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An Open Letter to Students Waiting for Their College Admissions Decisions

Dear Student,Letter

It’s April. If you’re a high school senior, this means college admission decision season. Fat envelopes will soon be arriving. Though, as I understand it, stalking the mailman has long since been replaced with the ritual of obsessively refreshing the admission department’s web site. Same idea. Your fate will soon be known.

Yes, within weeks you’ll know who got in where. The rumor mill will begin its frenetic churn. You’ll begin trying to pattern match the results, attempting, vainly, to figure out the logic behind the decisions. But no matter how hard you cogitate, no model you devise will really explain why that asshole Peter got into Dartmouth while you were rejected from Northwestern.

Eventually, you’ll come to the conclusion that the decisions are more or less random. They’re not. But you don’t have nearly enough information to understand them, so don’t sweat it.

The next thing that will come to mind is a simple question: what’s next?

This is where I come in…

Your temptation will be to treat college like another admissions process. You probably imagine that four years down the line the task of getting a job, or getting accepted to graduate school, will be, more or less, like getting into college. Roughly speaking, you believe that some collection of admission-style officers will one day review your college resume, check your activities, your grades, make sure you’re well-balanced in all the right ways, and then promptly reject you so they can hire that asshole Peter.

But here’s the thing, and I really can’t stress this enough: it’s not like this at all.

No one cares about your college resume. If you’re applying for a job, your grades and, maybe, your major, will be used as a rough screen to see whether or not you’re granted an interview. That’s it. The rest is about you.

No one cares about your laundry-list of activities. No one cares that you tripled majored or took really hard course loads and were often up late and unhappy and grinding it out because you — dammit — are hardcore! [Sound of no one caring]

If you end up applying to graduate school, here’s another secret: there are no admissions officers for grad school. It’s professors who will review your application. And they care about exactly one thing: do you have the ability to do research? Again, laundry-list, triple-major: irrelevant.

Even the vaunted professional schools — law school, med school — are much more formulaic in their decisions than you might imagine. Do you want to go to Harvard Law so you can use your lawyerly skills to save the indigent and help the downtrodden? Get a high LSAT score. Your 19 different volunteering gigs and that expensive week spent building houses in South America won’t matter here.

How then should you fill your time? The answer is simple: living the best possible life. College is not just another stage to help set you up for your position in the real world; it’s not a process you have to suffer through to achieve the real benefits down the line. College is the real world. If you don’t start living the life you want now, then when are you going to start?

Here a few ideas to keep in mind:

Take courses that interest you. Don’t pile on too many hard subjects during the same semester. Allow yourself to really get into the material. Think about your readings. Question what you encounter.

Allow yourself the time needed to do your schoolwork without becoming overloaded. This means: don’t sign up for too many activities. Find one thing you really enjoy and focus on it. That’s enough.

Explore with your free time. Go to talks. Make friends. Chase down wild, random opportunities.

Here’s where it gets interesting. If you follow this approach, and live the life you want to live starting from your first day on campus, two things happen.

One, you’ll be happy. (A non-trivial feat in today’s age of overburdened undergraduates).

Two, you’ll be surprisingly successful when it comes time to hunt down post-graduation opportunities. Your grades will good, because you didn’t overload your schedule and you engaged what you were learning. That focus you afforded to a single activity will probably have taken your involvement to really cool places. And that free time spent chasing down random opportunities led you to actually catch a few, making you one of the more interesting people in your graduating class.

And here’s the relevant rule for post-graduation: Interesting things happen to interesting people. Boring things happen to over-scheduled boring assholes like Peter.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. When your college acceptances arrive, take a moment for congratulations. Then put the whole admissions experience behind you. It’s time to stop thinking about the future and start thinking about your now. In the real world — the world beyond the high school pressure cooker — the rest has a way of taking care of itself.


23 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Students Waiting for Their College Admissions Decisions”

  1. Yes, life goes on regardless of your admission decisions. Everything is meant to be.
    Thanks for highlighting the real life.

  2. When I finished reading this I said wow. What’s missing from the education system (Canada) anyway is teaching about the future! I wished there was some way that allowed them to receive input from us (maybe a starbucks tips styled site) because they really need it.

    This is the thing that baffles me. We’re not told to check out the University Fair and explore opportunities and possible career pathways until Grade 11. The problem is, the courses that you take in Grade 11 decide what you take in Grade 12. So if you’ve picked courses A B and C, but find out in the middle of the year (the uni fair takes place in December) that you should have taken D E and F, isn’t that too late?

    Also, we need speakers like you to come tell us how the future is.

    I have one question. For these 3 years of high school (I’m in Grade 11), I’ve tried to involve myself heavily with DECA (school marketing club) and am current VP. I’ve also joined the badminton team, did some chess, school reach. But lately I’ve been cutting back and all those and am just completing the required work along with the piano I’ve been playing for 6 years now. Taking a step back from these extracurriculars has allowed me to play guitar, something I’ve wanted to do since Grade 9 but didn’t have the time to because of these extracurriculars. I know when I apply for uni next year, they will look at these extracurriculars. But how big of a factor are they?

    Have you heard of the business school of Schulich that requires 91+ overall to get in. My friend got something along the lines of 92+ with no extracurriculars (just working at dad’s pizza store and one volunteer experience).

    Keep up the good work. It’s been a while that I read something and finished saying wow, that was a good read.

  3. Amen @ not loading up on activities. It’s taken me three years to figure out it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it and who you know.

  4. I totally agree with u Cal! Understanding the core subjects is pertinent to do well in your course. too many activities and majors will most def distract one from one’s main subject of interest. So kids, stick to one major for in year 1 take on a minor in year two or something :).

    I’m a first year uni student and knowledge-wise, I finally see how every thing i’ve studied about since kindergarten falls into place. everything is like a node on a graph that connects to another node (sorry Cal, we are studying graphs in java now :]).

    So to all hs seniors, think abt what you really wanna do with your life and choose a course and university that will help you get there. a degree is like a pair of jeans.The most expensive and famous brand may not fit you. your local store lovingly manufactured ones may be the best fit :).

  5. Now that I am finishing university, having only just learned this lesson, I wish that I had read something like this years ago, though I doubt that I would have the maturity or perspective to take it so seriously.

  6. @siva, @yang:

    It’s good to hear this mindset has worked well for you at college. Spread the word! I’m surprised by how often I have undergraduates tell me they are interested, for example, in graduate school, then start running down their activities and asking if they’re well rounded enough. It takes me a moment to realize that no ever tells students that the college admissions approach to life really stops applying once you get into college.

  7. @Albert:

    I’m glad to hear that you’re finding time for what really interests you. I must admit, however, that I don’t claim much expertise on college admissions. What I’m trying to say with this article is that after you get accepted into college, you need to lose the “admissions mindset” when considering your options down the line. In other words, outside of college admissions, there will never again by a time in your life when some committee will be studying your resume and looking to see how well-balanced you are.

  8. Cal, great post and yes please note this everyone waiting for the envelopes. Its very stressful and as Cal noted really sometimes this decisions make absolutely ZERO sense when you re-examine them (which you might end up doing non-stop for several days).

  9. This is exactly, exactly, what I wish someone had told me five years ago before I started college (I graduated in 3 years via a heavy courseload because I was a shallow, ambitious asshole). I’ve known practically since graduation that I blew it and I’ve had vague ideas of where I went wrong, but you absolutely nail it. The really creepy part is that my name is in fact Peter.

    Great site. Please keep up the excellent work.

  10. Although I do support your ideals of reducing the stress that exists in today’s undergraduates, I feel that your post oversimplified students.

    For one, when you state that nobody cares about your resume and activities list– I would highly like to disagree with that. Although there are ways to bypass having a low GPA to get a job, I think a higher GPA only works to aid you in the screening process as does other relevant work experiences. How can you mention the benefits of a high GPA (later on) while dismissing the importance of a resume? You stress the importance on the individual–but a resume is meant to be a summary of that individual.

    2. Difficult courses and a laundry list of activities and having a life + happiness are not mutually exclusive. First of all, if you are doing activities/courses that you hate, then that’s a problem, but if you truly love all 3 majors, then what better time is it than college to truly delve into these topics. I feel that college is a rare time when I can dedicate myself solely on learning and I–also at MIT– really embrace that there is no credit limit in that my tuition is not based on the number of classes I take. Also, I feel that my friends and I busy ourselves because we ultimately love doing everything that we do, granted at times this comes at the expense of sleep.

    3. Lastly, I don’t think you should advise that college is a time to start living life. Although I personally live by that doctrine, I do see that in order to fulfill long term dreams, I may have to sacrifice short term pleasure. For example, many of my friends who have their heart set on becoming one of the best in their interested fields will give up free time to hang out with friends. Now, whether or not getting into the top graduate school program is worth sacrificing hang out time with friends is dependent on individual, I don’t think you should dismiss this option.

    Working in the MIT admissions office, I meet many prospective students that are looking for a very different college experience, something that meets the high level of passion and curiosity that they hold. Although they probably represent a select minority, I do think they are important to consider before you describe the ideal college life.

  11. if you truly love all 3 majors, then what better time is it than college to truly delve into these topics…I may have to sacrifice short term pleasure…becoming one of the best in their interested fields will give up free time to hang out with friend

    I’ve worked with a few MIT students. Something they told me was that before they had their burn out and came seeking some stress reduction advice, that they had become *experts* at convincing the world that their workload made sense. I’m just saying, but that sounds a lot like your comment. I respect you’re skeptical. But maybe read a few more articles here to see what I’m all about. I recommend those under the righ thand column labeled “Next, Read These Important Posts.” You can also always e-mail me if you want to discuss in more detail.

  12. Since getting to college, I’ve put in very little thought towards “extracurriculars”, this magical thing called the “GPA”, and have since devoted most of my mental energy towards leading as exciting and interesting a life as I could possible create for myself.

    And it has been the best freaking year of my life. Unless your future is dependent on getting perfect grades, I highly advise you do the same. 🙂

  13. And it has been the best freaking year of my life. Unless your future is dependent on getting perfect grades, I highly advise you do the same.


    Any by the way, I loved college. I rarely studied late. I never pulled all nighters. I wrote books, and comedy, and played a lot of Mario Kart. I still ended up doing pretty well in the graduate school department. There’s a difference between trying to get a 4.0 in a demanding triple major and becoming an A* student in the major you want to study later. The later is not necessarily a time-consuming, stressful thing.

  14. Cal,

    I’m going to be a college freshman next week, and I really wish I would have read this half a year ago. It would have made my admissions process so much easier.

    Now that I am done with the admissions process, your advice on focusing on the present really helped me to see the bigger picture. Thank you so much for your everything you’ve written.

  15. Cal,

    Today marks my very first day as a full time college student. Your book, “How to become a Straight A Student” was required reading for a friend’s class; I thought it was interesting, so I gave it a look before school began, an have since discovered your blog.

    Interestingly, this is how I more or less lived my life during high school. It has only been since arriving at college that I was suddenly subject to this laundry list fallacy.

    Thank you for the wake up call! If only I could give you the emphasis that deserves in person. What you do is the best kind of charity work; you spread valuable knowledge!

    You can’t imagine how refreshing it is to know my only obligation in the years ahead will be to passionately research the field of my infatuation.

    Sisyphus can keep his rock, I think I’d much prefer to stare at the clouds.


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