The human brain has a sadistically enormous capacity to hold on to clear, clear memories of life’s most difficult moments. It clings incessantly to tragedies such as the day your first goldfish died, that time you threw up into a trashcan in front of your seventh-grade history class, and even the night you got a rejection letter from the college of your dreams.
Oh boy, does the mind love to store that last one in the Self-Esteem Bank. But just because a memory lingers, it doesn’t necessarily need to sting; even the worst news can have exponentially fulfilling results.
The text of my rejection letter stained my inbox folder on the fateful December evening of my high school choir’s annual holiday concert. I was just tightening the straps of my school-distributed, vaguely plastic cummerbund when my phone’s email notification tolled like a funeral bell. With the swipe of a finger, I exposed the very words that had been resonating all throughout my nightmares: the Early Decision application I sent to my dream school had been denied. Needless to say, I was devastated—how could I have gotten rejected? How could I attend any different school? How would I break the news to everyone who’d expected me to get in? At the time, every other school I’d applied to seemed to pale in comparison, and I was convinced that my alternatives were bound to be miserable.
But here’s the thing: disappointment is valid, sadness is valid, and even tears are valid. But thinking that no other school would amount to the greatness of my first choice? That’s just closed-minded; although I didn’t meet my ideal school’s expectations, I was still welcome to attend a handful of other colleges that offered the same kinds of facilities and resources that were most important to me. I had to find a way to accept the reality of rejection, set my sights on another option, and thank the gods of foresight for having applied to a cluster of other high-quality schools “just in case.” Even though I was arrogantly confident that I would not need them, my backup plans turned out to be immensely valuable because—what do you know?—my dream school turned out to be just that: a dream.
Fast-forward three and a half years: I can now look back on that fragile, tear-stained high schooler with a kind of hopeful tenderness. The pain of that rejection may still echo, but I now understand that there is a world of amazing schools outside of the idealized realm of my first choice. My fantasies for the school that wouldn’t take me clouded out the realities of what my second, third, fourth, etc. choices had to offer. After much deliberation, I picked a school to which I had been accepted, went to orientation, and fell madly in love. The community turned out to be more wonderful than I could’ve imagined, sparkling with a dynamic that compensates entirely for what I’d been denied. The friends, teachers and experiences that have come my way have changed my life for the better, and not a single regret flickers in my mind or asks what could have been.
Okay, sure—had I gotten in, I probably would have had an amazing time at my first-choice school. But getting forced to pick “plan B” and loving it nevertheless showed me that I probably could have had an amazing time at a whole bunch of other schools. All colleges and universities have their own pros and cons, vibes and flavors, and so many of the experiences they offer can be just as good as others! I get it; sometimes you can’t help a bit of casual obsession. Sometimes you swear that you bleed the colors of a school that won’t give your application a second look. Sometimes you need to take a deep breath and cope with a Netflix marathon and a pint or two of Häagen Dazs. But no matter what kind of letter is sent in response to your application, you cannot give up hope for a positive collegiate experience. There’s a home for you at any school that will take you in, and it’s up to you to let go of your ego, your fantasies, and any stubborn belief that second-best may not be the best after all.