We’ve had a couple events with high school seniors in the past few weeks, and at every single one, the students have expressed their anxiety about the entire college process. This has led me to relive my own traumatic memories of getting into college.
Ten years ago, I was a bright-eyed high school senior with my mind set on one thing—Columbia University. I had fallen in love with the school early on in my high school career and done several summer programs on the campus. Columbia was my dream, and everything I did was in pursuit of getting there.
I applied early decision, but was deferred, which means that my application got thrown in with everyone who had applied regular decision, making it even more difficult to get in. Every day, my parents and I would stalk the mailman, hoping that he would deliver a thick envelope telling me that my spot had been secured. Envelope after envelope came from the other schools I applied to—some containing glowing acceptance letters offering me scholarships and others brutally rejecting me. I brushed them off and waited patiently for the most important envelope.
Columbia was the last school I heard back from. Ironically, after all the time I had spent chasing the mailman, my final notification came in an email. It was short and to the point—they didn’t want me.
Up until this point in my life, I felt like I had done everything right and been properly rewarded for it. I was the textbook definition of an overachiever: a straight-A student who always did her homework and raised her hand in class. I had never failed a test. In my spare time, I edited the school newspaper, did volunteer work, managed a volleyball team and took drama classes. I never partied, and my parents didn't impose a curfew because they knew I didn't need one. Teachers loved me, and with the exception of several classmates who found me unbearably nerdy, I was pretty popular.
So why had this happened to me? I started to beat myself up over what I could have done differently. Should I have taken a few more AP classes? Learned a fourth language? Built houses for Habitat for Humanity?
Eventually, I came to accept my fate and learn from it. It taught me that you can do everything right and still fail. The best way to deal with this kind of situation is to take your failure and use it to your advantage. Schoolwork had always come easily to me, and it hadn’t been that difficult for me to be the top of my class. Now I realized that there was fierce competition out there, and I was going to have to up my game in order to compete. And as a bonus, I found that once you’ve felt the pain of losing something you really wanted, your next success becomes even sweeter.
Failure taught me to be flexible and have a backup plan. Life does not always go according to your plan, and this is a good lesson to learn early. Sometimes you get thrown a curveball, but the best thing you can do is what I did: pick yourself up, dust yourself off and figure out the alternate route to where you want to end up.
So to any senior out there who didn't get into your first choice school, don't worry. You may end up at your second or third or even fourth choice, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter. It’s not where you go, but what you do when you get there that will define you. You will have so many opportunities to prove yourself once you get to college that soon you will stop being upset about the past and start figuring out your future. As a kid, you often get so bogged down with getting into college that you forget that it’s just a stepping stone to the rest of your life. Trust me—college is not the end goal, it’s just the beginning.
I ended up at my third choice school (Vassar), which led me down the path to where I am now—in a really good place personally and professionally. There were more bumps and failures along the way, but they only make my current situation seem that much better. And I know that despite not getting into Columbia, 17-year-old me would be damn proud of where 27-year-old me ended up.