Dear High School Seniors,
Over the past few weeks, many of you have received letters from the colleges to which you applied in the fall and winter.
Some of you are delighted with the outcome, having gotten into your top choice(s). Congratulations. This post is not for you.
Some of you are content, having gotten into a couple of schools that were high on your list. Wonderful. This post is not for you.
Some of you – all too many – are despairing because you received multiple rejections; got on wait lists that are unlikely to turn into acceptances; didn’t receive the financial aid you required; and realized that you actually have no interest in going to the affordable safety school that accepted you. This post is for you.
Many of you, who worked so hard and expected to get into an elite college with the kind of endowment that would ensure you could affordably attend with good financial aid, wonder why you even bothered to take all those AP courses; to study so diligently in classes that sometimes bored you to tears; to prep for the SATs; and to follow all the rules laid out for you during four years of high school.
Here’s my message to you: Don’t surrender your potential. Don’t accept the rejections. It’s time to forge your own path.
Here’s a question for you: Ever find yourself lured by brand-name clothes and shoes, believing these were somehow better? That they said something about you? That they would make you feel more accepted? At some point I hope you realized that none of that was true, and that labels can never define you.
If you’re feeling despondent because you didn’t get into a college with an elite “brand” name, then remember this: a college label can’t ever define you either. In fact, the name of your college does not matter in any significant way.
I’m not going to pretend that having a degree from Harvard or Berkeley on your resumé won’t open doors. It will. But it only opens doors; it doesn’t guarantee you’ll get beyond the reception area. Trust me.
I went to two Ivy League universities, undergraduate and graduate. I have plenty of friends and acquaintances who graduated from these places who haven’t been great successes in life, either in the traditional ways that we measure success or in the real ways, like life satisfaction, happiness, and personal achievement. I also have plenty of friends who went to colleges no one’s ever heard of who are tremendously successful in both traditional and real ways.
What matters isn’t the name of the college you attend, but a combination of these things:
- Your attitude about and passion for learning. If you think you wasted your time in high school, don’t waste any more of it. Learn because you love to learn, and because learning is your greatest path toward finding your life’s work and purpose.
- How good a fit the college is for you personally. If you don’t want to go to the safety school that accepted you, then you didn’t find that good fit with every school to which you applied. It’s not too late (see below).
- How hard you work. If you worked really hard in high school, that’s great, because you have the discipline to work hard throughout your life, and this is what will largely determine your success. That hard work was not wasted. It was preparation.
- How good your teachers are and how interested you are in what they have to teach you. There are myriad ways to learn from others: through traditional college courses, apprenticeships, internships, work, volunteerism, activism. Find those teachers and mentors who stretch your mind and open your heart and learn from them.
- How deeply you avail yourself of the myriad opportunities available to you. From experiential learning, research, internships, travel abroad, volunteer work, and civic and community engagement and service, you will create opportunities for yourself by taking advantage of all your options.
- How you ultimately come to answer these three questions, which will enable you to forge your unique and important path in life:
1. What issues do you most care about?
2. What are you good at?
3. What do you love to do?
As you explore the answers to these three questions, you’ll find the place where the answers meet. That is when you will discover your life’s great work and become successful in all the ways you hope. I invite you to watch this short TEDx talk, “How to Be a Solutionary,” as it may help you on this journey.
Whatever you do, don’t despair.
If you do not want to go to the college(s) that accepted you, take a gap year and explore the answers to the three questions above by involving yourself in work, volunteerism, and opportunities that will enable you to figure out your next steps. Look again at colleges and find the right fit this time, without blindly pursuing the brand names.
Believe me when I tell you the world needs you, but it needs the you who forges your own path, thinks critically and creatively, and doesn’t let others usurp your power or define your dreams or your future.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy of Joelk75 via Creative Commons.