Hamilton and Tufts turned me down. Hopkins said I would be accepted in liberal arts, but not in pre-med. Then horror of horrors, John’s Hopkins wait-listed me. It was beginning to look like I might end up at my safety school, Franklin & Marshall. The only person I knew from my school who went to F&M could have cared less about his studies. Except for the juvenile delinquents, Freddy was about the worst student in my school. With Hopkins keeping me waiting, I got my acceptance letter from F&M and did what any self-respecting high school senior would do: I burst out crying.
So what was F&M like? I loved it. I’ve never had more friends or fun. I had a triple major: psychology, philosophy and pre-med. Upon graduation I was leaning towards psychology graduate school but decided on med school when I got into a top school.
So what does my experience say about stressing out over getting into the best school?
First it is understandable. We want to go the college that we think will take us to the best place to be most successful on life’s long journey. What I think my story illustrates is that actually we can’t really know where to start our college journey, because none of us really know what twist and turns our life will take. We may be totally certain that we know exactly what we want our lives to be like. But even if we get there, life tends to get messy and unruly. The longer we live, the more we may see that experiences we would never choose are crucial for our growth. Conversely, we also may see that when our dreams come true, we may not feel fulfilled.
Related to anxieties over getting into the colleges we most want can be the personality trait of perfectionism. Perfectionists have to be, well, perfect. Worse yet when perfectionists get what they want, their joy is short-lived and the next goal must be achieved to be “happy.” This is a treadmill marked by significant achievement but without any stable sense of success. Perfectionists only want to feel loved and have self-esteem. Typically the love they got wasn’t enough and wasn’t unconditional. I have had a very hard time taming my perfectionism. A good friend and my editor once reminded me that sometimes just OK is good enough.
Sometimes we’ve grown up so fast that it can be hard to remember that from fetus to high school senior is an amazing leap. Living within our family, no matter how much we sometimes hate them, is all most seniors have known. So, perhaps behind senior stress is separation anxiety. Maybe we are leaving a loving family, maybe a messed up family. But either way it is our home. Humans instinctively tend to cling to what is known and to fear the unknown. Leaving the nest, as exciting as we can imagine, never the less can be nostalgic and even a bit terrifying for both seniors and their families.
You can use the challenges you currently face as an opportunity to teach yourself new skills. Take a few moments to tune into the stress you’re feeling and allow it to just be. Then, acknowledge that you’re not alone. Plenty of your classmates are feeling the same stress. The more you can move into a self-compassionate position now, the more capable you will be of facing challenges well into your adult life.