Oh the college application process! While in actuality the official start of the application season is senior year, we all know that it really gets going much much earlier. Was it junior year when you were thinking about how to get into your “first choice” or was it as early as freshman registration when you opted for Honors Spanish, instead of regular because your mom’s friend’s sister had a daughter who got into Michigan because although her ACT score wasn’t that high she took four years of a language and colleges really like that!

Don’t worry; you’re not the only one! It seems that you, and much of the rest of the college-bound world, can easily get stuck in what Signet Education calls the “High School Whirlpool”. This is surely a familiar concept: it’s when we start to “hear things”. Mostly they are centered on the same subject: the college admission process.

Do any of these sound familiar? 

  • X had a pretty low GPA, but she still got into Fancy University because she played chess and her dad went there.
  • All of the neighbor’s kids went to Ivy schools because they took Mandarin for four years and did a service trip to Peru over Spring Break.
  • Y is applying to the same school I want to go to, but she has way more extracurricular activities, so I’ll never get in if we’re competing for the same spot!
  • Naviance says I need Z score to get into Selective College; there is no way I am going to get in.

We’ve all heard these. The problem is that they are rumors, not facts. And the problem with rumors is that they are erroneous, grossly misleading, and can send us down the wrong path. All of a sudden everything you do in high school is fraught with comparison and competition, and that is neither healthy nor particularly productive when it comes to college application and subsequent admission.

How do you know if you’re in the Whirlpool? Go down this list and see how many statements you find yourself agreeing with:

  • I took classes that were harder than I was ready for because I thought it would help me get into Dream University.
  • I joined sports and extracurricular activities because I knew they would look impressive on a college application.
  • I took the ACT/SAT over and over so that I could get a 36/1600
  • I obsess over going to University of Prestige because that’s where everyone in my family went and my parents would be devastated if I didn’t get it.
  • My parents are always talking about how amazing the Z kids are and how I am not doing as well by comparison.
  • My college counselor says one thing, and my parents say another, and my older sister who is at Fancy Private Liberal Arts College says it’s all garbage and I should just join the Peace Corp because college is a waste of money as the economy is in the trash and I will never get a job.

Any of these ring a bell? Well, then you’re probably in the Whirlpool. Don’t worry! We’re going to help you get out!

The first thing you need to do is clearly identify your definition of success. Not your parents’, not your friends’, but to your personal understanding of what success looks like. Believe it or not, success is different for everybody; it just might be possible that your definition is vastly different than the expectations of those around you. That’s OK. Success should be based on intrinsic factors, such as fulfillment, purpose, and excitement, rather than extrinsic factors, such as degree, name recognition, or bragging rights.  If you can identify what you want, you can identify how to get there. Instead of comparing yourself to others and their path, focus on your own needs and interests. You are much too young to bind yourself to a narrow goal; high school is the perfect time to explore, find out what you are interested in, and discover your passions.

To start creating that individualized definition of success, consider:

  • your own limits and use those limit to establish an appropriate challenge threshold for the courses you select  
  • finding activities that are meaningful and intrinsically enjoyable
  • making time for things that are important to you
  • making time for family and friends
  • giving yourself room to explore the unfamiliar
  • seeking out an environment that is supportive and encouraging

High school is wrought with challenges and anxieties. It is academically, socially, and emotionally difficult. Do not give yourself the added pressure of getting stuck in a whirlpool of gossip, false information, and misleading suggestions. Instead, find someone you trust, be it a friend, a parent, a guidance counselor, or a therapist who is not trapped in the whirlpool chaos. Talk to him or her about the path you want to take and what you think is best. And lastly, stay true to yourself. Remember, you want to go to the college that accepts you based on who you really are, not the person you invented because your mother’s sister’s neighbor’s daughter from Florida said will get you in.