That Queasy Feeling…

This post was featured at the website and blog College Admission

If you’re a high school senior, your interior monologue is probably going something like this right about now:

“God, I hope Acme College likes me. I should have taken advanced calculus BC instead of statistics! I could kick myself for not taking a fifth year of Mandarin! If only I hadn’t gotten kicked off the editorial board for writing that editorial about how bad veggie burgers taste. I wish I had taken that summer job raising emus in Australia instead of that internship at Interview. I would have had a better essay. All I did was get coffee and make copies. Maybe I can write about how I got Katy Perry a Pepsi while she was there, though. Damn! Roger Bucket’s got 45 more community service hours than I do! And he created his own foundation! (And he pronounces it ‘Bouquet!’ Yeah, right.) All I did was tutor homeless students. I’ll never get into Acme if he applies! Maybe he’ll sleep through his ACTs or get some exotic disease. No, wait, that would probably just make him more sympathetic. Wait! Mom knows a cousin of the uncle of the guy who used to live next door to the chairman of the board of trustees — maybe that’ll help. She doesn’t know me, but still…Will I have time for a campus visit before decisions? If I could just talk to the dean I could make a case for that C I got in gym. I had a hangnail!!!”

On and on it goes, spiraling into a sweaty sleepless desperation as you try to justify all your actions since pre-school for a Cyclops that only wants to eat you alive.

You don’t have to do that, you know. You made your choices and now is not the time to regret or try to justify them. You can’t undo the past, so let’s look to the future. And by that, of course, I mean your college acceptance.

Let’s assume for the moment that you and your parents haven’t been strategizing about how to get into Acme since you drooled your way through pre-school. Let’s further assume that you’ve been raised by normal decent human beings who enjoy your company and have made it possible for you to speak, read, write, calculate, and connect with other human beings in a genuinely caring and interesting way.

While we’re fantasizing, let’s also stipulate that you’ve done well in school and enjoy learning things, had a decent social life, been in a few clubs or on a few teams, and maybe been a good friend to your friends. You’re thoughtful, generally optimistic, maybe a little moody, and have a goldfish named Sam. You are, in short, someone most people would be happy to know, a fine addition to any community, in particular, any college community.

And yet, you are depressed and anxious. Nothing about you “stands out” the way it’s supposed to. You hear about other students who’ve saved some part of the world from moths or designed their own line of pet clothing that’s just been bought by Purina for $20 million. Nothing marks you as an Acme kind of person. So you start thinking of ways to describe sitting on the bench during soccer season that will make it seem noble. You redefine babysitting as “child care manager,” hoping that will give you an edge. Well, just stop it, will you?

Instead of trying to recreate yourself to fit Acme College, own up to that self and take charge of it. You don’t really need Acme to be a success. You don’t need to get through college in three years or become an MBA/JD overnight. There are really too many of those already. (Personally, whenever I talk to someone who wants to get his MD in one of those abbreviated college/med school programs, I hope I never have him as a doctor in my old age. I want my doc to have gone through every tiny bit of training before she lays a hand on me!) Be honest about yourself and start being who you are, not what you think colleges want you to be. Find places that will appreciate you for who you are. (That’s good dating advice, too, by the way.)

Start thinking about yourself this way: “I’m curious/theatrical/research-minded/scientific/political/excited by lampreys, etc.; where can I contribute my time and energy? What colleges out there would like to have me on their campus?” Turn from being a beggar to being a philanthropist. Don’t plead for admission to Acme hoping they’ll deign to accept you. Take a look at the many terrific colleges and universities out there who would love to have you. Put yourself in the driver’s seat and be proud of the things that make you who you are.

One of my current seniors is gay, out, and proud. He’s withstood bullying in middle school and being discriminated against at his former church. (Oh, the irony!) He founded a successful GSA at his high school and is looking for a college that’s welcoming to LGBTQ students. I helped him put together a list of schools that might fit this, as well as his academic criteria and thought he’d appreciate some with well-established LGBTQ organizations. Instead, when we reviewed each school he’d say, “Well, that’s great, but they don’t need me!” He favored the ones where he thought he could make a difference, where he could take his talents and energy and do some good. He’s looking for a chance to create and energize a community, not just be validated by what’s already there.

I could wish that outlook on every senior out there right now and in the future: You’ve made what you’ve made of yourself, now own it and get busy finding the place that needs you!

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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2 Responses to That Queasy Feeling…

  1. Matt Collins says:

    Terrific posts. It’s awfully hard not to play the comparison game, but it’s futile, like asking yourself “When will I have enough money?” Much healthier to start with a strong sense of self. I wish I had the benefits of these insights before I applied to college.

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