The College Conundrum

Looking back, my reaction to being rejected from a college surprises me. At the time, I knew all the truisms that my college counselor and last year’s seniors had imparted: college decisions don’t define you, one rejection doesn’t reflect other schools’ responses, etc. I knew these stock phrases so well, in fact, that as I now celebrate with or console my friends, I find myself invoking them with regularity without having to really think about what I’m saying.

The day I received my first college rejection letter, I didn’t tell anyone. That morning, the last Friday of Thanksgiving break, I woke up wrapped in the soft embrace of my white hotel duvet, bathing in the mid-morning sun of Mexico City. After enduring senior fall and winding up in Mexico for vacation, I couldn’t have felt more triumphant and accomplished. However, an unexpected email from the admissions tutor at one of the colleges to which I applied early undermined this feeling of worthiness, imbuing me at once with doubt and uncertainty. Though none of my accomplishments or attributes had disappeared, I felt as though a few individuals’ appraisal had diminished the value of my qualifications. The rejection letter, it seemed, had exposed some damning flaw I had failed to conceal in my essays and scores, and this flaw filled me with shame. I struggled to share the bad news with anyone, even as I sat down for breakfast with mother.

As other seniors and I anticipate and receive college decisions, I hope that we, as members of the Choate student body, can help each other avoid feelings of unnecessary shame and ineptitude by offering each other support and avoiding unhealthy discussion about college. However, we will only be able to do so when we improve the way in which we talk about college acceptances and rejections, specifically, when we become more comfortable sharing in each other’s news, both good and bad. In the months building up to these tense weeks, I’ve noticed that we tend to speak about the college process with extreme caution, hesitating to mention the name of our first-choice schools, becoming irritable towards nosy under-formers, and otherwise guarding our college processes from each other.

When I reflect on my participation in this culture, I recognize that I, like many, feared the possibly of having to admit my failure in the future. This fear caused me to make my first rejection letter a private shame, rather than opening up to my friends and community, whom, I’m sure, would have supported rather than derided me. If we fail to speak openly about our college applications, to cast off our fear of “failing” before our peers, we will continue to alienate ourselves from the support we deserve, while simultaneously encouraging a culture in which we are unable to acknowledge our inherent imperfection.

In addition to preventing ourselves from receiving support, we also create a hostile environment for the proliferation of covert, often unfriendly gossip when we normalize our reclusive behavior surrounding college. By approaching college decisions with silence and caution, we make our processes topics of backroom conversation, rather than trying experiences to which we can all relate. If we deconstruct our current culture of unrealistic perfection, we can combat the negativity and pettiness that pervade talks about our peers’ college processes.

I don’t think we, students, are wholly culpable for our guarded culture surrounding the college process. The daily competitiveness of Choate life makes us feel as if we ought to be beyond imperfection. However, to truly thrive during the college application season, we must reject it. At the beginning of this year, both Student Council President Cecilia Zhou ’17 and Headmaster Dr. Alex Curtis implored us to embrace unity. We owe it to one another and to ourselves to uphold that commitment. So, I suggest we exercise vulnerability and allow our community to see more of our flaws. Tell that nosy freshman where you applied for early decision. Thumbtack your college response letter to the mantle of the dining hall fireplace. React with the same kindness and openness you would want to receive yourself when someone else gets the news for which we’re all waiting.

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