I'm a perfectionist, and I always have been. Before even entering middle school, I had goals of going to an Ivy League university and reaching the top of whatever field I chose (at the time, it was medicine). Along with being a perfectionist, I've always been stubborn and persistent. And while those three traits have given me the drive to work hard and get amazing opportunities, they can also be a deadly cocktail that leads to unmanageable stress and low self-esteem.
And that's exactly what happened to me senior year. Everyone was shocked when the valedictorian, student body president with thousands of hours of volunteer work ended up in the psychiatric ward of the hospital a few short weeks before college applications were due. But when you look at it in terms of the stress put on our students to compete against thousands of others for a few spots in one of the most prestigious places in the world, all while still attempting to keep up with their rigorous lives, it makes sense.
Ultimately, my mental-break came down to the dreaded Common App essay. I spent a week crying at my laptop screen instead of sleeping because I couldn't figure out a concoction of words that would set me apart from other applicants. After all, when the Ivies have their choice of all the valedictorians, student body presidents, CEOs, etc. in the world, how do they decide who gets in? After an entire lifetime of being a big fish in a small pond, suddenly my entire life seemed like it wasn't good enough. And then my mind, already predisposed to anxiety and depression, automatically went to "so what's the point?" Needless to say, a rapid chain of events following ended in a 10-day trip to the psychiatric hospital.
What I Learned:
1. Your impact on the people around you is more important than your impact on strangers on an admissions board
In my life, I've inspired and helped a lot of people. I've also hurt and scared many of them, and a lot of that was done during the college admissions process. In those months, I put my thoughts around college ahead of everything, including my relationships with others and myself. But that's time I'll never get back all for people I will never meet.
2. Success isn't defined by a single acceptance or event
In my life, I've met a lot of people who are smarter, have accomplished more, and have more conventional "success" than me. In the past, I've always taken those facts as evidence that I don't try hard enough or do enough work. However, throughout this process I've learned that the only think which defines success is your perception of yourself--not a college admissions board or SAT score.
3. Don't take yourself (or life) so seriously
Life really isn't that serious. I spent years working so hard without ever actually being proud of it because it was never as much as the next person. But throughout this process, I've seen people get unimaginably excited just to graduate high school or go on to community college, which unlike the "I got a full ride to Harvard!" posts (which I admit, still make me sad), are what really inspire me now.
I didn't end up going to the schools I wanted. In fact, I'm writing this from my second-to-last choice school. But it's okay, which is definitely not something I would say a year ago. Even though I don't get to experience my dream city or dream school, I'm at college with my best friend and only a 45-minute drive from my dog. Like Robert Frost said, "In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: It goes on"