A sophomore is already feeling anxious about getting into college.

Stop right there, says our elder. Who said you had to be perfect?

Dear EWC

Universities. Applications. Rejections. The whole process is daunting. I know I’m only a sophomore but I can’t help but worry. I look at my peers and I don’t feel like I do enough. I don’t enough APs or honors. I’m not enough. That’s my biggest fear. No college will want me. Getting straight As, being on varsity, being active in clubs, and doing extracurriculars isn’t enough. I know it isn’t. I have to be amazing. I have to take all APs and get 5s on the tests. I have to get a great SAT and ACT score. Except I can’t. I won’t be able to do any of those things. I’m not perfect. I’m pretty average, which scares me. Why can’t I be smart or talented? Just thinking of what I should do makes me overwhelmed. When I look at potential colleges, I get to caught up with the “name” and go straight to looking at acceptance rates. I am so quick to judge a college simply by looking at the acceptance rate. When in actuality, I have to realize that I’m not enough and I won’t ever be. I will never be my peers. I don’t know what to do. Society has implemented the idea if you don’t go to a “good” college you won’t succeed. I know it’s not true but that’s how I think. I look at myself as a student and realize I’m deficient and won’t stand out. But what about succeeding and “good” colleges? Sometimes I really don’t want to know…

Willow replies

My dear friend, no wonder you’re feeling anxious. You sound like a serious and hardworking student and should be commended for that. But you have put such an impossible burden on yourself! Throughout your letter you keep referring to yourself as “not enough”, and you’re using that premise to justify some very faulty thinking that is doing you a great disservice. You have some significant misconceptions about yourself, and about the whole college acceptance process and what it means to be successful. No wonder you are in turmoil. “Universities. Applications. Rejections”? You’re already telling yourself you’ve failed when that’s not true at all!

Let’s slow down for a moment, take a deep breath, and talk about your letter. Let’s stop your imagination from running wild. As the parent of a recent college graduate, I went through the college application and admission process just a few years ago, so hopefully, my perspective will be helpful.

You’re right that the whole college application process is daunting. Everyone feels that way. All that paperwork, and all those requirements. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. But to put added pressure on yourself, getting caught up in the acceptance rate and the college’s name without regard to anything else, is extremely faulty thinking. So is thinking that no college will accept you without straight A’s, extracurriculars, varsity sports, great SATs, etc. My goodness, if any of that was true, very few people would ever go to college at all!

I would ask you to look at friends and acquaintances that are a couple of years older than you, who have gone on to college. How many of them were straight A students and had all of the other qualifications you list? Perhaps a few, but the majority probably did not. You have set the bar incredibly high, higher than it needs to be. There are several thousand colleges and universities in the US alone, which means there is a place for everyone. Whether you’re average or outstanding, you will get into college.

What do colleges actually look for in an applicant? While GPA, etc. is an important part of the admission equation at most colleges, even the most selective schools don’t limit themselves to just those students that fit your definition of “amazing”. That’s inaccurate thinking. Some schools today don’t require the SAT or ACT at all. Most schools are looking for students who will fit in academically but have some other interests, with some extracurriculars, work experience, volunteer work, unique activity, etc. on their resumes. It’s a good idea to get some experience with one or more of these if you can. Prospective students may have done an especially good job in their essay of capturing the attention of admissions officers with an interesting story or anecdote. No school requires straight As, AP courses with all “5” test scores and the other things you list. You’re not perfect; nobody is. No college will hold you to the criteria you list.

Please take a look at those “peers” you refer to in your letter. Your peers are all of the students in your class, not just the select few who you think are on top. You identify yourself as “average”, and if that is accurate, that puts you squarely in the middle of your peer group. At least 50 percent of your classmates fall below where you are in grades and involvement. Is it likely that no one in that 50 percent is going to get into college? I think we both know that scenario is highly unlikely.

You’ve indicated you focus all your attention on potential colleges’ names and acceptance rates. I must ask you: why? Neither of those tidbits has anything to do with what you might get out of attending a school chosen in this way. Check out the article at this link for more perspective on the topic of acceptance rates: https://www.forbes.com/sites/willarddix/2016/05/24/rethinking-the-meaning-of-colleges-low-acceptance-rates/#4f5429ae1dd0

When you are considering schools you might like to apply to, there are so many criteria other than name and acceptance rates that are more important. Does the school have a program in the major or majors that you’re interested in studying? Is the program you want well-regarded at that school? Do they have activities, clubs, extracurriculars, etc. that you’re interested in? When you visit the campus, can you see yourself living there? Do you feel you’d fit in socially with the students you meet there? Does it feel like the right “fit” for you and your areas of interest? Will you be excited by the idea of studying there? Have most of the school’s graduates go on to successful careers or further education?

With the college admissions scandal currently in the news, where wealthy parents have bribed certain selective schools to admit their children, it’s easy to see how you might believe going to what society says is a “good” college is the only acceptable measure of success. That’s simply not true. If it were, there would only be a handful of colleges in the country because it would be a waste of time and money to go anywhere else.

Here’s something I’ve learned over many decades of life: People are successful because they work hard. It isn’t the school listed on their diploma that makes them a success, although it can open some doors to opportunity. It’s what you do with that opportunity or with your education that matters. There are plenty of failures that have come out of the most elite schools. Sometimes they are in over their heads academically and fail. Maybe they feel “entitled” to success without working for it, or perhaps they simply aren’t ready for the challenges of the real world. And some of the world’s most financially successful people never went to college at all. Success is a function of hard work, vision and yes, a bit of luck. Your ability to succeed in life, whatever your definition of success is, depends on YOU, not your college name.

When the time to apply to college comes, work with your guidance counselor to develop a list of prospects. He or she will likely advise you to apply to a couple of “reach” schools (those which might be tough to get into), on-level schools (those where acceptance is possible given your grades and other scores) and safety schools (those where your acceptance is likely). With this strategy, you will gain admission to one or more schools. If you take the time to visit each campus and think about what you want out of your education, you will find a school that is right for you, and where you will thrive.

The last thing to address is your feeling that you aren’t smart or talented. I don’t believe that for a moment and you shouldn’t either. Everyone has intelligence and insight about something, just as everyone has something they’re good at. Maybe you haven’t yet discovered what it is that makes you special, but you will. Keep looking and experimenting. Try new things and see what appeals to you. And don’t allow such negative thinking any power over you. Be your own advocate and remind yourself every day that you have the intelligence and drive to succeed. More people succeed than don’t in life, especially if they follow their passion. A bright future is within your grasp, no matter where you go to college. You are enough. You have every reason to believe in yourself.

Thank you for writing to the EWC. I hope something I’ve written will be helpful to you and wish you the best. I will be rooting for you!

Letter #: 438568
Category: School

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