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In junior year of high school, I did a thing that would practically guarantee that I had no chance at becoming valedictorian or salutatorian of my graduating class: I didn’t take a full schedule of AP classes. Instead of AP Music Theory, Art History, Psychology, Studio or any of their close cousins, I chose to train to become a peer counselor. This decision would cost me not only one class period every day, but my chance at a perfect 5.0; peer counseling was not an honors or AP class and was worth only four grade points, at most.

Making the decision was the hard part; enrollment was easy. Peer counseling was a program known for its accepting attitude: as long as you weren’t a discipline problem (which I wasn’t), you could be trained. Our advisor genuinely believed that there was a perfect place for each and every personality, and that every person had a unique way in which they could truly shine. Sounds a little cheesy, but it definitely couldn’t hurt to see the world that way.

At the start of junior year, most people who met me would probably describe me as “taciturn” – I was one of those people who talked to myself too much and to strangers, not at all. There was no danger of mistaking me for an extrovert; I simply didn’t talk.

It wasn’t that I hated people; I wanted to talk to them, and I wanted to understand them. I just didn’t know how. I knew enough of the world to know that everyone was different, and that each person had their own preferred way of doing things. And that was my mental roadblock: how was I supposed to approach each person when I had no idea what they wanted? So I sat on the sidelines and watched, to try and figure these people out. But most of the times I got lost in that, and…well, didn’t end up talking to them at all.

By junior year, I had gotten fed up with this side of me. Something was going to change, and I was going to make it change. I was sick and tired of not knowing what to do and being on the outskirts of everything; I wanted to be where the people were, to converse with them, to walk alongside them. Maybe I didn’t want to be the life of the party, but it’d be nice to get out of the corner once in a while, wouldn’t it?

So when a couple of my friends signed up for peer counseling, I told myself that I was going with them. I knew that if anything, the class would at least force me to talk to more people.

(AP Psych would have only given me more to chew over as I stood there watching.)

At first, things were hard – the entire first segment of the training course was focused on having all of us understand ourselves. All the icebreakers and self-introductions I absolutely loathed were coming at me in droves, and all I could really do was to plaster a smile on my face and carry on.

(It was funny how much I hated talking about the one person that I spent the most time with — myself.)

Fortunately, things got easier the more I got to know myself. I learned that though my introversion meant that it took me a while to warm up to people, I could reach insights that extroverts had a harder time getting to. Because I preferred thought over feeling, I could find more objective solutions to people’s problems. I learned about my strengths and weaknesses: how to use my strengths more effectively and how to temper my weaknesses so that I was more comfortable in my own skin. By the end of this year of training, I was lighting up rooms, I was asking the right questions, and I was talking.

In my senior year of high school, I finally became a peer counselor. After an entire year of learning about myself, about others — about people — I was finally here. I helped people help themselves through their own problems; I was at once a good listener and a thoughtful communicator; and I was talking. I gave presentations to entire rooms on consent, on academic stress, on diversity and acceptance and self-love. I became the friendly face that would find the other shy people in a room and get them to open up.

I developed a speaking voice and an offbeat sense of humor; I developed a distinct presence, and I was talking. To all the people who I once thought were distant and out of my reach, I was talking.

I was still by no means an extrovert; I couldn’t keep talking forever. But people seemed closer, more approachable, more alive. There was a story that each person has inside of them, and it felt as if I had just been handed the keys to unlocking each and every one. It was wonderful to talk and listen, to start the conversations instead of waiting on the sidelines.

(I would have been almost unrecognizable to my junior year self.)

Then admissions season came around, and for a while I was worried. I had given up the chance to take six AP classes, and the schools I aimed for only wanted the most competitive students. Without a 5.0,  I definitely was not the top student in my class. For a while, I wondered if it was even worth trying to apply to the same schools as the people with 5.0 GPAs and AP-everything on their schedule. I thought and wondered about this until I realized that I was sick and tired of overthinking (again), and that I should just do something. And it couldn’t hurt to try, could it?

I guess the caveat for the next part of my spiel is that while one of the two valedictorians of my graduating class applied to roughly twenty colleges, I only applied to half as many. But at the ten places where we both applied, our results matched each other exactly (even his reach schools!): I got accepted to the same places, rejected from the same places, waitlisted by the same places, deferred from the same places. We ultimately chose different colleges from each other, but a tiny part of me was surprised that I managed to keep up with him.

If I could go back in time to my junior year of high school, I’d tell my past self that peer counseling was one of the best decisions that she’s ever made. Don’t worry about those AP classes, past self – half of your AP credit doesn’t count at your future college anyway, speaking from experience – and focus on you. Remember U.S history? Remember calculus? Yeah, you don’t use those anymore (you’re an information science major now, and you don’t even use calculus – like how crazy is that?).

Now, don’t get me wrong, past self; AP classes are good for a college application, and you should take them if you can — they’re a good way to show colleges that you can learn a variety of things well and quickly. But what’s more important than learning things well and quickly is personal development, and to be very honest, that’s what colleges are looking for and what the real world demands.

It’s tempting to make a schedule and see those two tiny letters next to every class. But if any of these classes get in the way of your growth as a person, it’s okay to ease up a little and take some time for yourself. Because in the end, it’s you who’s going off into the world and into college, while your AP classes stay back in high school. They won’t come back and haunt you, and I’m not going to lie — nobody in college even asks about them, really.

So go into peer counseling, past self, and never look back. Because the decision that changed who I am for the better, that allowed me to be the one who does all the talking is one I’ve never regretted.

Love, your (slightly older and wiser) self.

 

Jeanette Si

Jeanette is part of the class of 2018 at Cornell University, double majoring in Information Science and China Studies. She hails from a public high school in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and enjoys geocaching, skiing, and gaming in her spare time. Admissions season has given her humility, resilience, and the ability to answer ten different prompts with one personal statement.