College Admissions Time!

It’s college admissions time again — and for those who applied early action / early decision, the results are coming in this weekend and next week. I try my best to ignore all of this in the classroom. I know that some students are going through devastating times, while others are so elated they can’t contain themselves. But I don’t know which is which, and honestly, I don’t want to know.

Why? Because I can’t do anything about it.

College acceptances and rejections are, unfortunately, a trial that all seniors have to endure [1]. Having books, counselors, and teachers around telling them “it’ll all be okay” is fine and dandy, but it doesn’t do them any good. Yes, we know it’s true. We know that these students will get in somewhere. We know that years down the road, they won’t be able to imagine going to a different college than the one they went to, because they’ll have made all these friends and had these amazing experiences. We might even say all that to them, in addition to the “it’ll all be okay.” But our words won’t make a difference to them, and we know that too. We say it because we can’t say anything else, because we’re helpless to help in this trying time. Really we say it for ourselves, our own contrived pretense that we can help in a situation where we have no control.

Their hurt is real, immediate, and prevents a broad outlook.

My own story shapes how I feel about this.

As a senior, I applied early to Harvard. I told everyone that it was a long shot and I didn’t think I would get in, and that I didn’t care if I did or didn’t. I applied early just to get it over with. And part of me wanted to believe all that, but a deeper part of me thought that I couldn’t not get in. This wasn’t because I was vain or conceited or thought I was something special. (Trust me, I was incredibly self-effacing in high school.) But the truth of the matter was I honestly couldn’t think of anything I could have done to make my application stronger [2]. Although I said I wouldn’t get in, I thought I would.

You know where this is going… I didn’t get in. I got the small envelope and was devastated.

And the honest truth was: I wasn’t crushed because I didn’t get into Harvard. It wasn’t some place I had always longed to go, or had a sweatshirt from, or anything like that. Harvard was just one of the five schools I applied to. I was devastated because:

(1) I was judged and was deemed not be good enough
(2) I didn’t know why I wasn’t accepted
(3) I had worked so hard in high school and I felt it was all for nothing
(4) What would my friends think of me, because I believed they all expected me to get in

Those thoughts rattled around in my brain for months. Seriously. I tried to shake them off, but couldn’t. All the nice things that people said to me slid right off, because “it’s all going to be okay” didn’t address any of my concerns. It wasn’t until months later when I saw the inner workings of the MIT admissions office — working there as an undergraduate — that I saw the insane number and quality of applications that were coming in. By that time, of course, I was over the college admissions fiasco. I was enjoying my freshman year. But I finally understood the arbitrariness that sneaks its way into college admissions, and comprehended the statement that I had heard from colleges way back when I was a senior in high school: if we threw out all the applications of the students we admitted, and picked another freshman class from the remaining students, we would get a class as strong and successful as the first.

All of this is to say: this time can suck for seniors emotionally. Rejection or deferral from college is complex, because it deals with how we perceive ourselves, how we think others perceive us, and toys with our own notions of self-worth. Our grades aren’t applying. We are. We make it into a story of morality: have we been deemed good enough to enter the hallowed gates?

I wish I could give all my senior who were rejected / deferred / waitlisted early the gift of hindsight and perspective. But I can’t. So I’ll just say “everything will be alright, I promise” and continue on with my job.

[1] Well, actually, I wrote a letter of recommendation for a junior last year to get into a summer program at one particular school, and if she got in this summer program and did well, she was guaranteed acceptance to that school. So this one senior got a free pass.

[2] If you really want to know: near perfect SATs and SAT IIs, straight As in all my classes, 5s on all my APs (which spanned a variety of disciplines), going to the local state university to take multivariable calculus my senior year, doing a number of extra curricular activities which focused on community service, two summers of mathcamp, and participating in a number of different math competitions. (I also had a pretty good social life, believe it or not. I loved high school. And honestly, for the most part, I didn’t join things for college applications… I joined specific clubs because I loved what we did… or because all my friends were involved with them…)


One comment

  1. What students need to learn is that college is about a best fit. Harvard is not for everyone nor should it be. I believe that if a student works hard and did all her or she could do, then fate needs to be calculated into the equation. Sometimes it is what you don’t expect which turns out to be what you need. I am currently a junior at NYU and understand the stress students feel. I created a web site to help to help students present themselves in the most positive light and foster relationships with colleges before the application process even begins. The site is called I hope your students take advantage of the site, and of the advise that is offered. Not getting into Harvard is not the worst thing that could ever happen. For some, it may be the best thing.

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