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Just keep swimming

I had a swim meet on the day of the college application deadline, and I wouldn’t be back before midnight. I intentionally waited until the last day to turn it in, so that I knew I would have something to distract me instead of analyzing my decision all afternoon and into the evening.

Cognitive dissonance is a pretty common idea in psychology. Basically, your choices become the right choices simply by being made. Psychologists advise that if you can’t choose between two options, just pick one and that one will automatically be the right choice.

It’s a survival mechanism, or something like that. We don’t like to live in opposition with ourselves. We don’t like to make choices that aren’t in line with what we want. But what if there’s no way to know if our choice is what we want?

That’s how I felt before making the irrevocable decision to apply to Cornell — and, if I got in, to bind myself to attend school there. How did I know that this would be the right choice? I think I know what I want, but do I really?

Cognitive dissonance was supposed to kick in. The saying, “Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” in my opinion, is about cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance knows the difference.

Dumbledore said my choices defined me

You can’t change your choices. That’s the point. Once they’re made, they’re made, and you have to accept them. But it gets better — you don’t just accept them, you change because of them. If your choices and perspectives aren’t in line with each other, one of them has to change. You can’t undo your choices… but you can shift your perspective.

So after making a choice, the idea is that your brain looks back and thinks, “Why would I make that choice? It was a pretty big deal. Huh. I must have really believed in what I chose.” And from that point on you will believe in what you chose.

Cognitive dissonance was supposed to throw me a bone, help me out a little bit. It was supposed to assure me that my choices were on the right track and that I really was chasing after what I actually wanted. It was supposed to help me survive the most nerve-wracking choice of my life.

But nah.

Is there such a thing as reverse cognitive dissonance? I’ve wondered that many times, but never so desperately as after I applied to college. I was happy I’d planned it out so that I’d have the swim meet to distract me, because if I hadn’t swum a few thousand yards that day, I would have gone insane.

Relief, but with an asterisk

After deciding on a college, I felt relief, but then I wondered why I was feeling relieved, since I really didn’t have any reason to. I hadn’t gained any new information; I was just as unsure that my choice would be right for me as I ever was.

So then I got nervous. I got nervous because at least back when I couldn’t decide I was admitting that I had no idea what the right choice was. Now, though, I’d made a decision, a huge one — I’d applied E.D., which is pretty much the most serious decision you can make as far as college goes.

If the school I chose didn’t end up being right for me, I would look so dumb. I had to act excited in front of my family because they thought I was sure. I thought I was sure… I just wasn’t sure I should be sure. What basis did I have for being sure?

I didn’t tell any of my friends that I’d sent off my application until weeks later, when my stomach had calmed down a little. I got some graph paper and drew up a grid that mapped out every single hour that would elapse until the day they were supposed to release the decisions.

I wish I could say I was kidding about that. I wish I could say I didn’t carry that piece of paper folded up in my backpack and pull it out approximately three times every period to shade in another square. (After about a week I got so impatient that I further divided each one-hour square into fifteen-minute rectangles.)

Seriously, I was pretty much a wreck. But at the same time, the things I was doing kept me sane. I kept up on all my homework, I hung out with my friends, and I ruthlessly filled in those taunting squares.

Sometimes I would leave the piece of paper at home when I went to school, just so that I could come home at the end of the day and color in eight hours’ worth of time to give myself the illusion that it was moving faster.

“What in the world do you think you’re doing?”

But the things I was doing kept me going. They kept me happy. They kept me from freaking out. And I think that’s what mattered most, to be honest. I tried not to take out my little grid in front of anyone, but a couple of my friends saw it in class one time and I just sighed helplessly and explained what it was.

And they said, “Well, that’s the most Sarah thing I’ve ever seen.” And that made me smile, a little bit. Because I was coping with the decision and the waiting exactly as I myself would. I was making the choices that I myself would.

So I guess that meant that I just had to talk myself into resolving my cognitive dissonance rather than letting my psyche do it subconsciously. In the end I accepted that I make the kind of choices I make because I make them.

It’s really simplistic (as a psych student I can confidently say that psychology doesn’t get a bad rap for nothing), but it helped. Because whether or not Cornell would end up being right for me, I knew that I would be right for me, and I was my first and foremost environment.

By the time I came to that realization, though, I only had about twelve squares left to color on my grid. Maybe the natural state of the newly decided college applicant is stressed, questioning, and on the brink of new self-confidence. I guess that’s okay.

Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler is a junior at Cornell University studying Performing and Media Arts and Psychology.As much as she loves writing for CollegeVine, she'd rather be astral projecting or watching The Office. She has too much fun writing bios like these for her own good.