Early application results for the Class of 2022 were just released and college aspirants are wrapping up their remaining applications to be shipped off for review. It’s as good a time as any to share my college application story.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t get into my dream school (see also, article title).
But that’s also not the true ending to what is a deeply personal story — one I’ve told only a handful of my closest friends. I hope in sharing it more widely, especially in my capacity as the founder of a startup in the college admissions space, I can help students (and others) who find themselves in a similar position reframe “failure” as an opportunity to let their courage and resilience soar.
“You learn more in failure than you ever do in success.” – Jay-Z
When I was 10 years old, I learned that my 4th and 5th grade teachers had a bet going on whether I’d end up at Harvard or Yale. That expectation would color the next decade of my life.
Through my middle school and high school years, Harvard had a virtual monopoly on the number 1 spot on U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings list. It was synonymous with “best” and of course I was getting into the best school there was. It was my unwavering goal, my true north.
Between class, after-school practice, club meetings, and homework, I slept an average of 4 to 5 hours a night. On the surface, I was one of the most accomplished and put-together students in my high school. I was acing my classes; I was running for and getting elected to student government and multiple club positions; I was a Junior Olympic fencer; I was an All-State musician; I was a National AP Scholar; I had started an international educational charity. Deep down, I was deeply unfulfilled.
My entire existence was justified by my eventual Harvard acceptance.
I was convinced that the sheer magnitude and intensity of my desire to get into my dream school would guarantee success. After all, isn’t that what people say? You’ll get something only if you want it badly enough. Well, I wanted it bad, and I had worked my ass off for it. By senior year, I was chronically sleep-deprived and on the edge of burn-out, but my dream was intact.
When the early admissions deferral notice came in the mail, I was gutted. After holing away for a couple days, I kicked into problem-solving and crisis-management mode. I reassured myself that there was still the Regular Decision cycle. This was just a temporary setback. A test of my will. I was taught to always go the extra mile. Okay, so I would submit another stellar recommendation. I would schedule a visit with the Harvard fencing coach and ask for an audition with the student symphony. I was going to exhaust all my options and wow Harvard with my diehard dedication.
Then came the wait list letter in March. I couldn’t believe it. This was what I crammed 15 APs into my schedule for? This was what I spent weekends and summer vacation accumulating titles and awards for? This was what I had designed my life around?
After steeling myself for a few weeks and reassuring myself my family would be okay, on May 31, 2006, in the dark of the pre-dawn calm, I stoically and resolutely executed my plan to overdose on prescription painkillers. It had been a beautiful warm spring day in New York.
People often ask me why I care about my startup AdmitSee and the work we do. My response is that I’ve always had a passion for education as a means for social mobility and broadening one’s horizons. Access to education and equal opportunity go hand in hand, and nowhere is this opportunity gap more apparent than at the college admissions level. This is all true. But, if we peel away all of that, what’s also true is that the fire within is fueled by how intensely I still empathize.
I work today for the high school version of me who I feel so much sorrow and regret for; the me I want to take by the hand and say “Hey, it’s going to be okay;” the me who represents others out there with similar dreams and goals and inevitable disappointments; those who haven’t yet learned how to fail. I’m sure anyone who knew me then reading this now will be shocked. Everything came easily to me: academics, extracurriculars, the respect of my peers, the loving support of my family, a future paved in gold.
But my entire self-worth was tied to a single outcome.
Not getting into Harvard was devastating on a level that cut deep to my core. All the sacrifices I made to my mental health, my social life, my interpersonal relationships suddenly no longer had any purpose. Had I really given up 18 years of my life to face rejection from the only thing I had ever worked toward? Who was I if I wasn’t Harvard material?
There are two kinds of self-esteem. There’s the self esteem built up by external validation that results from praise and approval of your accomplishments. Then there’s the more crucial type of self esteem that comes from within; an inherent sense of self-worth and self-value that serves as a safety net when all the external factors fall to the wayside. I didn’t have that safety net.
Jennifer Crocker, a psychologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, found in her research on self-esteem that college students who based their self-worth on external sources — physical appearance, approval from others, and academic performance — reported more stress, anger, academic problems, and relationship conflicts and were more susceptible to depression than students whose sense of worthiness was self-driven. Interestingly, the study found that students who based their self-worth on academic outcomes didn’t even receive higher grades than their peers despite studying more hours each week. Turns out, having your self-worth on the line doesn’t necessarily help your performance.
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck who studies how to foster success has found that there are two major mindsets that are manifested from an early age: Fixed mindsets and Growth mindsets. Fixed mindsets are founded on the belief that your qualities — intelligence, personality, and interpersonal traits — are predetermined. In contrast, a growth mindset is based on the belief that these qualities can be cultivated through your efforts.
“The fixed mindset creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. Every situation calls for a confirmation of [your] intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated.”
Dweck and her team found that people with fixed mindsets see risk and effort as potential giveaways of their inadequacies, revealing underlying shortcomings. People with fixed mindsets tend to avoid taking risks that can reveal what they view as deficiencies. When every action is a reflection of your intrinsic abilities, the risk of failure is catastrophized.
Compare that to the growth mindset, which views risk and effort as opportunities to fulfill your potential and to stretch yourself, even if you come up short. In fact, if you come up short, it’s an indication you’re pushing yourself to grow.
When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world — the world of fixed traits — success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other — the world of changing qualities — it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.
In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.
Eventually, I came to see my Harvard rejection as something to be grateful for. It was ultimately the catalyst for a paradigm shift — the beginning of a journey toward mental well-being and self-discovery. It was the first time in my life I had to cope with what I viewed as acute personal failure; the first time I had to address my intrinsic worthiness as a person. The experience was formative to say the least. The upside to having your self-esteem shattered is you get to begin again more intelligently. You get to redesign your mindset. In its wake, I’ve learned to cultivate resilience, self-reliance, boundary-setting, and, most importantly, kindness and compassion for myself.
I share my story in the hopes that mental health is discussed more openly for a generation of students more stressed and at risk than the last. According to the CDC, in the decade since I applied to college, the suicide rate for girls ages 15 to 19 has doubled; the rate for boys in the same age range has increased 30%. It’s no surprise that a 2016 Barnes & Noble College Insights survey of nearly 1,200 Generation Z and millennial students found that “stressful” was the most common word used to describe the experience of applying to college; 65% of respondents chose this descriptor.
To all those who will soon be hitting that submit button and putting your fate in the hands of a few individuals who will judge your “worth” based on a collection of numbers and essays, know this: you are enough. Whether you’re accepted, rejected or waitlisted, the college you go to does not define you. How you deal with success and setback is what will carry you in life.
Never let success get to your head and never let failure get to your heart.
You can let rejection be a definitive stamp on your capabilities, or you can reframe it as a way to challenge yourself to grow and strengthen your coping muscles. I hope, no matter the outcome, you’ll leverage your application experience to develop a deeper appreciation for yourself — the “you” you already are today and the “you” you have what it takes to become.
If you are concerned about your mental health or that of someone you know, please reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1–800–273-TALK (1–800–273–8255).
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Originally published at medium.com