“I’m going to Harvard.”
There I stood, a seven-year-old Elle Woods in every respect but the blonde hair and accompanying chihuahua. Fists clenched, eyes wide, and mind already reeling with images of red bricks and Annenberg Hall, I was the very picture of confidence and determination. I’d just been granted the top award in my first grade class— what on earth could stop me now?
Throughout the years, “Harvard” took on all sorts of forms. Midway through A Cinderella Story, it became Princeton. Pretty Little Liars turned that into Georgetown, Modern Family into Caltech, Gilmore Girls into Yale.
"I know exactly what I want and who I want to be." — Marina and the Diamonds
At some point, the particular school stopped mattering— I pursued it zealously regardless. I claimed every title in sight, from varsity captain and editor-in-chief to president and delegate. I completed internships, distributed bread loaves to impoverished communities, self-studied for Advanced Placement examinations, and maintained my class ranking.
Trust me when I tell you that in no way have I mentioned these to “brag.” Rather, I did this to set a backdrop, because, regardless of how long and how well I prepared for the dreaded application process, it still turned out the wildest, rockiest ride of my life thus far.
So, in the most honest and realistic way possible, let me tell you all about it. Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two along the way.
The Summer Before
"A perfect method for adding drama to life is to wait until the deadline looms large." — Alyce Cornyn-Selby
This section is a short one. Why?
Because, like many juniors, I was determined to get ahead of the game and begin the process early. And, like many more juniors, the endless streams of “I’ll start tomorrow” kept building up, until I was facing senior year head-on with nothing accomplished whatsoever.
"It's all messy: the hair. The bed. The words. The heart. Life." — William Leal
You may think that, because I was knee-deep in August with a Google Doc that remained painfully unmarked, the beginning of senior year would give me the kick-start I needed.
The answer, as you may have guessed, is no.
The very first essay I wrote was started and completed on September 30th— a 650-word personal statement for a local university that was due on… you guessed it, September 30th. I spent about five hours on it, interrupted midway by my first and only* SAT review session.
*Why “only”? Because the SAT was set to be administered the next morning.
Later that night, I happened to test positive for COVID. In a nation with stringent quarantine guidelines, this meant one thing: I couldn't sit the October SATs. This then led to another issue: I had nothing with which to superscore my first, not-too-shiny results when I submitted my application to my Early Action university.
A few stress tears were indeed shed.
Later in October, with my Early Action deadline fast approaching, I found myself regretting how I had once again severely procrastinated. All applications were supposed to be polished off and submitted by November 1st, Tuesday. By October 28, Friday, I had just finished my Common Application essay, and had absolutely no supplementals to my name.
Once again, my health took me down, because I developed a 39°C (102.2°F) fever that did not so much as waver until Monday morning. Through it all, I wrote somewhat subpar essays and turned in their final products on the day they were due. On top of that, I soon after sat, with zero preparation whatsoever, for the five-hour entrance examination of a local university.
As soon as it was over, I celebrated with a hot plate and bowls of ice cream.
"I am not an early bird or a night owl. I am some form of permanently exhausted pigeon." — Unknown
I took the December SATs with a grand total of three (3) hours of studying, and was fortunate to have been able to achieve my target score.
The bad news? I had opened my Early Application decision that same day to find a rather terse deferral, and, of course, had no other regular applications prepared.
It was not as if I had assumed I would get in— trust me, I didn’t. It was that I simply could not bring myself to put in all the effort until it was an absolute necessity. It’s something I regret, but based on my procrastination history, it was inevitable.
Even worse, in the days that followed the initial decision, I was set to fly to Rome, Italy, with a small group of students to serve as Asia’s delegates to an international convention. That meant that the vast majority of my supplemental essays would have to be written at odd hours against the backdrop of the Eternal City.
Rome was absolutely beautiful, but I would have to say that that specific trip was one of the worst of my life. Our convention activities usually began at 9:00— sometimes as early as 5:00— and would end at about midnight, with no time in between for external endeavours. For days on end, I would crash into bed after a long day of seminars and physical activities, only to wake up at 1 in the morning so I could write until we were called down for breakfast. Because my roommate was a light sleeper, I would have to hide out in the bathroom, trembling with nothing but thin pyjamas to protect my tropical blood from 9°C (48.2°F) weather.
For the third time— some sort of record, maybe?— my health got to me, and I developed a fever that kept me from marching down to the Vatican to attend the Pope’s funeral.
Through it all, I was held up by what couldn’t be described as anything but my emotional support songs: Billy Joel’s Vienna and The Smiths’ Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.
Other notable points of the season? Having to film one college’s video essay during a stopover in Abu Dhabi in order to meet the deadline, and pleading with my phone’s cellular data to work overtime as I attempted to submit an application at the literal last minute— 11:59 p.m.
"You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf." — Joseph Goldstein
Spring was a time of relief from the process, but also a mark of the absolute worst senioritis of my life (I racked up more tardies, absences, and late submissions between March and April than I had in the entirety of my preceding academic career combined).
Decisions came swiftly— a smattering of acceptances and rejections, overpowered by a disorienting number of waitlists.
Similarly, the rest of the process was quick and painless: I committed to a school that had not been my top choice, but by which I had been granted a full ride and a spot in the honours programme; wrote somewhat halfhearted letters of continued interest and requested additional recommendations; and soon received official regrets from the universities at which I had been waitlisted.
Advice and Learnings
Please, please, please… start early. Procrastinators like me, push yourself. It’s at the top of every college application advice article— and now on top of mine, too— for a reason. Don’t let the application process ruin your senior year or, more importantly, your mental and physical health.
No amount of preparation will ensure that everything goes according to plan. Lay everything out well and establish some form of structure, but be ready for everything to go up in the air, and know that it is hardly ever your fault.
A support system is more important than can be said. Teachers, parents, friends, siblings. Not only will these people be willing to review and comment on your material, but they’ll also be there if you’re hit with bad news. The college application process can be a difficult one to bear on your own.
It very likely will hurt, but you’re going to grow. I know, I know: it’s such a cliché, but it’s true! I went from that annoying someone who would very near sob at the sight of an A- to someone who can face rejection— something inevitable and wholly inextricable from truly being alive— head-on while learning a thing or two from it.
Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate. Every little step is a win. Whenever I would complete a supplemental essay— even the 50- or 100- word ones— I would treat myself to a nice dessert or an episode of my favourite shows. It's important that you keep in mind that, even if later rejected, the mere fact that you sat down and set your mind to it is an achievement in itself.
You’re going to be amazing, no matter where you end up. Clinging onto your dream college long after it’s gone will only hurt you, ridding you of what would likely have been one of the best times of your life. College applications are largely out of your hands, but the good news is this: you, not the name of some institution, will determine your college experience. Make it an absolutely fantastic one, will you?
Life is more than this. At least, from my point of view. Whenever I wonder what kind of person I’d like to be if I lived in the past, I never think of the wealthy executive who hails from Oxford. I think of the struggling artists with a thousand stories to tell, the people who danced in fountains and filled rooms with unseemly laughter.
"One day, your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it's worth watching." — Gerard Way
So no, I didn't get what I wanted. But I choose to believe that, in the near future, I'll see exactly how I got so much better.
I now find myself at the brink of the summer after high school, and I could not be more excited. Some of the plans I’ve already laid out with friends include:
A beach trip 🌴
An amusement park stop 🎢
A hike through a nature preserve ⛰️
A ride up to the mountains to roast marshmallows at a nature spa 🧖🏼♀️
A midnight picnic on July 15th (in honour, of course, of Lana Del Rey’s “hot summer nights, mid-July”) 🧺
There are about a hundred more, but you would have no interest in those. One thing I do know, however, is that many of these plans won’t work out. Some will simply fall through, and others will be less exhilarating than expected.
I’ll be okay, though. Because, as it already has, life will bring plot twist after plot twist, and I'll keep making "wrong" and "bad" decisions. The difference between past and present, though, is that I now know how to relish every second of it.