The College App-ocalypse
What's it like learning of university acceptance or rejection in the hyper-online era? Excruciating.
College applications offer the rare, almost sacred, opportunity to make a life-changing decision independently, with all of the consequences and benefits falling onto the teen who makes them. Where might you find one of these teens? Developing carpal tunnel from scrolling through the CommonApp, crying over typos, and looking for the eighth iteration of their very, very condensed resume, of course. It’s official: your favorite teenager (me) is applying to college.
With every essay written and message drafted, my Sylvia Plath fig tree of opportunity grows new branches hung with wool coats and with figs plump with city aspirations or quiet country nights. Figs shaped like boys washed with Oribe shampoo or buoyant with Coors, figs wearing office job pencil skirts or wild with jasmine. But the tragedy of the college application process is not just in the factor of decision making—it is the anticipation of having the control to decide which is bound to be followed by a swift taking-back.
Rejection, in any case, is inevitable. With every letter of rejection and left on “Delivered,” we will watch as the branches are lopped off, one by one. We all might starve at the crux of the tree, skipping lunch to finish late homework in order to maintain the grades to stay stuck where we are between the dying branches and rotting figs. We will chase what we once sought with whatever slim pickings remain.
I’ve stepped around rejection my entire life, too scared to acknowledge what my reaction to rejection might reveal. But I recognize the storm ahead, so I’ve braced myself. Like other over-ambitious children raised in a perpetually online world, I was a great consumer of college acceptance videos on YouTube. The internet, as it tends to do with its victims, has sent the college application process into a tailspin. Videos about college are like important religious paintings: the girl in a collegiate sweatshirt, always layered with a mock-neck turtleneck (at least in my memory, because after all, early applications come back in December) holds her forehead in her hands as her stickered Macbook shines her fate upon her wide eyes in blue light.
These videos are gorgeously rich in tragedy and elation, and jaded adults enjoy watching them, mostly because it reminds them of what was at stake in their exhilerating youth. I have never understood the desire to record rejection, but in the digital age, your rejection can still be permanently cemented in your lack of a celebration post or the missing space to your right in all your photos, where more than one missing individual could have easily fit. We log our own humiliation for entertainment and for pity; the digital ledger of our failures is free to everyone.
Social media, for better or for worse, has made us accustomed to having information about our peers at our fingertips through visual markers of dinner at Tao and houses by the shore, or through links-in-bio and graduation years. We dislike the uncertainty which renders a real life interaction true. We know that there is a life beyond the screen—what opinions and secrets do the kids in our classes harbor beyond what is glaringly obvious? Will we be able to keep a straight face when they try to guess our early decision school, do we give ourselves away when we like flush and giggle like girls with crushes on our guy counselors at day camp? Is our name on the mythical spreadsheet which logs all of our college-bound secrets, has it floated around and gotten to the wrong people?
But most importantly, the college application process is riddled with envy. I try to explain this to my parents, but I fear they don’t understand the panopticon of social media. After all, my parents wrote their essays on typewriters and paid their application fees with checks sent in opaque manila envelopes. It’s common practice for schools to keep an Instagram page of their seniors’ college decisions, a means of signalling success thinly veiled as a group celebration. Despite the media might have suggested in the aughts of the early 2010s, we are never mean online. Digital spite is reserved for people who had MySpace. Online, it may look like we part the tangles of ivy and put our envy aside to celebrate our classmates. But our envy is elsewhere, in glances and forced silence. Palpable stress hangs in the air of the senior common area. We’re not sure if we’re ready to be rejected or, perhaps more importantly, to watch others live out the desires we had strapped close to our hearts.
Rejection, whether from a college, someone, or something else, is about mourning what could have been: the nights you could have spent in the vaulted ceilings of a muraled library, the conversations you could have had in buildings they didn’t cover on the tour, or the nights you could have spent in quiet rooms together. Otherwise, what would we mourn other than letters on a page or an almost-held hand? You might never know what it is like to be a green freshman attending orientation on their campus or to be their first choice. You will mourn it, and you will move on, scrolling past the life you long for on your feed and searching for scraps of it elsewhere.
I once had a clear image of what rejection would look like—I would vomit up the pennants, enamel pins, and graduation regalia with special embroidery that could have been mine, reeling in the shocking finality that can only be delivered by ominous letters in suspiciously thin envelopes. But now I’m not so sure. An eighteen year old cannot understand why they are unwanted by institution after institution, by boy after boy, by neither country nor stranger. The heart and ego after rejection will drag, but just like the prom night bruises on my feet, they will heal, stronger than before with stories to tell.
By the time you read this, none of us will have gotten our applications back. Maybe one day, I will have the resolve to throw myself at rejection, willing and strong, but that’s probably an article for later in life.