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Articles / After rejections from her top-choice schools, one student found happiness further down her college list

After rejections from her top-choice schools, one student found happiness further down her college list

Lyssa Mandel
Written by Lyssa Mandel | April 9, 2021
After rejections from her top-choice schools, one student found happiness further down her college list

Jan Huber on Unsplash

In high school, I was one of those overachievers whose idea of "self care" was eating a Cadbury Creme Egg at 3 a.m. when I had finished cramming in hundreds of pages of AP US History. My dad kept me company as I burned that midnight oil, but he would usually fall asleep on the couch beside me before I finished my work. I rarely got more than five hours of sleep. I was a straight-A student, and would end up valedictorian, though I didn't know that until after I applied to colleges.

I was also an officer in the National Honor Society and the Spanish Honor Society, a Hebrew school teacher on Sundays and Wednesdays, a member of two choirs, the manager of the track team, and always involved with the school plays (three per year), which meant four hours a night of rehearsal before I could even begin my homework. I'd been shooting for the moon like this since I began school, running on a motor of anxiety and the intense desire to leave my suburban town for grandiose dreams. I was a lonely kid—I had friends, but rarely romance, even though I kept lists of crushes in my diary from age five onward. My identity was "the smart one." And when that becomes your identity, academic failure doesn't seem like an option.

My determination to succeed at any cost wasn't my parents fault at all. The drive came from within me, like an eternal fire burning at the bottom of a well. I had to get out of this town and prove myself. I worked harder my junior year of high school than I'd ever worked before or would ever work again. I needed my sacrifices of sleep and sanity to pay off. I needed the universe to recognize my wrecked nervous system. I needed another Creme Egg.

When I visited colleges, I'd watch the faces of bespectacled crowds walking across courtyards with their backpacks and books. Were they happy? If they looked drawn and serious, the school was a no for me. I had enough darkness in my adolescent head. What I needed was lightness, and joy. When I visited Brown, I fell in love with the bucolic Providence campus and the free-spirited vibe. Brown checked all the boxes for me, and I knew they had a strong theater scene, which was where I was aiming my arrow. I decided to apply early.

In those days, admissions season meant snail mail. Every day, I'd walk up the long driveway of my house in Connecticut, sharks circling inside me in a mix of anticipation and dread. I'd pull open the white mailbox, searching for a fat envelope with my name on it. Then one day, here was a small envelope from Brown. I knew that wasn't a good sign. But I'd been deferred! OK. I was crestfallen, but not hopeless. There was yet a chance.

A few months later, there were crocuses shooting up around the mailbox, and my arm was getting a workout from checking the mail so many times. I had applied to eight schools, nearly all of them on the east coast, so I could be close to my family (but not too close). My other top choices were Columbia and Yale.

Then one day, two small envelopes appeared. Both told me I was waitlisted. And then the next day a third… from Brown… also waitlisted.

The suspense was killing me. Limbo is a tough place to live for any period of time, especially when your future depends on it. The universe was playing with my heart.

Then the acceptances arrived: NYU. Cornell. Northwestern. Rationally, I knew all of these schools would be an honor to attend. But when your heart is set on Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia and the bodega freezer only has vanilla, it's OK to mourn a little.

Finally, within the span of a week, it was the grand finale of the mailbox show. It was like birds shot out of the sky, one by one:

BAM. Brown. Rejected.

BAM. Columbia. Rejected.

BAM. Yale. Rejected.

I was inconsolable. I sobbed on the bathroom floor in front of the space heater, burying myself in back issues of Vogue and Nylon and listening to Tori Amos. What was the point of being a sleep-deprived, jaw-clenching, heartsick hard worker for my entire life thus far if it came to this? What was the point in trying? Hormones didn't help, but eating pizza and watching The Breakfast Club did.

In the end, I chose to go to Northwestern because they had a killer theater department, proximity to a big city, and a cheerful-seeming student body. Going to Chicago felt like being banished to Siberia at the time, but within the first week on campus, I met the woman who would become my best friend in the room right across the hall from me. We spent countless nights sitting on the floor of dorm rooms together, listening to Death Cab for Cutie and eating microwave popcorn as we cut up magazines and collaged our feelings. She is still one of my best friends today.

But I was dreadfully homesick for the first semester. I wasted energy constantly comparing Chicago to New York, to the annoyance of my dormmates. But then I took a leap and transferred from Northwestern's College of Arts and Sciences into the Theater Department, and the sunlight broke through the cracks in my jaded shell. I found my people. And they were warm, and playful, and so much less competitive than the east coasters I'd left behind. I felt free to relax into myself, and free to explore. It was late winter of Freshman year that I met my first love on a student production of Othello, and that sealed it. There was no denying that the serotonin levels were rising.

By then, I'd put in materials to transfer to Columbia, and that summer I was invited to campus to meet the Dean of Admissions himself. As my dad and I sat across from him in his regal office, he gave a wide smile and said, "If you want to come, welcome home."

Driving through the city later that afternoon, my stomach was filled with a different kind of feeling; a softer one.

"What do you think?" asked my dad. "You coming to New York?"

"No," I said, to his surprise. "I'm going to stay in Chicago. I think I'm meant to be there."

Written by

Lyssa Mandel

Lyssa Mandel

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