An Independent School • Grades 5-12
Applying to college is about building resilience
Applying to college is about building resilience

by Ari Worthman, director of college counseling

As a teenager, I dreamed of attending Williams College. I frequently pored over brochures, imagining myself roaming the picturesque campus and attending classes in the school's ivy-covered buildings. By all measures, I was an admissible candidate to Williams: I was second in my class of 300-plus students at a decent New Jersey public school and was a year-round varsity captain for the cross-country and track and field teams.

But in hyper-selective applicant pools, being admissible does not mean you'll be admitted. There are many more qualified applicants than there are spaces. In the spring of senior year, I received a rejection letter from Williams. I was devastated. "I did everything right," I remember thinking. "How did this happen?" I reread the denial letter so many times that, almost 20 years later, I can still recite its opening paragraph.

My mother made my favorite dish for dinner that night — her trademark baked ziti — and listened to me vent, often chiming in to affirm that I was worthy of admission and that I had done everything right. "But in life that doesn't mean you'll always achieve your goals," I remember her saying. "Life isn't fair, and it's replete with setbacks and disappointments you can't control. All you can do is pick yourself up, make the best of it, and move forward."

That is what I did. I spent the next weeks considering the schools that had admitted me, rechanneling my dreams of Williams into getting excited about these other opportunities, and ultimately chose Haverford College. The sting of rejection certainly lingered, but with each passing pang, I became more determined to be successful at Haverford. As it turned out, Haverford College was four of the best years of my life.

Of course, my mother was right. The rejection from Williams was only the first of many disappointments that would come my way. After graduating from Haverford, I was determined to move to the West Coast, so I applied for a position in admissions at Claremont McKenna College, which I was convinced was the perfect job.

I still remember that rejection letter, too.

After a few years of working in admissions at my alma mater, and then being a college counselor at a South Florida independent school, I decided I wanted to move to Washington, D.C. After an arduous interview process to become director of college counseling at a D.C. independent school, I received yet another rejection letter. Once again, I was crushed but kept my mother's words in mind. I was determined to someday become a director, and I had to step back and re-evaluate how I was going to get there. I had to be resilient.

A year later, Bernie Noe appointed me Lakeside's associate director of college counseling. The position was not my ultimate goal — becoming a director of college counseling — but I was drawn to Lakeside's mission and values, and I realized there were plenty of ways I could grow at Lakeside. I embraced the opportunity.

After a year, I was promoted to director. I still marvel at how unexpectedly, yet wonderfully, things worked out. The path to Lakeside was more circuitous than linear, but that's OK. I imagine most adults reading this piece would say the same thing about their own lives. Our dreams seldom materialize in the ways our teenage minds once imagined. Over time, dreams are remolded as we respond to setbacks, and as we adapt to the changing world around us. That's resilience.

As parents and educators, we are often tempted to shield students from disappointment by ensuring they achieve their goals, sometimes at any cost. Maybe my mother could have nudged me to appeal the decision from Williams. Or perhaps she could have called the admissions director and urged him to reconsider. I also could have applied year after year for an admissions job at Claremont McKenna, or could have applied for a job at every independent school within 50 miles of D.C. In rare circumstances, such determination pays off. But in most cases, it builds the opposite of resilience. It breeds intractability and rigidity, and an inability to successfully respond to the many curveballs that are thrown at us.

Rigidity will not serve any of our students well in this rapidly changing and unpredictable world. But resilience will.

Thank you, Mom, for giving me an important lesson in resilience. And thank you, Williams College, maybe not for rejection, but for creating a moment for her to offer that lesson. I do not know what other curveballs are coming my way, but I am confident that I have the resilience to face whatever unexpected events life brings my way.

This is the type of resilience our students need in life, and for many students, the college process is a chance to build and strengthen it.

You can reach Ari Worthman, director of college counseling, at ari.worthman@lakesideschool.org.

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