When you think about the emotional impact of receiving your college decisions, your mind likely jumps to the possibility of rejection. It’s true that getting rejected from a college you loved is upsetting and discouraging, and you might find that experience particularly emotionally difficult.
However, rejection isn’t the only outcome that can cause emotional upheaval. If you get accepted to a school you’re really excited about, you might encounter jealous or mean-spirited reactions from others, start worrying about the school’s expectations, or wonder whether you’ll fit in on campus. You might even get to feeling like you don’t deserve to attend your dream school. When I was accepted Early Decision to my first-choice college, I certainly experienced all of these.
The transition from high school to college is a major one that touches upon multiple aspects of your life, and it’s normal to experience mixed feelings, even when you get exciting news. Still, there’s no need to beat yourself up or feel guilty for your good fortune. Here’s some advice for dealing with college acceptance guilt, balancing confidence with realism, and maintaining strong relationship with friends who are going through the same difficult changes.
It’s Not About “Deserving”: Accepting Your Own Success
“Do I deserve to attend a school like this?” This is a question that’s been in my mind for years now, from the origins of my college plans, through my undergraduate and graduate programs, and even today. I’ve had the privilege of attending some very prestigious schools, but internally, I still feel like an average sort of person, not someone who will change the world. It’s often been difficult for me to reconcile my self-image with my circumstances.
“Deserving” can be a thorny concept. We all know that many people don’t get what they seem to deserve, either by chance or by design. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and some people enjoy significantly greater advantages than others. Unfortunately, the world isn’t always fair.
Each of us knows our own faults better than anyone else—I, for instance, am keenly aware that I’m prone to procrastination and have a raging stubborn streak. My intimate knowledge of my own flaws, paired with my inability to get inside another person’s head and fully know their flaws, means that when I’ve compared myself to others—including fellow students—I’ve often found myself lacking. This helped bolster the feeling that I didn’t truly deserve the educational opportunities I’d received.
However, I know now that the situation is far from cut and dry. I deserved my educational opportunities no more and no less than most of the other students at my schools, as well as many people who weren’t accepted. Regardless of what I theoretically deserved, I ended up where I ended up, and I eventually concluded that there’s no point in feeling guilty about that.
There are so many qualified applicants to competitive schools—more every year—that only a fraction can actually attend their top-choice schools. Each applicant is unique, so it’s impossible to make direct comparisons. College is so expensive—again, more so every year—that most students need some financial help, but sufficient aid isn’t always available. Inevitably, some college applicants are going to end up being disappointed.
You can probably point to someone in your life who you feel deserves more than you do, but hasn’t gotten it for reasons beyond their control. I certainly can. Being aware of these inequities and sensitive to the needs of others is a mark of maturity and compassion. However, this awareness doesn’t mean that you don’t also deserve the opportunity to get your education at a college you’re excited to attend.
Even aside from the weighty question of who deserves what, you may believe that your flaws will prevent you from fitting in on campus, or even that your admission must have been a mistake. Some people even feel like they’re putting on an act at all times, just pretending to be high achievers and motivated students, and are scared that eventually the mask will fall and their faults will be revealed. (This is often referred to as impostor syndrome.)
I felt like this many times during my education, but I had to admit that my doubts didn’t make sense. Think about it this way: if a competitive college selected you for admission among the thousands of applicants they had to choose from, they obviously think you deserve to be there. They have reasons to believe that you’ll be a positive addition to the campus. They want you.
A therapist who works at an Ivy League school once told me a secret: many or even most people who are students there worry that they don’t deserve to be there. Most students are just like you—fairly ordinary, normal people who happen to be academically talented and have put in a certain amount of hard work. They’re flawed, just like you—and they deserve to be there, just like you. There’s no reason for you to feel guilty about being one of them.
Avoiding Arrogance: What Not to Do
When you’re dealing with feelings of guilt or wondering whether you really deserve to have exciting college plans, you’ll likely have to do some work to convince yourself that you belong in the position that you’re in. Of course, it’s possible to overcompensate in the process or present yourself as excessively confident to mask inner uncertainty.
If you swing too far in the other direction, you risk appearing arrogant, entitled, or dismissive of the feelings and concerns of others. That’s not a good look, and it can damage your relationships with people you actually do care about. Here are a few specific behaviors to avoid.
- Don’t assume that you did everything right. Just because you got accepted doesn’t mean that your application was flawless and your approach to college applications was perfect. You’re not privy to the admission committee’s discussions, and the process is complicated; you probably messed up somewhere along the line too.
- Don’t lecture others about what they should have done or give unsolicited advice. Getting unsolicited advice is one of my biggest pet peeves, and I’m far from the only one. Sometimes your friends just want to vent or share information, not to have their decisions scrutinized at that time. Even if your advice is welcome or actively solicited, offer constructive comments, not just a litany of criticisms.
- Don’t forget that there’s always an element of chance in top-tier college admissions. Competitive schools get far more applicants than they can accept, and many of these applicants are highly qualified, so inevitably, some very talented and accomplished people must be rejected. If you got in, but your classmate didn’t, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re “better” than that person—your application may just have been seen by the right person at the right time.
- Don’t reinforce the idea that college admissions are the be-all and end-all. In 2014, a solid 43% of students didn’t attend their first-choice colleges, and that percentage is increasing. Getting a quality education is important, but there’s so much more to it than whether you get into your top-choice school. Besides, you’re still very young, and you’ll have many, many more chances to shape your future. Your college acceptance doesn’t guarantee your success, and someone else’s rejection doesn’t mean they’ve failed.
What’s just as important as this list, however, is what’s not on this list. You don’t need to stop being excited and proud about your college plans, or even to keep quiet about them in fear of upsetting others. You certainly aren’t required to wallow in guilt. Yes, it’s important not to be arrogant, but it’s also your right to be happy.
Practicing Compassion with Friends and Family
When I got accepted to my Early Decision school, I received my share of doubtful looks and passive-aggressive comments from those around me. The generous need-based financial aid I received also inspired some nasty barbs about my family and their financial situation—one acquaintance even told me it wasn’t fair that I got aid just because my parents “didn’t know how to save money.”
Jealousy, frustration, and resentment are ugly parts of human nature, and the words and actions that arise from these feelings can be unkind, sometimes deeply so. I certainly felt deeply hurt by some of the comments I received, and they contributed to some of my own struggles with feeling like I truly belonged at my college.
At the same time, however, these emotions are natural and normal reactions to the disappointment of having exciting, important plans not work out. Given the stressful nature of the college application process and the pressure students are under to prove themselves by getting admitted to the “right” schools, emotional turmoil is a given, and it’s easy to see why some people try to poke holes in others’ success and happiness.
It’s okay and healthy to set boundaries; you don’t have to just sit quietly and listen while someone reacts to your good news with scorn, doubt, or jealous attacks. Leaving a situation, shutting down a conversation, or otherwise not subjecting yourself to this unkind behavior doesn’t make you a bad friend, and sometimes, it’s very necessary to do so in order to take care of yourself.
However, if you’re able to offer some compassion and patience to the people in your life you value most, that’s a lovely thing to do. If a close friend suddenly turns resentful, they may be struggling with intense emotions of their own and lashing out as a coping strategy, and a little extra love from you might be tremendously helpful in that difficult time.
You don’t have to allow yourself to be berated, but you also don’t have to react with anger or escalate the conflict. Sympathy for the struggles of those you’re close to can help you to maintain these important relationships, solve your disagreements in a constructive way, and fill your senior year with joyful memories instead of avoidable drama.
Don’t let baseless nasty comments from others make you feel bad, doubt whether you deserve your college opportunities, or experience excess guilt about your good fortune. They can’t and don’t know why admissions committees made the decisions that they made, and it’s not up to them to judge you.
The harsh words of others, or the guilty feeling that someone else must have deserved your spot at college more than you did, can be difficult to bear—I know that all too well. You’re not a bad person for struggling with these issues, and in fact, when your doubts arise from compassion and thoughtfulness toward others, it shows that your heart is in the right place.
However, you don’t have to give up your own opportunities in order to help others, especially at this early stage in your life. Just let that concern for others continue to inform your choices and push you to turn your convictions into actions, and you might even be able to use your education and all the benefits of attending a prestigious school to more effectively make the world a better place.
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