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A Letter to the Class of 2015 (and to Myself)

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In honor of the Common Application being released at the beginning of the month, I'd just like to take a moment to talk to my fellow rising seniors about what this upcoming year holds for us, i.e., applying to college. We've witnessed our older peers undergo the stress, heartbreak and joy of the college admissions process. We've heard disheartening rejection stories from students with 5.0s and 2400s, and celebrated excitedly with those accepted to their dream schools. And now, it's our turn.

It's no secret that getting into college is only becoming more difficult with each passing year. Because of the sheer number of applicants nowadays, countless students with good grades and strong extracurriculars end up getting rejected from top colleges and universities, often leaving them crushed and cursing the college admissions process as totally arbitrary.

In an effort to introduce some perspective into the sometimes-parochial teenage worldview (or perhaps to merely reduce the sting of rejection), plenty of adults will talk about a hugely successful relative/friend/colleague that went to a relatively unknown college. And what they say is true: The name of your college isn't everything, and it is by no means the sole determinant of how successful or happy you'll be later in life.

Research shows that the prestige of a person's undergraduate institution only has so much long-term value; more important is finding a school where you can be happy and receive a good education. Something that I often hear is, "It's not where you go to school that matters, but what you do with the education." And luckily for students today, a quality education can be obtained at many institutions. So if all of the above is true, why do seniors still worry so much about which colleges accept or reject them?

Applying to college requires high school seniors to leave almost all aspects of their lives open to judgment, including their grades, activities, achievements, background, interests, hobbies and personal character. While filling out applications and writing essays, we are forced to look at ourselves honestly and evaluate what we see; we don't have a choice, because in less than no time groups of people who have never met us before will be doing so, and they'll be using those assessments to make decisions that directly impact our futures.

Additionally, the competitiveness of college admissions has us constantly worrying about whether or not we're doing enough in high school, yet at the same time, the college admissions process leaves us incredibly vulnerable to objective criticism about those very fears and doubts. It's very easy to be hurt by a college rejection when you know that the college that rejected you accepted somebody else that was in some way more qualified.

I worry that I have too many reach schools on my college list, and that I'm going to make all of the wrong decisions when it comes to applying. I'm afraid of what my friends, family and school community will think about me once they know the schools that accepted and rejected me, as if those decisions will collectively make some kind of ultimate judgment about who I am and what I've achieved so far in my life.

But most of all, I fear that college rejections will rob me of my self-confidence, and that being deemed unworthy of a school will prompt me to feel unworthy long after high school. I say all of this not to criticize the college admissions process or to make it out to be a wholly awful experience, but rather to express my worries and fears in the hope that I am not the only one who has them.

So are there any words of wisdom or comfort that I can offer to my fellow members of the class of 2015? I can only share with you the advice that I give to myself and do my best to follow.

1. As you write up your high school resume, don't focus on what you would've done differently in the past three years, but be proud of your achievements.
The schools that you get into won't ever detract from your accomplishments in high school, so celebrate them! And if there is something that you wish you had done in high school, you can try it in college.

2. Remember that a college admissions team can only judge you from a sheet of paper, and that they do not truly know you.
That's not to say that their decisions are unfounded (your transcript, scores and essays are up to you), but keep in mind that several elements of college admissions are out of your control and that sometimes there are certain qualities of an applicant that cannot be determined from an application.

3. A college's prestige does not determine how happy you will be there, and the perfect school does not exist.
You will most likely be able to find classes you like and people you love at all of the schools that you are considering. Some students find after freshman year that their dream schools were not as perfect for them as they had thought, while others fall in love with a school only after enrolling. The hard truth is, you can't truly know how you'll feel at a college until you go there.

4. At this stage of your life, it's okay to not know exactly who are or what you want to do for the rest of your life.
Honestly, I don't think we ever stop asking ourselves these questions, and many people find themselves well into adulthood before they begin to consider the answers. Nowadays, colleges claim that they want students who are passionate and unique. However, at this age most of us are still trying to figure out who we are, and finding your passion is easier said than done. I used to constantly compare myself to other high school students, wishing that I was as interesting, accomplished and self-assured as they were. It took a while for me to realize that fixating on the achievements of others is futile and that everyone has something unique to offer the world.

5. Just think: by this time next year, you will have left high school with many great memories, and you'll be getting ready to go to an amazing school that will be incredibly lucky to have you.
To any high school student reading this: I hope that wherever you end up, college and beyond, makes you feel joyful and fulfilled, and that you'll look back on this time of stress and uncertainty feeling that it was all worth it.

Love,
Kara Chyung