An Open Letter To High School Seniors

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Four years ago, I anxiously awaited a college decision letter. The college application process was like a “Hunger Games” of sorts with our classmates at Severna Park. These “yes” or “no” decisions seem to tyrannize our life trajectories. Despite being voted by my classmates as “Most Likely to Be Successful,” unanswerable questions about my future left me internally shaken.

I still remember the Thursday afternoon right before an indoor track race when I received a “no” from my childhood dream school. You have all seen it, I am sure — the letter read something along the lines of “we are overwhelmed by the quality of this year’s applicant pool.” I had wanted to go to the College of William & Mary since my family had visited when I was in eighth grade. I applied early decision and was what I thought to be a shoo-in. I had good SAT scores, great grades, and, I kid you not, I was involved in at least half the high school’s extracurricular activities.

I do not mean to say this to sound boastful or conceited. My point is something did not go right, and for the first time in my life, I failed and it felt like I was falling off a cliff. This feeling was something we had not learned in the AP classroom or during SAT vocab. Yet, now, I realize this experience was much more important than any classroom ever could have taught me.

Years later, I still remember calling William & Mary, insisting there was some sort of mistake. “I can assure you, Ms. Vance, we have not made a mistake,” they said. I thought nothing could have possibly made high school me feel worse until I heard that a fellow classmate who had lower SATs and GPA had gotten in William & Mary. You would think for someone who seemed to have it all together, I would be able to gather myself and run my fastest 400-meter in spite of what had happened. Instead, I sat in the bathroom stall at my meet, crying to Taylor Swift’s “White Horse,” thinking what I had worked so hard for was all over. In that moment, I could not see my future and I questioned myself and what was happening. I wish someone would have told me that everything happens for a reason. To tell you the truth, I am sure they did. I just wish I would have listened.

After a few months of honest reflection, I realized I should want to go to a school that wants me for me. Getting a “no” from William & Mary was, ultimately, one of the best things that could have happened to me. It made me realize how much I idolized college and the name schools. My priorities were so out of whack. I only applied to Brown because it was an Ivy League school; I knew I could not have afforded it even if I got in, but I wanted the prestige of saying I got in.

By many schools saying “no” to me, I learned such a powerful lesson — resilience. I learned to think of rejection as a sign, not an end. Rejection happens for a reason. And things will go on. I ultimately ended up at Elon, a school that was (gasp) not ranked in the U.S. News’ top 50. In fact, Elon was not even on my radar until my high school counselor told me it was similar to William & Mary.

I just graduated from Elon this past May and I could not have asked for a better college experience. I met my best friends, boyfriend, faculty mentors for life, and I studied abroad three times, had two unbelievable internships and discovered my passion. But I know now that if it had not been for all of those “no’s,” I would not have found the perfect “yes.” I remember how much this process hurt and how my senior-year self was so lost. But now, four years later, I can say I see what and why everything happened the way it did.

Last fall, I began to apply to law schools with entirely different perspective than when I applied for undergraduate institutions. I wanted to go to a school that saw my potential. My dad consistently told me after my long list of “no’s” from undergrad to “prove them wrong,” and surely, I did. I was accepted to numerous schools that had denied me the first time around, and this time, I was able to say “no” to them. And this time around, I got into my dream school. I am very happy to announce I will attend William & Mary Law School class of 2021 to study the challenging bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system, especially children. If it were not for my experiences at Elon, I would not have found my passion for civil rights. I would not be the person I am today. And I would not have recognized the battle I face with perfectionism.

I write this because high school seniors do not know what it feels like to fail. We have never experienced something like this before. We really did grow up in the “everyone gets a trophy” generation, yet, since the birth of social media, it is nearly impossible not to compare ourselves to those around us. We compulsively edit our lives and it negatively affects our mental well-being.

Life is not about what has happened to you, but it is about how you handle it. In college, I stopped defining myself by grades, school acceptances, and LSAT scores. I had confidence that I would bounce back from whatever life threw at me. So thank you to whoever read my application at William & Mary four years ago because you taught me the most invaluable lesson I will probably ever learn: how to overcome failure.

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