I vividly remember sitting in a Target parking lot, anxiously counting down the seconds to 6:00. The moment I looked at the words displayed on my phone’s small screen, I felt the tears start to form.
The Committee on Admissions has carefully reviewed your Early Decision application to Columbia University, and we are sorry to inform you we cannot offer you a place in Columbia’s Class of 2020.
“It’s not the end of the world”, I tried to tell myself, and in a catatonic state of shock, I drove myself home thinking one thing and one thing only: Why?
How could my dear Columbia betray me like this? I had done everything right, hadn’t I? I had written the (cliché) essays about how an Ivy League education would fulfill my thirst for knowledge, visited the campus (twice), gotten the grades and test scores (for the most part), and wanted nothing more than to proudly wear the Columbia blue. How could the trusted college admissions system that ensured the success of so many be the root of my failure?
As soon as the clock hit 6:00, my phone began to buzz with friends and family cautiously asking about the outcome of my admissions decision – all of which I simply ignored, until my silence was interpreted for what it was. Soon after, I received an influx of messages with an iteration of the same sentiment: “You’re so smart, you really did deserve it! I don’t understand why you didn’t get in!”
Of course, I was the quiet one, the sweet one, the smart one – all my life, people had identified me by these seemingly inaccurate adjectives. Failing to get into my dream school felt like a failure not only to myself, but to my culture and my friends, along with all of their contrived perceptions of who I was.
As ridiculous as these words would have sounded to my sixteen year old self, I now believe that getting rejected from Columbia – my sweet, beautiful Columbia – was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I, like many high school seniors, had big plans for myself. Seventeen years old and full of angst, I was determined to distance myself from my hometown and spend the next four years of my life at the best, fanciest institution of higher learning I could manage to get myself into – so I set my sights on Columbia. I wanted nothing more than to spend my budding adulthood like some offbeat character from an indie film, glamorously roaming about the streets of New York City, armed with a Polaroid camera and a latte.
My new goal became an all-consuming obsession. Everything I did was propelled by the goal of receiving an acceptance letter – something that became the driving force behind all of my academic and extracurricular accomplishments. I cut things out of my schedule that I genuinely enjoyed in lieu of things that would look better on my resume. More volunteer hours, another lab research project – I didn’t care as long as it brought me one step closer to my dream school.
This mindset was only perpetuated by my peers, all of whom scoffed at the idea of not attending a prestigious university. When application season came around, everyone around me appeared to be equally motivated to add their name to the revered list of Ivy bound high school grads. They complimented my work ethic and praised my dedication. “If anyone deserves to get in, it’s you! You have such a good chance”, they said, and I secretly reveled in their validation of my dreams.
Perhaps it was my own fear of fading into the concealed background of mediocrity that kept my Ivy League delusion running. And perhaps it was years of pining and yearning that exacerbated the pain of my rejection. But my rejection was not the end of the world any more than it was the end of an unhealthy and toxic paradigm – and more than anything it was a wakeup call for me and the way I perceived myself.
Of course, this realization did not come immediately – I spent my fair share of time crying, wallowing in melancholy, and replaying the moment I opened my admissions notification again and again. However, with enough time, I was able to see that my romanticized and over idealized image of my “dream school” barred me from actually achieving anything at all. My “goal” only led me to the idea that my sense of self could be validated by an admissions committee. I’ve come to realize that self-worth is not contingent upon acceptance from a group of people or an institution, and ultimately, there is so much more to life and pursuing an education than the name of the university on your degree.
My once feared rejection letter is now hanging on my bedroom wall – printed on crisp paper, with the horribly euphemized “sorry you didn’t make the cut” sentiment typed in small matte lettering. It serves as my constant reminder that perceived failure and rejection is not the end of the world – on the contrary, failure and rejection are the catalysts to my foray into a world replete with mystery and beauty.
Gurjar is a contributor for The Millennial Times.