Graduate School: Application Anxiety and Overthinking. A Christian Perspective.

A good-for-reading edit of an earlier diary entry I wrote in reaction to some unhealthy feelings I confess I had at one point in time regarding applications. I thought it better to share this with some close friends in the spirit of edification, especially since some might also be applying for other programmes this season.

#ApplicationAnxiety #Overthinking

At first glance, this reflection was about my applications. Upon further scrutiny, it was about the essence and practice of trusting God in all circumstances.

Between knowing and being close to God, and anything else, which would I choose? Saying the choice is easy — choose God. But actively making it is going to be a perennial challenge across all junctures in my life. In every way, Jesus empathised with me on this, too, by finding himself in the wilderness, facing the temptations which attempted to turn Him away from God towards worldly treasures. Sometimes I recognise something that I want and pray for it, knowing that indeed I could take any desire to my Father in Heaven. But amid my supplication, I sometimes feel an aversion towards the ‘come what may’ component of my prayer, which requires me to wholeheartedly say, ‘Your will be done’. Because at the same time, another small voice in me cautions — what if His will is… totally not what you want?

That is why the realignment of my heart with God’s is not an overnight, 30-minute prayer project. It is a process that works as a millennia of waves, whose commands come only from the goodness of our Father’s heart, eroding the hardened rocks of my heart to smoothen it into a new one.

I thought to write this because it has been quite some time since I felt this about any application. Throughout college, I sometimes had enough self-confidence to believe I had what it took and indeed got accepted. Other times, the thing I was applying for was perhaps not as high stakes, such that I was willing to see past the unsuccessful application relatively quickly. This time, I have to cast any ounce of self-confidence or pride into the fire, by admitting that my fear and worry over the Schwarzman Scholars application was getting the better of me. As a Christian, it might be the juncture where I have to put things into perspective. Heavenly perspective. I write this in light of the amounting stress over the previous weeks, whether it be second-guessing my ability, comparing myself to other applicants and candidates, overthinking my strategies, and creating more work than I perhaps needed to make the application. All-in-all, I was second-guessing the whole process while in the running for this highly selective programme. The more I compared and second-guessed, the more my worries mounted higher as I served to be my biggest critic.

A lot of contingent planning, a lot of worrying, not enough surrendering.

I may not wholly remember my state of mind during the process of my application to Yale-NUS College. Still, I think the degree of worry and stake I feel for this Schwarzman Scholars application is just as high, if not higher. From applying to Yale-NUS, I will never forget how my faith in God carried me through. And how God prevailed in the successful application and would also have had in an unsuccessful application.

The challenge here, for me, is not from the circumstances beyond me but within me; to decide on my answer to the very first question at the beginning of this entry: will I choose God over anything and everything? That is the answer which determines any true peace out of every application I make.

To make the best application I can, I must first decide this answer for myself. Will I not languish, or feel aggrieved, or inflict self-pity and blame, but see God’s grace and wisdom in the way forward? Shall I still acknowledge my hope for acceptance, as well as my anxieties and worries, but greater still, trust that there could yet be greater ways forward should my plans have turned otherwise?

Perhaps the above is what I have just decided to write in the ‘tell us something we won’t know about you from reading the rest of your application’ section of my application. I contended that doing so would be the only way to authentically and completely show who I am in my application, as far as I’m concerned, and I believe, my Lord is concerned. It is the most powerfully honest answer for them about who I am, in heaven’s eyes.

Lord, I am a sinful and broken man — that I will always remember. I am only where I am because You saved me and carried me from strength to strength. Yet even after, I continued to fall away from time to time, and sometimes for extended periods. I will yet see more falls so long as I live in this flesh, but I must not let falling become my habit or my nature of falling become an excuse, so long as I know that You are with me. Such moments of falling did happen once I received your grace to enrol in Yale-NUS, when I subconsciously (and worse yet at times, consciously) started trying to serve myself rather than seek You in all things. The undergraduate Promised Land came with a billowing cloud of temptations to further me. I pray that this time, if it is Your will, You give me a second chance to navigate a similar scenario, but now more earnestly and wholeheartedly asking, ‘how do I bring the glory to You and only You?’. And even as my promises here will ultimately mean nothing because even those words will pass, may it be that for as long as the words remain here, they continue to be a reminder to my future self that I had surrendered my life to You; that, every time I fall, I get up again and go back to You; that, my falls become less frequent, and my time with You, more; that, successful or unsuccessful application, You are with me always; that, successful or unsuccessful application, You know right where You need me and want me to be, and that You will send me there.

Teach me to love and pray for my fellow applicants even if I do not know them, and even more so if I know them and am afraid of the strength of their application against mine. And to also not compare me to past candidates, as glittering as they sound — wash aboard a great wall of high achievers plastered on a website that celebrates the kind of people they are.

Give me the strength to worship and rejoice in You still when the world presents me with an unsuccessful result. Remind me that there is profound power in my vulnerability to acknowledge my sadness, followed by a display of gratitude for Your goodness even if the world may not see it.

Remind me that there will always be people who are ‘better’ than me. But, what I can do, in my God’s name, is to know that I have always been good enough for Him through Jesus’ blood. Conversely, for those who see me as their ‘better’, I am to receive Your help to live an exemplary life and break the narrative that a ‘better’ even exists as we all stand before God.

May the best candidate, in the programme’s eyes, gain acceptance. May I ever remain convinced that I am already and only made best by the One who gave His best — His only Son, to die for me.

Practical steps I have taken:

- Trust in my application just as I trust in God who is with me in my application. Put in my human best within my human limits, without harping on what could have been done better, but simply putting my best foot forward from the present.

- Pray for other applicants. Pray too, that if it is in God’s will that these other applicants be accepted into the programme instead of you, then your season is otherwise best spent elsewhere too, according to His good, pleasing, and perfect will. Should that rejection come, go forward in search for the next step, asking for His guidance, and if He so pleases, for retrospective answers in the future to put this present experience of suffering into perspective.

- Believe that there are people who will be with you in your disappointment and also continue to believe in you. Acknowledge that there too are people who will judge you and look down on you, and only they will know themselves if they have been as such. The good thing is that you can choose who to live your life with, and the ones who quietly belittle you would have just made a fool of themselves in God’s eyes.

- Continue to do all the good you can, in all the ways you can.

In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.

In the whole process, there were many things I was afraid of. And I can see how the exercise sent my thoughts spiralling. For example, I was afraid of asking past candidates for help, lest I troubled them, or felt I was not up to it, or I would only be at peace if ‘I did it myself’. But at times, I also postulated that the more opportunistic applicants out in the world would network, help each other, and result in words or recommendations going around in their favour before I submitted my application, relegating me lower in the pecking order. At times I feared if there would only be a single place allotted to my small college in Singapore and that I would hardly be a serious contender, having personally known all the brilliant people in my community I would be pained to stand up against. I have wondered if I should have kept my application even more discreet, so other people would not have found out or that I could save myself the embarrassment and hide the failure should it happen. I have wondered if I should have networked more with the Schwarzman Admissions team. I have feared that I did not create a lasting impression on ‘people who mattered’ and might be pressured to do so. I realised there were a thousand things I could do, but they were all in the effort to shovel away fear and uncertainty rather than building much more confidence in the right places — in God. Covering all ground, so to speak, is what causes burnout at times; the act of securing success by attempting to eliminate the need for faith (think about it). But, as an individual, such a life is impractical, ideal, and perhaps downright anti-life. I then wondered if the faithful way is to sit down more quietly with God and ask more clearly, “should I do this or that to help my application?” As I ask such questions, I would know too if it were me trying to touch all bases out of fear that I hadn’t, or me genuinely hoping to make a good application that I can be sufficiently proud of within the time, space, and heart that I had, as well as completely surrender it to God.

Finally, extending these reflections into other areas of my life, I too must appeal to myself: shall I not devalue myself if the application does not come to pass? Shall I still dare to have the confidence and stature to pursue other things and not bear a grievance? Shall I pour my pain out to God and receive Him in the post, seek His wisdom and heed His direction? Earlier this year, I gave myself two application windows’ worth of attempts into this programme. This season is only the first, and it’s already revealed to me more about my relationship with Him and how I wish to walk more closely with Him on the road after graduation. If I take on this perspective, I can already surmise that this marks a successful application process.

Lord, thank you for this time of reflection to centre me back to You. As always, remind me that nothing will matter if I have lost You in the centre.

In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.

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