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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

If you’re scared of decision day by Anna H. '14

Here's an exercise

I usually don’t write “DECISIONS ARE DRAWING NEAR!” posts, because although I would like to be comforting:

1) I worry that my words will feed the frenzy, not lessen it.

2) I worry that such a post would either be too vague, or totally misdirected – it’s impossible to identify exactly what people are afraid of.

3) For me, the best treatment was DISTANCE from the MIT admissions blogs – sitting on and refreshing obsessively was masochistic and irrelevant to the outcome of the decision. I should have spent the 24 hours before the decision out somewhere, having fun. So, I worry that posting will only encourage more people to make the psychologically unhealthy decision of sitting unblinking in front of the computer.

All that said, if you’re reading this now, then you are probably sitting unblinking at your computer refreshing the mitadmissions site, and there’s probably not a whole lot I can do to encourage you to do otherwise. So, while you’re here, I figure that I might as well share my personal system for dealing with nerves; I do acknowledge that you are not all identical to me and what works for me won’t necessarily float your boat.

Although I recognize that (3) is usually the best course of action, I don’t really have the self-discipline for it. When I try to force myself to go do something else, the usual result is that I both DON’T do something else, and feel guilty. Which is pretty much the worst possible scenario. Acknowledging this weakness, my system is:bring fears out into the open, see them for what they really are, and make peace with them.

I start by writing down exactly what it is that I’m afraid of. I force myself to articulate what exactly is so scary, what exactly I am worried will transpire. Not “I’m scared of my quantum exam tomorrow!” or “I’m scared I won’t get in!” but things like “I am worried that when I apply to graduate school, this failed quantum exam will manifest itself on my transcript, and my application will be tossed in the trash immediately” or “I’m worried that not getting into MIT will mean that I can never become a successful computer scientist.”

I then take a couple of minutes to get a snack, or walk around. I come back, and read what I wrote – and am astonished by how many of those monsters, while dramatic and frightening inside my head, look harmless and unfounded when forced out of the shadows. Think: that scene in Mulan, when Mushu’s gigantic dragonesque shadow roars “I AM THE GUARDIAN OF LOST SOULS! I AM THE POWERFUL, THE PLEASURABLE, THE INDESTRUCTIbl-” before making the mistake of coming out behind the rock and solidifying into a tiny lizard.

I think the reason why this works for me is that the inner recesses of my mind are dangerous places to hang out: when fears spend too much time there, they magnify wildly and unrealistically out of control. Sometimes, simply forcing them to take form is enough to make them disappear – Riddikulus! – but more often there are actual realizable fears that subsequently have to be understood and dealt with.

My personal example.

I drove myself into a nervous frenzy on my decision day. Why, exactly? When I forced myself to articulate my fear, I realized that it was really a fear of embarrassment. I went to a small school, and word had gotten around that I applied to MIT. There were a few teachers who were very invested in my college applications, and all my relatives were definitely interested in the outcome.

I hated the idea that others might think less of me. That my peers would think “wow! she didn’t get in?? she must not have been as smart as I thought!” or that my teachers would be disappointed, or that my parents and sister would feel pressure to find ways to comfort me and in so doing just make me more embarrassed. All I wanted was for people to NOT SAY ANYTHING and pretend it never happened, and was afraid of the onslaught of “I’m SO sorry to hear about MIT!” or “don’t worry; you’ll still be fine!”

After writing all this out, I thought: why don’t I just TELL my parents and my friends to not say anything about it if I don’t get in? That would obviously solve a big chunk of the problem.

My next thought was: wow, a lot of these worries are completely unfounded.

First of all, my friends believe in me for reasons entirely unrelated to MIT. None of that would change if I didn’t get in. I certainly wouldn’t think less of somebody for not getting into MIT – only a very small (1000 person-ish) sliver of merit overlaps with “MIT acceptance”, and it doesn’t make sense to say that it’s the “top sliver” because there is no rational way to assign merit levels. Frankly, the admissions process is a big crapshoot.

And the rest of my peers? Maybe there are people who would think: “wow, she must not be as smart as I thought!” But those people are obviously the ones that I don’t interact with regularly, so who cares?

And my teachers? The ones who took the time to write me letters of recommendation? Who invested energy into making a case for why I’m awesome? I was worried that THEY would think less of me? The REASON they wrote a letter is BECAUSE THEY ALREADY thought that I was recommendable! Letters of recommendation are informative, not inquisitive; they aren’t asking for a response. They don’t want to hear about how awesome their student is. They KNOW how awesome their student is, and are trying to make the school understand. If I didn’t get in, these teachers would not think less of me.

And my family? Yeah, they would probably be worried about my mental state, and scramble to find a way to comfort me. I don’t know why I was so afraid of this happening – I think it was the fear of having attention when I wanted to become invisible. My stomach twisted up whenever I tried to actually imagine what it would be like to have people around me offering sympathy. The more I pictured it, though, the more numbed I became to the possibility; after a while, I really didn’t mind that much. I had rehearsed the scenario enough times in my head that I felt prepared.

On the day, I woke up at 2am (England time) to check decisions, and was perfectly calm. I felt rehearsed, and I felt prepared. I knew what would happen if I didn’t get in, and I knew exactly what I was afraid of – and that the physical manifestation of those fears was much more benign than the roaring shadows hiding inside my imagination.

I’m not trying to belittle your fears. I can’t overstate that this is a really, really stressful time. But when faced with stress, you can either turn away from it, or force it to face you, and for me the latter works better because I don’t have the discipline to distract myself. So, if you’d like to try doing what I do, I encourage you to try it either on your own or even in the comments section. Articulate what exactly it is that you are worried will happen. Then, take it apart – rehearse it in you head, and make peace with it.

Anyway, I just got an e-mail from my boss saying that it’s time to stop blogging out of respect for the decisions release. I would like to keep my job, so I’m going to publish this now. Before I go, I’d like to tell you what my astrophysics professor said a couple of weeks ago. To give him some credibility: he has been around for a long time. He’s met a lot of people. He’s seen an entire field grow and change over the decades. I take his advice and perspective very seriously. So, I listened carefully when he said that “the most complimentary word I can use to describe an individual is: resourceful.” Not smart. Not “MIT-affiliated!” Not lucky, or ambitious. Resourceful. It is through resourcefulness that he has most often seen people succeed.

In my opinion, MIT – and any college – is first and foremost a resource. People who are resourceful don’t need a specific resource to succeed. YOU don’t need a specific resource, or setting, to succeed. You’ve got everything you need right there (I’m pointing at your face) and if you don’t happen to use this particular resource, it will matter very little in the long run.

With that, I’m off. And you should be too – GET OFF THE ADMISSIONS SITE AND GO DO SOMETHING FUN.