If you’re planning to apply to competitive, well-known colleges, chances are your high school experience has been a successful one, in the way that high school success is usually defined. You’ve channeled your energy into getting good grades in challenging courses, pursuing extracurriculars, and competing for accolades. Your transcript and resume look good, and you’re known at your school as a high achiever.


When you’re used to receiving praise and other rewards for standing out from the rest of your high school class, that positive reinforcement becomes an everyday part of your life. Competitive colleges, however, are very different environments—they’re full of high achievers and talented students just like you, and inevitably, many whose talents exceed your own.


So what happens when it’s no longer a given that you’ll be at the top of your class? What do you do when school isn’t as easy anymore, praise and acclaim are harder to come by, or you no longer feel that your academic talents make you quite so special and unique among your peers?


It happened to me. Here’s what I learned about how to accept and appreciate myself for who I am and get comfortable with both my strengths and my weaknesses. Arriving at a college with an illustrious student body shook my sense of identity a little, but with some perspective, I was still able to have an exciting, fulfilling, and challenging college experience.



From Academic Star to Average Student: My Experience


Since I was a child, I always did well in school. Getting good grades, checking off all the requirements, and scoring well on standardized tests came very easily to me. I’ve never been perfect, and I struggled in my own ways, but school was a place where I was comfortably able to succeed and be recognized for my accomplishments.


This pattern continued in high school, where I successfully juggled challenging courses, a part-time job, and a full load of extracurriculars. It wasn’t always easy, but I certainly had an easier time than most of my peers. I had a reputation for being smart and talented, my teachers liked me, and people kept telling me that I had great potential.


My last semester of high school was full of recognition and celebration, attention and praise. I got into my dream college in the Early Decision round, so my exciting college plans were confirmed early on. I won awards, and then I won more awards for having won so many awards. I coasted through my last few classes and owned my AP exams. It was a heady time in my life.


Then I left my small town and headed to my Ivy League college. I was incredibly excited and absolutely ready to live more independently and explore new intellectual frontiers. I was also in for a rude awakening. As it turned out, once I set foot on campus, my high school accomplishments were no longer all that special—in fact, they were downright ordinary.


Of course, I’d been aware that my future college was very selective, and that the people who attended it did all kinds of incredible things. I also knew that my high school had been a pretty average one, so students at other high schools might have had more opportunities than I did. However, theoretical knowledge wasn’t the same as actually encountering the evidence.


When new friends and classmates offhandedly mentioned their achievements, I was floored. When I watched others do truly amazing things in college that I hadn’t even dreamed of, I was humbled. And when it became clear that I was no longer among the very brightest lights in my class, I was frustrated—and a little confused. If I wasn’t the star student any more… who was I?



Big Fish, Meet Big Pond


You’ve probably heard the fish analogy used before to describe the difference between high school and college. In high school, I was a big fish in a small pond; I stood out, and I got attention because of that. In college, however, the pond expanded dramatically; it contained a lot more fish, and many of them were much bigger fish than me. I didn’t stand out anymore.


Such is the way of the world. Think about it this way: almost anywhere you attend, you’ll be among thousands of other undergraduates who chose and were chosen by that particular school. If you’re a good fit for the school, and they’re also good fits for the school, chances are you have some factors in common, meaning you may well find that your profile is fairly average among students at that college.


In that sense, it can actually be seen as a good thing for you to become a middle-of-the-road member of your college class. That can mean that you’ve aimed correctly and found a good match for you, a college where you can easily fit in. (Being a substantially stronger or weaker student than the rest of your class comes with its own problems.)


I was lucky in one particular way: I ended up at a college where students are often more collaborative than competitive, and aren’t particularly fixated on grades and rankings. That helped me to spend less time worrying that I wasn’t impressive enough, and more time focusing on my personal growth and the fascinating things I was learning in my coursework.


Regardless, however, I struggled with the knowledge that I was no longer a top academic star, and I felt the absence of the praise I was used to receiving. That discomfort wasn’t limited to college. It followed me to graduate school, where the atmosphere was much more competitive, and it lingered as I considered my career options and plans for the future. To be honest, it still crops up from time to time.


I’ve heard similar stories from many other people who were high achievers in high school. When you go from the top of the heap to somewhere in the middle, it’s a major adjustment, and it can be demoralizing.


The only way to move forward is to accept yourself as you are. With that, you’ll need to accept the reality that no matter how much you achieve, you can’t be the very best at everything all the time—and you don’t have to be in order to have a satisfying and successful life.



Becoming Comfortable with Who You Are


I know it can be hard to believe this when you’re still in high school or preparing for college, but high school represents only a small fraction of your life, and eventually, what happened then won’t matter any more. That can be a great thing—I’m certainly glad to no longer feel all the feelings I felt in high school!—but it also means letting go of your high school achievements.


Right now, it’s understandable for your identity to be tied up in your most recent experiences and your status at the top of the high school ladder. Once you move on to college, however, it’s time to grow and change. To set reasonable expectations for yourself, you’ll need to meet yourself where you are in this new environment, and for most students at a competitive college, that’s going to be somewhere in the middle of the pack.


There’s always going to be someone who’s better than you, in college and throughout your life. There’s always going to be someone smarter, more accomplished, more dedicated, or who has more resources. All you can do is be your best self—and in this context, “best” means being happy and fulfilled, not just beating others or checking off accomplishments on a list.


Like I said, I still struggle with my ordinariness sometimes. I watch my former classmates go on to do things that are really remarkable, from educational attainments to career success to personal achievements. Sometimes I’m a little jealous—my life doesn’t have quite the same glitz, and at times I feel like just another unremarkable fish in the pond.


But in all honesty, I like the life I have. It may be a lot less glamorous and a lot more ordinary than the theoretical futures I dreamed up when I was younger, but it’s a good life and a happy life. I have my accomplishments and points of pride that feel meaningful to me. I’ve learned to stop comparing myself to others, to appreciate what I have, and to find my motivation and strength inside myself rather than relying on outside recognition.


Like most other things, it’s all about balance. Humility is a good quality to have, but confidence is also important; too much self-doubt will impede your ability to move forward. The trick is to manage your expectations for yourself, set appropriate goals for your abilities, and be proud of your achievements whether or not they’re superior to someone else’s.


This doesn’t mean you can’t challenge yourself or take on lofty ambitions—often, setting high goals can be a great motivator, even if you don’t quite achieve them. Rather, it’s about taking a broader view of what constitutes success. You don’t have to become famous or lauded as the best in your field in order to do things that contribute positively to the world around you.


It’s also about being forgiving of yourself if you don’t meet the more improbable goals that you set for yourself. Every important task comes with some possibility of failure, and the more ambitious ones are defined by how difficult they are to complete. Just because you didn’t quite make it doesn’t mean that you don’t have good reason to be proud.


If you can maintain a realistic view of your strengths and weaknesses while not judging yourself too harshly for your imperfections, you’ll put yourself in the best possible position to stay healthy and happy. Whether you’re at the top of your field or hovering somewhere in the middle, in college or beyond, your life and accomplishments will ultimately be about much more than rank, fame, or fortune.


Monikah Schuschu

Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.