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A Long Week
In the midst of all my stress during my senior year of high school, one of the most striking moments of clarity and relief came in the form of a huge frustration that ended up shattering my stress-induced tunnel vision and opening up a new perspective or two.
It had been a long week. Everyone deals with college application season differently, and I had chosen what I thought to be the least stressful path: I clammed up. Some people loved – seemingly needed – to talk to anyone and everyone about anything and everything when it came to the college admissions process.
Not me. I avoided these types of people at all costs. They were just as excited by their successes as by their setbacks in this process, and that just seemed… strange, to me. They seemed like over-expressive door-to-door salesmen, peddling a desperate enthusiasm that I didn’t think was worth the price of anxiety.
What made it worse was that I knew that I was the only person from my entire high school who was applying to an Ivy League college. Talking about my college application was like sneaking through a haunted house riddled with booby traps.
On the one hand, I felt like if I told someone I was applying to Cornell, I’d feel really silly if I didn’t get in. I’d have to swallow my pride and admit that I wasn’t good enough, and I’d gotten a letter saying so. I’d rather just keep the fact that I was applying under wraps.
On the other hand, I also couldn’t talk about it because it made me feel like I seemed pretentious. After all, I was the only one, not just in my class, but in my entire school in recent memory, who was applying to an Ivy League school.
Even the other kids in my school’s top ten were applying to state schools, or private colleges just a few hours from their homes, or even community colleges. There was nothing wrong with any of these options, but I knew that the path I chose was different.
It was just something that was hard to talk about. I felt like I always had to tread lightly for fear of offending someone or of setting myself up for a humiliating experience later on. Admittedly, I was probably overthinking it, getting all up in my own head. But that doesn’t mean it was any less hard.
A Paradigm Shift
Something happened one afternoon, though, that changed my perspective a little bit. It helped me consider that maybe my struggles and contexts weren’t as important as I thought they were – or at least, they didn’t have to be.
I was talking to the girl who would end up being fourth in our class. She was explaining her choice to go to community college on a sports scholarship and then transfer to a state university after getting her associate’s degree.
It was smart, I couldn’t lie; she would finish school with about a quarter the debt that I would, and also have valuable experiences playing college sports and pursuing a premedical degree at what some might say is a less stressful institution.
Then came the dreaded question. She asked me how my applications were going, and I told her I was nervous because I’d decided to apply to Cornell ED. That really was one of the most nerve-wracking (but also oddly one of the most certain) decisions of my life.
I remember realizing that 1) I would be devastated if I didn’t get into Cornell, and 2) if I got in there, I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else. That pretty much meant that Early Decision was exactly the option for me – but that didn’t really make it any less stressful. It’s hard to put all your eggs in one basket and risk failure.
Early Decision? What’s That?
So I tried to explain this to my classmate, and she frowned, looking confused. “Early decision?” she asked. “What’s that?” She’d vaguely heard of Early Action, but not enough to describe it herself, and figured ED was the same thing. So I explained to her that if I got into Cornell, I was basically contractually obligated to go there.
And she straight-up told me, “That’s not true. That’s not a thing. Colleges don’t do that.” I just stared at her open-mouthed. Of course colleges do that – I was living it! It was one of the most stressful things ever and there’s no way I would make something like this up!
But then I realized that my own experience wasn’t universal. (This is a fact that I and most people know, but which is easily forgotten sometimes – especially in times of stress.) This classmate of mine inhabited an entirely different world, free of ED applications and Ivy League pressures.
And there were people out there for whom I represented a borderline extraterrestrial perspective. People who couldn’t conceive of a high school in which no one in recent years had even applied to an Ivy League school.
Expectation vs. Reality
Expectations vary so much from school district to school district, family to family, and person to person. Realizing how outlandish Early Decision might sound to someone who never had to deal with the concept, I actually found that a lot of my stress dissipated, largely because I knew that it would be incomprehensible to many people.
Not that I wanted my emotions to be dependent on what other people thought – but I can always learn from the way other people think and the worlds they come from. There was nothing wrong with my classmate’s way of doing things – in many ways it was more prudent than mine!
But realizing that a decision that had defined my entire life at that point in time had been completely inconceivable to her really put things in perspective. Maybe I didn’t need to stress so much. Any assumptions an outsider might make about me would be just as unfounded as my assumptions about the ubiquity of Early Decision. If I decided what was important, then I could create my successes.
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