To the College that Didn’t Accept Me, In Hindsight
Editor’s note: This is a firsthand account from a CollegeVine consultant that tells of his/her own experience with college decision day. It has been published through a different account to maintain anonymity.
To the college that didn’t accept me, in hindsight:
Self-esteem used to be such a fragile thing for me. Two years ago, all it took was one letter from you to shatter my entire existence into a million tiny, sharp pieces.
After you rejected me, I think some part of me had turned me numb so it wouldn’t hurt as much, because I can’t remember clearly how I had reacted or what I had done. I just remember meeting my parents’ eyes as they asked me if I got in. I don’t remember saying anything, but I think they were able to read enough from my face — they had been the ones who’ve raised me all my life, after all. My mom had wrapped my tense, stiff body in her arms, repeatedly telling me that it was okay and that she still believed in me and that I didn’t need you to succeed.
And honestly, back then, I didn’t believe her.
My entire existence up until that point had been focused on you. I knew I had wanted to be accepted by you from the first time I met you — I’d have loved to walk to class between those beautiful crimson facades, surrounded by the music of a city. I’d dreamed about exploring those libraries, skimming through the orange pages and black text of an ancient classic. I had imagined myself on your campus, listening to cardinals in the fresh winter snow and napping on plush, green lawns under clear blue skies. It was perfect — you were perfect — and back then, I really couldn’t see my future any other way.
I remember not being able to sleep that night. It wasn’t really the tossing and turning version of not being able to sleep, but the version where I was frozen in fetal position while the voices in my head would not shut up. I had turned off my phone to ignore the messages from my friends; I knew that they were going to ask questions that I didn’t want to answer, questions I could hear over and over again in my head.
In my head, I tried to string together the answers I would give to these questions. None of them felt right.
What wouldn’t I have given, back then, for that acceptance letter? I had worked myself to the bone! I was always on the move, always in motion — always doing something. I’d started my own club to help underrepresented minorities in my city. I was captain of the varsity soccer team. My schedule had been full of AP courses since sophomore year, and my SAT scores were almost perfect. Summa cum laude, student government president, concertmaster, French club, pre-college, editor-in-chief — I didn’t stop, and I couldn’t stop. I was too scared. I knew that there was always someone better; I knew that you only took the best. I couldn’t afford a single mistake.
And as I lay there that night, in fetal position (still), I had felt defeated, unwanted — rejected. All of my hard work, dedication, and effort, and it still wasn’t enough. It had been a hard truth to accept, a truth that had gone against everything I had believed in, and a truth that had made me very sad. Not angry, because anger had to be directed at someone, and I had no reason to be angry at you. What would be the point? You hadn’t done anything wrong.
But to be sad — well, sadness needs no target.
By 4:28 A.M., the questions in my head began to change; I began to hear my own voice asking them. Where will I go now? What should I do? Will I be good enough for that? What if they reject me too? What if I’m always rejected from everywhere? What if nobody ever wants me? What if this rejection completely ruins my future? Should I even keep trying for things? What’s the point?
I remember going over these questions again and again in my head. At some point, I think I got tired of thinking and fell asleep, because I do also remember waking up the next morning in time to dread going to school — which ended up being better than I thought. My teachers were sympathetic. My friends understood. Everyone else stopped prodding me when I asked them to (with a few exceptions, but hey, that’s life). You had accepted some of my friends, and they were happy. I knew that I should be happy for them too, but it really took a while before I was able to do that.
Looking back now, I don’t think I would have discounted anything I felt as a high school senior. It was a human reaction to a human problem, and I completely understand why I reacted the way I did back then. But if I were to go back in time now and be given the same situation, I think I would handle it very differently.
Yeah, I’m not going to go the cliche route and say that your rejection letter was a “blessing in disguise” — I still look back sometimes and wonder what it might’ve been like if that rejection letter had been an acceptance, the same way that someone who’s never skydived before might wonder what falling out of a plane feels like. I mean, there’s always grad school if I wanted a second go at your acceptance, so I’m not too worried about that. In fact, I’m not even sure if I want to go to grad school yet (that’s a different decision for a different time).
But to say that I’m not happy where I’m at right now? I’d be lying!
What I had ignored two years ago on that day were all the acceptance letters that I did receive from colleges who did want me. They were very welcoming; some even offered me grants for research and admittance into their honors colleges. We visited all of them and I eventually chose one with a breathtaking, open campus surrounded by rolling hills. In the spring, the entire campus would turn pink with cherry blossoms, and every once in a while, the breeze would send a flurry of petals into the air and let them flutter down like snowflakes. The trees were stunning in the fall too — the hills around campus would turn every shade of red, orange, and yellow imaginable. The entire campus was practically a living postcard, and my Instagram account has never been happier.
I’ve also found friends, people who are on the same wavelength as I am. We were all weird in the same places, and they got my sense of humor. We could start anywhere and talk about anything; sophisticated discussions about politics and philosophy can quickly spiral into something everyday and hilarious, and it worked the other way around too. It was both comfortable and uncomfortable around them: comfortable in that we’d support each other and our assorted idiosyncrasies, but uncomfortable in that we were always pushing each other to do better than our best. All of us had a streak of “change the world” inside of us, and we would help each other realize it to the best of our ability.
This last one’s more for my past self than it is for you, but I’m not struggling in either academics or opportunities. Yes, past self: it is still worth trying, and people will still want you. Don’t freak out — effort does pay off. Mine are right now in the grades I’m getting and the internship offers I’m receiving. At first I was a little surprised; my school right now, granted, isn’t as prestigious as you, but then I met a recruiter who told me that they really do look past rankings when handing out offers.
“What good is an Ivy League education if you can’t even write me a simple for-loop, anyway?” she said, shuffling through the coding puzzles that I had just completed for her. “You won’t believe the number of people who’ve failed these or the schools they come from.”
And a few weeks later, she called back with an offer for a paid internship in the Bay Area. Turns out, it really is the effort that counts in the end and my mother was right all along (I still don’t know how she does it).
You never explained why you rejected me, and for a while I was dying to know. But now, I don’t think I need that anymore. It’s not important. I know that you’ve probably let go of it a very long time ago, and it’s almost embarrassing to say that I’d been holding onto it for so much longer. I’m sure you had your reasons for not taking me, but I’ve come to realize that you don’t define me. Just because you didn’t want me doesn’t mean nobody else does, and it doesn’t mean that I’m not good at what I do; maybe I’m just good at things in a different way and that’s perfectly okay. We can live and let live.
But I really do want to thank you for having been a presence in my life. You’ve taught me how to deal with failure, for instance, and for that I’m eternally grateful. It’s sort of strange to think that we as human beings could ever fear failure — hey, nobody got the walking thing right on their first go. And even after we mastered that, we still had many other things to fail at: eating, talking, not falling out of beds, sharing toys, and so on. Failure was our first teacher and recovering from it is still the reason that any of us could ever start becoming good at anything.
But success was addictive, and that was my problem. Ever since that first gold star sticker in elementary school, my worldview began narrowing — I wanted only success, and success after success. Nothing else. It wasn’t acceptable to fail after I had succeeded so many times, not with so many other people’s expectations at stake and not with my own pride on the line. I had begun to drive myself further and further into a dead end where my own definition of success was the only option; failure became foreign to me, and recovering from it was an art that I had long forgotten.
Your letter shattered this illusion for me by bringing failure back into the picture. I no longer had to be infallible — because, well, I wasn’t. Nobody was! How could we be, when our formative years were completely trial and error? If I want to learn and grow and change, I have to fall down once, twice, or many more times. C’est la vie.
But more importantly, you also opened up the dead end that I was stuck in, and showed me that success was something that I could define for myself. And I’ve found that things are a lot easier when I define my own success in terms of my own happiness, instead of placing it all on the attainment of something external. Back then, your acceptance had been “success” to me, but now I’m happy even though I’d failed — so what was the point of succeeding like that anyway? Success without happiness is empty, and there’s always more than one way to be happy. Thank you for helping me see that.
This year, I know you and others like you will send out many letters like the one I received. That’s okay. You’re all honored institutions and deserve every bit of your good name, and it makes sense why everyone would think that they’d have a chance at happiness if you accepted them.
But for me, and others like me, there are a million ways to happiness and you are not the only one.