So the rest of your decisions are coming in by Michelle G. '18
and let's take a second to talk about it
Ahhh, yes. I know this time of year. Left and right you have tiny pansies sprouting up from the earth and cherry blossoms sprinkling their petals. Baby bunnies hopping around gleefully at your feet. The smell of fresh sweat and tears exuded by seniors everywhere in the midst of their college decisions being sent to their inboxes. Such a beautiful season.
If you’re like 92% of kids who applied to MIT, then you probably didn’t get in. And if you’re like most every regular action college applicant, regardless of admission or non-admission to the Institute, you probably applied to other schools that are spewing their judgments at you all of this week and next. I remember this week in late March as a very scary time, especially since so many MIT applicants also apply to the slew of top schools that all tend to release within several days of each other. At this point, their decisions are real enough to be on your mind, but not all real enough to yet be materialized as a concrete “you’re in!” or “we regret to inform you” (or perhaps the demoralizing “wait a few months for an actual decision”) on your screen. So you wait a bit longer. That’s all you can do.
Now, I could go on and on about how “well, you’ll be happy wherever you go!” and “a decision doesn’t define your worth as a person,” and “hun, you’ll do amazing things anyway.” I can show you all the world’s examples of people who faced rejection and subsequently found greatness. I can aggressively remind you of how awesome a person you are, and how the fact that you applied to these great schools says a lot about your impending success at whatever you choose to do. Because, you know, it does, and you are, and you most definitely will lead an amazing life despite the absolute absurdity of the US college admissions process. But you’ve heard all of that already, and you might rationally already know it. Your anxieties aren’t miraculously cured.
How many times have you been reminded of each one of these little sentiments? How many teachers and guidance counselors have advised you that you just need to have a positive attitude (because you had no idea) and that you’re just a bright beautiful shining star with “great things ahead of you?” And what right do I – a girl who lucked out in the process and is currently attending her dream school – have to tell you to essentially calm down, because it really isn’t that bad?
I’ll give you an analogy: MIT is, as I’m sure you know, hard. A lot of people struggle here – scratch that – everyone struggles here to at least some degree. Just recently, a friend of mine was having a particularly struggle-ridden afternoon with a class intended for students with a lot more “mathematical maturity” than he had previously developed. He was ranting to me about how stressed the workload was making him, and so I started:
“Well, we both know you’re insanely smart, and the fact is that everyone else in this class comes from a fuller math background, and it’s not you..”
“I know!! I mean, sorry, but I know I’m less experienced, but knowing that doesn’t help me in any way right now.”
“Oh, well, you’re working so hard, and you’ll end up learning a lot and feeling good afterwards…”
“Look, yeah, I get you’re trying to make me feel better, but the fact is that I have 8 hours straight of work ahead of me if I want to submit this by the deadline, and it feels horrible, and I’m exhausted…”
And like so, he continued to vent his frustrations until he was satisfied enough to embark on the eight-hour grind. I realized the error in my well-meaning attempts at subduing his distress; that I could do the most good by just shutting up and listening rather than discounting his concerns. Hard feelings should be validated, not suppressed, and sometimes “ah, that really sucks, dude,” is the only appropriate thing to say.
So, while I know you will most definitely end up happy, that doesn’t change the fact that the window of time right before most decisions are released (and possibly after you’ve been denied from one of your top schools already) can be stressful beyond belief, and I think we should talk about it in a more open way. Sound good? I’ll start.
I remember starting my applications in September of my senior year after I’d gone to Cambridge for a several-day visiting program at MIT. I succumbed to the emotionally devastating trap of falling in love with one particular school, and invested hours a day into what was clearly a dysfunctional relationship. By December, I became obsessed with those College Confidential threads that show stats for students who got in (horrible, horrible habit, would not recommend). I stalked through the MIT tag on Tumblr to learn everything I could about the lives of its students. I read the admissions blogs like the Holy Bible under a vague superstition that my devotion would render me “worthy” on the rapture of decision day; I had been vomiting occasionally from nervousness by the time that week arrived.
One of the things I can most clearly recall from that time period is habitual daydreaming about acceptance. I would fantasize about how I would tell my family the news, the kind of status I would write on Facebook, the color pom-pom I would use to top my party hat in the resulting celebration (green, definitely green). And then I would wake up from the fantasy and feel a strong dysphoric sense of “oh wait, 92%.” Oh wait, my grades could have been better, scores could have been higher, why am I being stupid and even considering the possibility of acceptance, this is silly, I’m nowhere near good enough… something something, dangerous thought patterns leading to feelings of inadequacy and distress. It felt impossible not to dwell.
And then there was the simple stress of not knowing. It’s like you’re sitting in the medical exam room going “what’s the prognosis, doc?” but the doctor can’t tell you for another week, because they’re not finished testing your blood for the rare strain of Ebola that they think you might have. Or alternatively, say your teacher is still grading that really important test that defines your entire grade, so it’ll be a few more days before you can see how you did. Did you pass? Did you screw up the question on honeybee mating habits as badly as you thought you might have? The uncertainty, in itself, is psychologically agonizing. Patience is a rare virtue.
I should probably mention that I’m not entirely sure how normal my experience was, since I went to a high school full of hyper-motivated students with dreams of HYPSM. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so stressed out had I not been surrounded with a network of anxious friends. Yet, I do consider myself lucky to have had a group of people to rely on when the waiting game was too difficult to play alone. And among my peers, I certainly didn’t have the worst case of it, as too many of my fellow applicants had to deal with the added fear of their parents’ reactions to a rejection – the notion that respect within their family and community was at least partially contingent upon an Ivy acceptance. I don’t see how any amount of “you’ll be happy at any college” could quell that type of burden.
When Pi Day came around, many of these peers were subjected to Stu Schmill’s “sorry” and well wishes. I remember one friend recounting how hard he had worked in high school and trying to understand his decision in terms of where he fell short: “was I not unique enough?” and “should I have worked harder?” to which I firmly insisted “no.” Although my classmates not admitted were among the most intelligent, genuinely good people I had ever known, the suspicion that your rejection corresponds to an academic or personal shortcoming can be naturally difficult to ignore. No amount of reassurance can avert all insecurity, and the resulting self-doubt can be stressful and damaging. So went those few weeks.
As for the time preceding other “big” decision dates – I can’t say I had to deal with any regular applications myself, so perhaps it’s not my place to elaborate. I can only attest to all the nerves surrounding me, especially in those students who had aspired to study at the best universities since before they could fully understand what that entailed. Of course, there were also the kids who went about it without appearing the least bit perturbed, which is just impressive, and awesome. That kind of positivity is what I aspire to be, though easier said than done.
Anyway, you guys, I hope I didn’t freak you out even more. I’m not trying to imply that you should be dying over decisions, but I wanted to point out that in my experience, it was a lot more difficult to handle than people generally talk about. It seems that we expend so much energy to counter the fears you might have – which is necessary and good – but rarely take a step back and validate all the bad feelings that quietly exist. I’ll say it: the admissions process is terrifying! Both rejection and the prospect of rejection feel awful, and a positive attitude isn’t a cure for every bit of anxiety you might have over it. Let’s talk about these feelings more honestly, and more often.