Long time no talk, Bloomers. During my absence, Britney was freed, Squid Games captivated the world, Taylor Swift turned the internet against Jake Gyllenhaal (where’s the scarf, Jake?), there was like four different seasons of The Bachelor, and Tom Brady retired and came out of retirement. Oh, and I applied to college. While that Taylor Swift album caused enough emotional turmoil to explain my journalist silence, the absence is mostly attributed to the absolute chaos that is the college admissions process. Months and months later - and after many lessons learned - my fingers are again dancing across the keyboard and I’m ready to share some wisdom about the process. Or at the very least, some insight to my experience.
First of all, it sucks. I won’t sugarcoat it. The process is exhausting at best, and heartbreaking at worst. Even if it all works out, there’s a dozen essays to write, paperwork to fill out, deadlines to meet, and - the absolute worst, most draining part - the waiting. All too often the process is painted as this beautiful, smooth transition from childhood to adulthood, represented by colorful balloons and letters, confetti and joyous tears. But, all the movies, commercials, TikToks, books, and happy college students fail to go into the details of the actual process: the time between applying and hearing back, and the time after. Allow me to enlighten you, but fair warning: I am shedding my usual optimistic filter, and saying it how it is, displaying my poorly hidden opinion and lingering fragments of disappointment and irritation.
This isn’t meant to scare or deter you, I promise. There is just so much information and media about the college admissions process, and after discussing it with friends and experiencing it, we agree there needs to be a reality check. It is an exciting time, but the time between applications begin and decisions are made is not pure sunshine and rainbows, rather diluted with dozens of cloudy days and the occasional thunderstorm. Beginning the process I felt understandably exposed in foreign waters, but by the time I was in the middle of it, I felt completely lost and confused, dropped in a different dimension.
Let’s start from the very beginning. In early August, applications open up, and naive, newly-born Seniors excitedly access applications, beginning the arts and craft project of creating their futures. Hundreds and hundreds of doors are open and these anxious seniors have access to windows, able to peer into what they can dream of what their next few years will consist of. If they see something they like, with the click of one button, they can add it to an unlimited list of dreams to chase in the upcoming months.
Here are just a few of the schools I visited :)
From the perspective of a military teen, this was especially eye opening. Before I was even out of the womb, I followed my family in going wherever the military told us to go. If that meant Fort Hood was home, Fort Hood was home. If we traveled to Europe and set up camp there, that was that. But in applying for colleges, this was the first time I got to choose where I called home. My hands tightly gripped the controls of my life and I put the car in drive, excited at the notion that there were no limitations. Call it exciting, overwhelming, eye-opening, but it was definitely something.
After the initial wealth of opportunity settles down, the actual applying begins. Now, depending on the type of person you are, this can go a variety of ways. Some will race through applications, knocking them out and sending them in before the first leaf decorates the ground. Others will take their time, scheduling meetings and consultations with various adults to gain the best insight. And then there’s the majority of students who are chugging coffee days before the deadline, racing to finish their applications on time. What many students don't realize is, on top of applying to colleges, you also have your normal school work and responsibilities to balance, so time management can dupe even the most organized and prepared students. It's. A. Lot.
I was a mixture of all the fore-mentioned types of students. I was overtaken with eagerness, a strong desire to throw myself into the collegiate world propelling me through applications. Through August and September I diligently worked on essays, having them all completed by October. At this point, I was told to slow down and evaluate all options, edit essays, and really "think through" everything. I took a whole four days to slow down, and then sent out the majority of my applications by mid-October. The remainder of my applications were submitted in December, still weeks before the typical January deadlines.
For anyone who has recently applied to college, consider this your trigger warning, for the next part of this article discusses the truly jarring part of college admissions.
Now comes the waiting, the part of the process that truly drove me to the point of insanity. I mean, really, you guys. I was going crazy. After clicking submit in October and not hearing back until April, our house was functioning primarily as a bakery due to the amounts of stress baking I dove into, the gym became my new part-time home, and I was flying through dystopian and fantasy books, delighting in the solace of escapism. I was willing to do everything and anything to stay busy, keep myself distracted and not thinking about all of my hard work and achievements waiting to be weighed in various admissions offices.
Upon reflecting on those long, long months, I strongly doubt months of living in constant stress and devoting all my energy to distracting myself was particularly healthy. After a lifetime of working hard in school and striving to make myself the best applicant possible, it was all out of my hands and at the mercy of random admission representatives. The stress of waiting and knowing I could do nothing about it took quite a toll on me. My weight fluctuated dramatically, purple hues bloomed under my eyes, my mood can only be described as a constant shift between mania and numbness, and I was a revolving door of new anxieties and “what if’s.” While the actual writing of the essays and filling out the applications was difficult, it was the waiting to hear back that will forever haunt my darkest dreams.
That nightmare finally ended - or, at least, I thought it did - when decisions began filing in in February-April. This is the part featured in so many movies and TV shows, the part when teens anxiously rip open envelopes and drop to a crouch, crying in relief while their family cheers behind them. Well, my experience followed more along the lines of the newest Spider-Man movie (minor spoiler coming!)
Peter, MJ, and Ed, after applying to MIT, anxiously check the mail everyday until they all receive the long awaited envelopes. At the diner in which MJ works, they open their letters together before sharing a collective downcast gaze. All three had the rug ripped out from under their feet at the news of their rejection from the school in which they worked so hard to attend. At least I know I’m in good company as I am well versed in the feeling of college rejection. Spoiler, it sucks.
My application year was haunted and plagued by COVID-19. While the class above me (college class of 2025) was generally aided by the pandemic (record high acceptance rates, encouraged gap years, test-optional admissions,) that help only harmed my class.
To better demonstrate what I mean, here’s an example. An unnamed university accepted far too many students for their class of 2025. So many, in fact, that many students had issues with housing or finding necessary accommodations. To offset this overpopulation, the university dramatically decreased the numbers of students they welcomed in my class, the acceptance rate falling from 22% to 3%.
This university is one of the schools I applied to and was hopeful to attend. I had compared my stats to the statistics of their previously accepted students and aired on the side of confident that I’d be accepted. Instead, I was deferred, then waitlisted, before ultimately pulling my application after committing to a different university. Unfortunately, this was a notification I was becoming well-acquainted with.
I mention this specific example because I believe it highlights one of so many variables involved in college admissions that no one talks about until it’s too late. A student can be the “perfect” applicant (top test scores, high GPA, president of every club and four-year varsity athlete, amongst many other impressive accolades) and still be rejected for hundreds of reasons. You can do absolutely everything right and go above and beyond, and it still not work out. That is a hard reality I wish I had been prepared for, or at least made aware of.
In the end, I received a variety of decisions before ultimately committing to Indiana University to study Political Science. To add a humorous note to a generally serious article, I should mention that Indiana was my first college decision, accepting me in early November, long before the worst of the process would even begin. I guess you could say it was meant to be :)
This article was not easy to write, and not because I felt vulnerable (I have this delusion that when I write, I can say anything I want and be free of judgement, pity, or any other less desirable reaction) but because the subject is so vast and can be addressed in so many unique angles. I find piecing together articles therapeutic because the words have a way of bee lining from my mind to the computer; that's exactly what made this one so hard: I have too much to say. If anyone out there has connections to TedTalks, give them my number because I'd love to share my thoughts. But for now, I want to boil this narrative down to a few key points.
One, this piece was not born out of intentions to scare, intimidate, or complain, but rather shine some light on aspects of an already stressful process that I believe are not given the amount of attention they should. Furthermore, my emotions and thoughts have a habit of flowing from my head to my neck, across my shoulder, down my arms, through my fingers, where they seep into the keyboard and collect on a developing body of words. So, here was Genevieve Oakley's take on the infamous college admissions process. While I hope any and all teenagers have a smoother time, if your course follows mine and it's not the movie-moment you dreamt of, know you're not alone. People are not slow to post their wins, but you won't see the dozens of rejections and obstacles your friends have to go through in order to arrive at said happy news.
Bouncing off that, two, COLLEGE IS NOT THE END ALL, BE ALL. It is not the final destination, but rather another stop - another chapter - along the way to your goals, whatever they may be. We, or at least, I, got so in my head about this very specific path I had imagined and when I didn't get there, I felt my entire world had not just been derailed, but stopped. This path I have been determined to march down suddenly became a dead end, my GPS died, and the spare map I always keep fluttered from my hand. What do I do now that this image I had in my head is now a childhood dream to be shed?
Friends, I promise you, there is so much more out there for you than a dream college or self-determined path. Life is all about how you react to the things you cannot control, and I promise, you will find your way to where you need to be. The process is grueling and while it may not yield the results you hope, the world is full of opportunities and, as military teens, our brand is making the best of situations we didn't necessarily choose. We react to the unexpected and, like the dandelion, bloom wherever our seeds land.
Third, I need to emphasize that while this article was written by deriving notions and experiences about my college admissions experience in a very odd year, many of the lessons are relative to previous and future years as well. Namely, even if you do everything "right" and put together what you believe to be an Ivy-worthy, top 1% application, sometimes things just don't come out the way you expected, believed you deserved, or wanted them to. And while my optimist-self would normally say "hey, that's alright," having lived this experience, I know that's not how it feels. But, you got this. Keep your head up and keep utilizing those skills military life drilled into you. Things will work out.