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The On Being Project

Getting the Gold Star Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Students all over the country will be receiving envelopes from the schools of their dreams in the next couple of weeks. A few of them will be fat, but many tragically thin.

Almost 20 years from my own experience of applying to, and being rejected by, so many colleges, I offer a few thoughts.

You don’t always know what’s best for you. This may be your first big lesson in a very powerful human truth. Your vision of how your life is supposed to unfold, no matter how carefully cultivated, is inherently limited. Most people I know were 100 percent sure they were supposed to go to the very college that wouldn’t let them in. All of these people have gone on to be incredible humans doing incredible things in the world — as poets and doctors, community organizers and editors, teachers and scientists, fathers and therapists and aunties…

Before they even became those things, they spent about 20 minutes feeling terrible about that thin envelope, and then almost four years enjoying the hell out of college. This too shall pass. Really, really quickly. In fact, I have a vague recollection that I applied to something like ten colleges and only got into three, but I’m not even sure that’s accurate. I haven’t thought about it in years. I have no record and no cause to remember.

It’s so easy to look around at your friends and decide that this particular moment is the most defining one of all of your lives — as if the fat envelope guarantees a lifetime of reward and accomplishment and a thin envelope guarantees one of slogging and failure.

This is a performance of a defining moment, not an actual one. One of your friends may be blessed, indeed — the kind of person who charms teachers and bartenders and hot, moody dudes — but success is ultimately not about charm. At least not in my experience. Success, as I’ve experienced and observed it, is about showing up, being useful, and connecting authentically with people. The rest follows.

Speaking of defining moments, you may have already had a few: a major heartbreak, an illness, or, God forbid, the death of someone you love. Getting rejected by the college of your dreams may feel shitty, but it’s nothing in comparison to real, true curveballs.

Remember what got you through at another painful moment and call on that same reservoir of resilience and faith to get you through now. Chances are, you already have a bunch of creative coping mechanisms for getting off the couch and getting out into the sunshine.

Getting the gold star often isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Another not insignificant, but often neglected point. I know a lot of beautiful humans who went to Harvard and, every time they have to say where they went to school, they seem a little sheepish. Sure, part of that is silly false humility, but I think part of that is also the weird shadow that having that kind of early, definable success casts over your life. It’s as if you are branded with a scarlet H and have a lifetime to prove it wasn’t an administrative mistake. Start as a Harvard (or Duke, or U.C. Berkeley…) reject and you’ve got nothing to do but be awesome on your own terms and prove they missed out.

And this is the most important thing this highly-rejected human can think to say to you: this is a perfect chance to reaffirm your own values in contrast to the dominant culture’s. That’s a muscle that will serve you over and over again in a world that gaslights people on the regular.

You got rejected from a college, which concretely means that an admissions committee made of fallible humans (many of whom probably didn’t get into the colleges of their dreams) understood you through little more than a weird combo of words and numbers on a page, and decided you wouldn’t be a good fit for their campus.

The dominant culture can make you feel like that’s meaningful on some deep level, like there are winners and losers. It’s not, and there aren’t. You know that in your heart of hearts.

Here’s a chance to be your own best protector and remind your understandably fragile ego that, in your worldview, college admissions is just a litmus test within a broken system. Look at the best paper you’ve ever written or the coolest proof you’ve ever done. Look at your most exhilarating day on the field or the longest in the food pantry. Look at your friends. That’s who you are.

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