Acceptance or Rejection?

An Arlington teen describes the emotional roller-coaster of applying to colleges.


Washington-Lee High School senior Alison Miller. Photo by Erick Gibson

Don’t tell my parents, but there were a few nights this fall when I slept for only three hours.

I promise, I wasn’t sneaking out and going to parties. I was engrossed in something far less enjoyable: an early decision college application.

One night, I sat at my computer until midnight, eyes burning from the harsh light of the screen, debating whether or not I should submit the application I had spent more than 30 hours completing. Early decision applications are binding. If you get accepted, you are required to attend. There is no turning back.

I decided not to send it.

Then I lay awake until 3 a.m. wondering if I had made the wrong decision.

The truth is, early decision or not, all college applications are stressful. The CommonApp alone (the standardized college application) ensures a good two weeks of anxiety. It includes seven pages of personal information, including details about your residency and family (this is especially key if you hope to get in-state tuition rates), followed by specific pages you must fill out for each college you select. Add to that the standardized essay and the supplemental essays—which are different for each college, the SAT tests, and of course maintaining a decent GPA through difficult classes (I took all International Baccalaureate courses).

Each piece of the application puzzle costs money, from $4 for a transcript to up to $100 to submit the application form itself. Even though I’m not the one writing the checks, I’ve worried over the expense because I don’t want to add to my parents’ burden. The work is time-consuming and stressful. The fear of rejection is stressful. And to top it all off, some colleges don’t even accept the CommonApp.

I should be scared about the idea of leaving home, but I’ve hardly had time to think about that.

The first college tour I attended was at the College of William & Mary, in the late spring of my junior year. I remember having butterflies in my stomach, sweaty palms and shaky legs. The other prospective students and

I walked around the campus feeling like kindergartners, new and out of place and very young, and the future seemed  far away. It was terrifying, but also exciting to imagine our independence.

Now, we sit at home and wait for our letters to arrive: acceptance or rejection. I’m aware that many students from my high school will be accepted by William & Mary, UVA and other phenomenal schools. That just makes the waiting more intense.

Once the letters start arriving, you hear other kids discussing their plans. And you know that every new acceptance is one less spot available for you. Even worse is the fear that you may receive a letter of acceptance when your best friend doesn’t.

The way I see it, there’s a lot of guesswork and intuition involved in college applications. Parents and counselors can help up to a certain point, but eventually you just have to trust your gut and hope that your application displays your potential.

Attend an information session at a college or university (I went to five) and admissions officers will inevitably remind you to show how unique you are in your essay. “Be creative,” they say. “Surprise us. Tell us who you are.” I wish they would just tell me what I should say that will result in an acceptance letter.

Who am I? I am a girl who has spent the past four years and the better part of her free time studying, volunteering and working hard not to be left behind.

There were times when I feared I wouldn’t pass; times when I considered giving up. I have competed head-to-head with my classmates and friends, fought to have the best credentials and the most attractive application.

I have shared with colleges my passions (books and writing) and my struggles (math). I’ve written essays about intensely personal aspects of my life and essays about silly things, like my favorite word. (For the record, it’s persimmonininability—a word that my dad and I created, that means the inability to properly communicate with a spirit with a persimmon-shaped head.)

Now my fate is in the hands of the five schools to which I’ve applied, in no particular order: William & Mary, James Madison, Mary Washington, UVA and Virginia Tech.

A few days ago, I received an acceptance letter from Mary Washington. I am relieved and thrilled, but I’ve also been on edge ever since. It should feel like a victory, but some of my peers have been telling me all along that I can do better. I’m starting to question what “better” really means.

I’ve decided it doesn’t matter which college I attend. The prestige of the name isn’t everything. At the end of the day, it’s more important that I choose the school that is right for me. A place where I can excel and enjoy the next four years of my life.

I recently visited James Madison University. At the end of the information session, prospective students were invited to write down the three words that best encompassed their experience. At the time, I opted not to do the activity because I wasn’t sure what to say. But lately I have been reflecting on what my three words would be.

There are many words I could use to describe the admissions process thus far. It has been empowering, stressful, inspirational, overwhelming and terrifying. Over time, the campus visits have started to blur together.

So to sum up every college, every campus, every tour, every guide and every application I have yet to turn in, I would say this:
Here goes nothing.

Alison Miller is a senior at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington. At press time, she was accepted by JMU. She is still waiting to hear from the other schools to which she applied.

Categories: Parents & Kids
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