s no way I’m the only one, right?), a deferral acts as the anxious college applicant’s worst nightmare. The sky fell. It seems unimportant now, like waving goodbye to a train that already left, but being raised in such an elite academic environment meant that I allowed a college acceptance, deferral, or rejection take priority over all else. Getting in or not getting into a college consumed my day-to-day lifestyle, and of course, it was imperative to keep up with everyone else’s results, everyone else’s hype, everyone else’s heartbreak. It was the reality TV show that we all chose to overindulge in. Case in point: one of the only lingering reasons kids my age use Facebook anymore is to post an all-caps status with their college commitment, typically garnering at least three hundred likes, because advertising it matters so much.
I think the American Dream is to blame. In a new-money, West Egg kind of town like mine, our parents’ goal was to do better than their parents, and they succeeded greatly. But what happens when the new generation is expected to do better? These high-strung, grades-neurotic, college-psychotic parents of the kids I went to high school with want nothing but the best for their children. The vast majority of them, I would argue, are fundamentally good people who usually happen to have an equally vast checkbook. In the college admissions game, where the competition grows each year, it’s too easy to fry in the pressure cooker. I did. When it comes to the future, the stakes are arguably higher for privileged kids because the starting point is high.
There are silver linings. In the wake of the chaos that erupted, my parents finally got exactly what they wanted. My twin and I are both happier than we could have ever imagined a year, or even six months, ago. After all the random people offered their two cents on whether or not we should attend the same school (that’s a different personal essay for a different day), we both chose Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, independent of one another. In fact, I was dragged along on my F&M tour, making a point to tell my family that we were only visiting for my sister. One semester into college and one year since getting deferred from my ‘dream school’, I am a truly happy person. College thrust me into a world, a real world, where I learned to appreciate my hometown even with all its pressure and flaws because there’s nothing like distance to make the heart grow fonder. Yet, getting out of my town, out of the bubble, has allowed me to be more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. Practicing gratitude does a world of difference.
As my younger friends embark on the whirlwind journey that is the college process, I would like to offer the notion that the person you will become matters worlds more than the college you attend. I suggest that you tune out to whatever garbage the pressure cooker is spitting out today, whether that pressure cooker manifests itself as a well-intentioned yet troubled parent or an unnecessarily judgmental friend or a relentless self-critic or what have you and do your best to digest it as white noise. The truth is, my college process became so much of a fixation that I spent copious amounts of time on the Applying To College subreddit and College Confidential as I waited for decisions instead of choosing to trust the universe and relax with my friends. All of that over-speculation was a grand waste of time and energy. Most significantly, I fell into a true, deep depression because I was deferred from my ED college. I wanted nothing more than to disappear. Looking back, it makes me sad to remember how much power I gave strangers. It makes me sad to think that I didn’t want to further experience my life…my blessed, beautiful life. You cannot let a college acceptance, deferral, or rejection letter, which, at the end of the day, is just a single piece of paper, be indicative of your self-worth. Then, it was a chore to trudge around in school and contribute to the college buzz I simultaneously adored and despised. Today, I wake up smiling…except when I have an 8:30 class. This first semester of college brought about some unprecedented changes in my very existence, most of them worthwhile. A short year ago, I could never imagine myself embracing such collegiate endeavors — research, the art of personal space, friendships based in mutualism, the workload, parties, a relationship, and the meal plan, just to name a few — with the tenacity I now possess. Granted, I still have stressors, I’m still learning how to manage my anxiety, and there are still bad days. Nonetheless, I am happy, I am thriving, and I am okay.
It took me a long time to realize this, but despite my work ethic, my ACT score, my AP prep, and my impressive résumé, I never deserved anything from these selective colleges and their respective admissions departments. Our generation was taught the blinding mindset that if you work hard, you’ll get what you want. That’s a fallacy. In truth, working hard increases the probability that you’ll get what you want eventually, but no one ever owes you anything. And if you adopt the ‘take me or leave me’ attitude that I wish I was mature enough to adopt at the time, you’ll be a happier person for it, guaranteed. It is hard to chalk up your entire existence to a measly, 650-word, watered down piece of over-edited crap. It is hard to balance your future college life with all of the senior year demands that the present brings. And even after all that work, your life, your experiences, your honesty, and your diligence might not shine through to a group of scholars at a roundtable. Get over it as quickly as you can, because you’ve got shit to do, fish to fry, and an unfinished future to start sculpting.
Now, this is a distant memory rather than a harrowing reality, and it feels so liberating to write that. Rejection reared its ugly head right in my butt and I had no choice but to endure it. I emerged enlightened. To those outside of our privileged bubble, my reaction seems absolutely absurd, I know. And I suppose it was. Could I really give a college the prerogative to spiral me into a breakdown? But to those of you stuck in the thick of the bubble: I understand. I know how hard it is to find perspective when up until now, you’ve existed in a sheltered state. The insulation you’ve experienced is not exactly your fault, but no matter what, college will force you to break out of the safety, and the college process begins that undertaking. Godspeed, my friends. Godspeed.