When I was applying to MIT, I thought that was the single application that would determine the entire course of my life. I thought that if the odds of me getting in panned out, and in some wild reality I actually ended up going here, things after that would simply fall in place. My eighteen-year-old mind didn’t realize that this application was the first of many, many, many more. My life as a college student has pretty much been a series of applications, and today I feel that going through so many applications, and having had all sorts of replies from them- yes, no, maybe, silence- have profoundly shifted my perspective on them.
Petey’s Applying Sideways blog still remains, in my opinion, the most pertinent collection of thoughts on the internet for a student figuring out how to make Big Decisions. I feel some type of way summarizing the blog because it is a true gem in its entirety, but the three main points that Petey outlines for how to get into MIT are do well in school, be nice and pursue your passion. Someone should stitch this on a pillow, because these apply well beyond trying to get into college.
In my first couple of months at school, I was so star-struck by all the opportunities and cool societies that existed that I threw myself at absolutely everything that caught my eye, both academically and with co-curricular activities. As you can imagine, this was super unsustainable. It was the first time that I was going at life totally unscripted, without the controlled structure of high school that ensured there were designated times for meals, play and sleep (I went to boarding school). I had no comprehension of the significance of structure in a schedule, especially one that encapsulates all the necessities that go into being a functional human being- healthy and complete meals, exercise and sleep. I wasn’t eating well or enough- overloading on sugar and caffeine to get me through the day left me exhausted at night yet unable to fall asleep, which wrecked my sleeping schedule. As a result, I burnt out pretty quickly. I was consistently overwhelmed, had to drop a bunch of classes and activities, and overall finished the year in pretty bad shape.
My second year was probably when I began to understand that being a good fit goes on both sides- the applicant and the opportunity. Just as the things I was applying to were deciding if I fit with the skill sets and values they required, I also began assessing if they would be a good fit for my personality, goals and ambitions. I also realized that I have finite time as a student, and in as much as I would like to get a taste of everything that seems exciting, I have to make wise decisions about what to invest my time in. This required me to have some sort of priority list for my interests, and an overarching goal for what I would be driving to, such that everything I was pursuing would be building blocks to get me where I wanted to go.
Mid-way through sophomore year, the pandemic upended all our lives, and students had to figure out how to restructure their lives around virtual learning. This is the period that reinforced the importance of a balanced schedule since it was pretty clear from the get-go that spending all day staring at a screen was a recipe for disaster, for physical, mental, emotional health, especially with all the anxiety and uncertainty that still persists. I got a lot more deliberate about taking time for myself every day to do something that I enjoyed. That for me was cooking, or running when it was warmer, or calling friends and family, cleaning, doing yoga, biking somewhere, even just laying on some grass and staring at the sky.
With applications comes rejections. The fact that I have applied to many things also means that I have gotten so, so, so many ‘no’s. These rejections took a huge hit on how I viewed myself and my capabilities. I doubted myself a lot more- I still do. Rejections will always hurt, especially when you have primed yourself for that opportunity and truly believe that you are capable of getting it. One of my friends’ response to my disappointment after a rejection is “I would be concerned if you weren’t disappointed.” I remember thinking to myself that this made a lot of sense. I should believe that I am good enough to get the things that I want- but I should also be ready to accept that some factors about me, or beyond my control, will work against my favor. All I can do is identify those factors, gauge if I am capable or willing to change them, and try again. Every single thing that I have poured myself into then gotten rejected from has been a learning experience for me, and I am better for having had that experience.
Being nice also applies to yourself. I had to learn to give myself grace when things got real. Being my own biggest critic meant that I would pull myself down for struggling with things that it made total sense for me to have a hard time with- which made it harder for me to actually work on building up my skills in those things, since I was so focused on scolding myself for not knowing them in the first place. I’ve learnt that taking a step back and acknowledging that things are hard makes a big difference on how I approach working on them.
Perspective matters. I would like to think I am a lot wiser now than that sleep-deprived, enthusiastic-yet-disillusioned freshman that I once was, and that is only because of wisdom I have picked up from people around me. My living group, WILG, has given me an incredibly supportive group of friends who have taught me and continue to teach me how to cook good food, have good conversation, be a good person and live with good values. My blogging community continues to unload invaluable insights daily, both on and off the blogs. My professors and classmates continue to teach me to not aim for perfection, but for good work done passionately with perseverance and diligence. Relying on trusted people around me for perspective I may not yet have has taught me to zoom out and see things from multiple angles.
We live in a society bent on pushing productivity levels to the limit, even in ways that are not sustainable, and that glorifies sacrificing physical, mental and emotional health for said productivity. It’s easy to get caught up in this race either without proper perspective, or unsustainably, or both. Even so, I know that having time to do things that I like is a great privilege, and I take as much advantage of that as I can.