Resolutions on the college process

An attempt to gain perspective on college admissions, and a philosophy of rejection.


#cognitive-tuning • 1372 words

Decisions are starting to roll in for the class of 2024—for many they've already arrived. The following is a note to myself that others might appreciate, an attempt to keep perspective in all the emotion and stress.

I. It’s likely not your fault, and it’s probably a good thing.

The process is one that’s (hopefully) beneficial for both student and college. Admissions readers are helpful.

  1. Readers’ decisions are important for both you and the place you're applying to — you don’t want to end up in a culture you don’t fit in just because the school is prestigious, or to be in a place where you don’t fit academically.

    • It's very difficult to get a comparison between schools on the things that matter, the things that determine how your experience will be — the broad culture, the deep-level vibes, the people that will be in your class and in your classes with you. We can do our best to get accurate pictures, but the truth is we won't know until we're actually frosh at the school.
    • Try to frame the application process as just another tool: you think you might fit at these schools, but you don't know that. The admissions readers are in a significant sense advisors to your college process, cutting off roads that won't make your life better.
  2. Personal fit with the college accounts for a significant amount of the variance in decisions between similarly strong applicants. Therefore, rejections may be some of the most important positive decisions in your life; they act as a preventative measure for you ending up somewhere you would be unhappy.

  3. Readers are building a class, not simply admitting the most talented students. Year-to-year Demographic considerations may be a reason you’re not admitted.

    • It's likely that if you’re in the statistical range of typical students and your essays are good (i.e. well written, creative, and most importantly representative of who you are), rejections will be due to to these factors, not you.
  4. Readers are professionals, whose job is (mostly) to admit students that will be happy and successful at their school. They have years of experience, especially those at top institutions. These people are competent. If they don't think you'll be happy at their institution, you probably won't.

II. Most of the important stuff is no longer in my control.

Essays are important, but not as important as the things that are no longer in my control.

  1. You can't suddenly change who you are right now. You can't go back and change your life. Who you are matters much more, fundamentally, than the particulars of what you write — the latter is just attempting to convey an imperfect version of the former. Essay quality (above a certain threshold of engagement/readability) doesn't actually matter that much, as long as it's true to you.

  2. You can't change external factors, like how many people in your demographics are applying, nor can you change the particular culture of the school that you're applying to. These things will most likely be the determining factors.

  3. For those who (like me) are still writing essays: do your best, say things that are true, try to have fun with the essays. Write what feels right. If each word you put on the page is your own, is you, you can come away from the process feeling like there is little else you could have done.

III. Think about how you'll feel in four years.

Good financial decisions might be a hell of a lot more important than going to your "dream school."

  1. You don't know for sure that your dream school is really your dream school—that is, if you even have one.

  2. You'll probably have a pretty enjoyable time wherever you go, even if (or perhaps especially because) the place you end up isn't one of "the world's greatest institutions."

  3. Theoretically, it's much better to have slightly less fun and not end up with $100k in debt.

  4. In reality, you don't even know that you'll get less out of your college experience if you don't go where you thought you wanted to. My sister tells me constantly how thankful she is that she didn't end up at her "dream school"; you can't replace the perspective you'll get by actually being in college.

  5. In four years, what will you be grateful for? Finanacial stability? A job? Good friends? You can get the latter two wherever you go, if you're competent (and I suspect you are). The former you can only get by going to a place that you can actually afford. That top-tier private school? Not going to give you that—even if you do get in.

  6. A note for future academics: If you want to pursue postsecondary education, where you go for grad school is much more important than your undergrad. (I know an incredibly competent and intelligent Stanford alum who got rejected from almost every grad school he applied to — he ended up somewhere great, but the fact is that having Stanford, perhaps the most competitive university in the world, on his resume didn't suddenly make everything easier.) If you're doing interesting things, that's what matters — and you can make interesting things work almost anywhere.

This probably won't be nice to hear if you're set on going to college like I am, but I genuinely think trade school is awesome and potentially much more economically valuable than a college education. Common trade school W.

IV. It'll all be ok.

  1. You have options other than going to college next year, if things go really bad. Take a gap year and learn a bunch of interesting shit, do a bunch of interesting shit, get a job, save money, then travel to Oxford and show up in a professor's office like Wittgenstein did. Who knows, it might work. (Don't actually — but the point is that you could.) In fact, taking a gap year might be the most interesting decision of your life.

  2. I don't know where almost any of the adults I know went to college ~~and if I do, and it's prestigious, a lot of times I judge them for it lol~~. Four years in the first quarter of your life will not determine your life path, nor will they make you happier or less happy long-term. (Unless you get trapped in $150k of student loans with predatory interest rates, in which case, yes, you will be unhappy for the rest of your life (/hj). For more information, see above.)

  3. This process matters, but not that much. Don't get caught up in the hype — the high schoolers around you, getting in and getting rejected, are a tiny little bubble in the whole world. This is not your life. This is not your world. Do your best, and then do your best to let go.

V. Resolutions.

  1. I won't talk about my college decisions publicly for a couple months. (*This resolution potentially subject to me actually getting decisions and feeling things I didn't expect to.)

    • If I get rejected, I'll be sad and won't want to talk about it.
    • If I get accepted somewhere awesome, talking about it will make other people stressed and less content with their acceptances. Also, I might not even know if I can afford to attend the school, even if I'm offered a spot.
    • I don't know about financial aid decisions even if I get accepted, and I won't have the full picture of my options for a while.
  2. I will ignore other people talking about their decisions — I will let them be happy, and comfort them if they're sad, but they're fundamentally on their own path, and I'm on mine. Our lives are not comparable; nor are our college processes.

  3. I will write applications that feel true to me, and that feel fun and meaningful. The rest of the process will happen as it will.

  4. I will enjoy life as much as possible — find joy in the gaps between college apps work sessions. Be nostalgic for the now.

Published 2023-12-14