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Two weeks before last November 1st, the dreaded early deadline for college applications, I was lost.
After months of research and tours, and days and hours spent finalizing a balanced list of colleges, I liked every school on my list, but there were three schools that I loved. They had the programs I was looking for, great locations, and I felt good on each campus. They also happened to be the schools on my list that were hardest to get into.
I met each admission rep, and found out that about 50% of their freshman classes were accepted Early Decision. Early Decision is stressful because it is binding, which means that a student who applies ED has to go if they’re accepted. Many colleges now accept a large portion of their classes ED because they know those students will attend. This means the likelihood of getting in ED is higher than regular decision in most cases.
In hindsight, it’s easy for me to say I wasn’t ready to apply ED.
I couldn’t even decide on a top choice among the schools I loved. The low acceptance rates and high stakes pushed me to ED. I thought I was unlikely to be admitted regular decision to any of these schools, and if I was denied from all three, I’d regret not taking advantage of my best chance to get in.
The Early Decision deadline was approaching fast, and I’d completed the supplemental essays for each of my three favorite schools. Along with researching programs on the school websites, I decided to look at a student review website. This was a bad idea. The website asks “current students,” with no way of really knowing if they attend the school, what the stereotypes about students are, what they would change about their school, and other things like that. These reviews didn’t help me differentiate among the three — they just made me nervous about the possible downsides of each of them.
In the end, although I convinced myself that I was picking the school I liked more, I picked the one I would have the lowest chance of getting into regular decision. It was like a chess move. I was subconsciously viewing the decision process as a game where the lowest acceptance rate meant the best school for me.
I submitted my ED application to that school and also applied EA (non-binding Early Action) to two other schools with the same deadline. Then, while I waited to hear back from my ED school, I kept working on other applications. As much as I wanted to wait to hear if I got in first, I was worried that a rejection without my other supplemental essays finished would be much harder. I was also still genuinely excited about the remaining schools on my list.
December 15th couldn’t come soon enough, and I received an email telling me exactly what time the decision would be released. The night before I did something I hadn’t done in a while: I journaled. I wrote two “letters to my future self” — one for if I was accepted and one for if I was denied.
The decision was released in the middle of my basketball practice. I watched the clock anxiously and, when it was time, I excused myself to go check. My hands were shaking as I unlocked my locker, grabbed my phone and dove into email. I opened the applicant status portal to read, “We’re sorry to inform you…”
My stomach dropped into my basketball shoes. I held it together and went back into the gym. Needless to say, it wasn’t my best practice of the season.
Afterwards, I finally let myself feel it all in the safety of my car as I drove home. My mind started to roam into unpleasant corners, pulling out old feelings of “you’re not good enough” and “you’re not smart enough.” After that night, it took me a while to bring myself back. I shouldn’t have let a decision based on things that were mostly out of my control dictate my self-worth, but rejection hurts. And it also doesn’t matter how attached you are to a school, if you’ve wanted to go there your whole life or just for a few months. You have to mourn the loss of that dream.
When I got home, my parents tried to console me, but I just wanted to be alone. I went upstairs and read the letter I’d written to myself.
It wasn’t meant to be. There’s nothing wrong with your grades or application — they just have a ton of people applying and no chance for them to know who you truly are. It doesn’t matter what people think when they hear you got rejected. It doesn’t matter if anyone you know got in, because maybe it was meant to be for them. Think about the feeling you had at those other campuses. Those are still a possibility, and it’s gonna work out.
The letter helped me reframe the rejection and turn my thoughts back to the other places I was applying.
I thought about how long it took me to decide on my “number one” choice which was because I liked all my schools and the small differences between them didn’t really matter.
I have friends who fell in love with a college, knew confidently that it was their number one choice, applied Early Decision, got in, and were intensely excited to attend that school. I have others who, like me, received the dreaded rejection letter, but unlike me, had no other college applications done before they heard back. I used ED as a tool to improve my chances, but I remained open to other schools and it made rejection much easier to overcome.
The summer before my senior year in high school on one of my campus visits, I had a particularly out-spoken tour guide who answered the classic “why did you choose to go here?” question with a piece of advice I carried with me throughout my college process. She explained that the school where she ended up wasn’t where she initially imagined herself. She was rejected by her “dream school” and plans changed, but she went into freshman year at a school that wasn’t her top choice and made that school the best place for her. “You can make any school your dream school,” she concluded.
I appreciated this advice, partially because it was refreshingly honest and not just about selling her school. It also helped me shift the order of events as I’d previously understood them. I’d assumed the correct order was find dream school, apply to dream school, get accepted at dream school, then attend dream school. Her order was much more freeing: find many schools, apply to a reasonable number of schools, get into a few schools, attend one school, then make it your dream school.
I’m glad I was able to take this perspective with me as I approached the college application process and the decision to apply Early Decision. My happiness doesn't depend on something so variable as acceptance into one college. I can build myself a “dream school” on any campus — and that’s exactly what I’m going to do this fall.
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