These blogs exist for many reasons. Show prospective students what MIT is like, the good and the bad. Give comfort and advice about your applications. And to connect our lives to the life of you, the reader.
The reality is that we as bloggers cannot connect with the decision that you may have received on Sunday. We all say that it will get better, that you will continue to grow and become yourself, that this is not the end of a road, but the start of a new journey.
I know that those words can be hard to hear, especially when we seem to be coming from a position of having been admitted, of being at MIT. (Though, to be clear, it’s not just us who say those words.) I know that many of you might still be hurt to be told “no”, wishing that something had gone differently, sad that you’re on the waitlist and have a few more months of waiting to go, or feel like a dream you wanted is now impossible. You are incredibly, incredibly valid for feeling all of those things, or feeling anything else. No matter what.
There’s a lot of things that you might be feeling. And I can’t begin to know exactly what those feelings are. But what I can do is share my own experiences with rejection, waitlists, and more, as a part of my own process of applying to grad school,01 where to be honest with you, things haven’t been all sunshine and roses. Maybe some of my feelings will resonate with you. Maybe they won’t. But maybe this post will be a way for you to start processing all of those thoughts, a way to start moving forward from a Pi Day that might not have gone the way you wanted.
My first graduate school application came back on my birthday. It was a rejection. I’ve got to say, it wasn’t exactly the best birthday gift that I ever received.
With each rejection and waitlist that I received, my first question was always “why”. But that’s already been talked about on the blogs.
My second question was “what if”. What if I knew what I wanted to do earlier in college? What if I had taken those harder math classes? What if I had done more research opportunities, helped out with more papers? What if COVID-19 didn’t happen this year and make econ grad admissions so much harder? What if I was that alternate-universe-Paolo who had the choice between [redacted] and [redacted], and wasn’t just stuck in this limbo of not knowing?
As human beings, we are constantly focusing not just on “what is”, but “what can be”. In many ways, this is good: it lets us dream, it lets us grow, it lets us hope. But the focus on “what could be” always gets me. Imagining pasts that never were, futures that now cannot be. Sometimes you trim the tree of possible paths yourself, but sometimes you reach and find those doors shut. But no matter what, you end up as a future-you that is yourself.
While all of that may be true and all, that doesn’t stop my wondering in the moment of what can be. I’ve found myself unable to sleep until 3 AM many times this semester, wondering about how alternate-universe-Paolo is doing with his graduate apps, wondering if he has the admissions results that I desperately want.
But the person that I am in this universe is a function of how past-me decided to act, a function of my choices and values. We always judge harsher in hindsight, just because it’s easier to; we know how the future progressed, what was beyond the river bend, and we can see the turns we should have taken to make present-us the person that we want to be now.
But I know that past-me made the best decisions that he could have made given what he knew at the time. I can’t fault past-me for those choices, because they were made with good intent and with all of the knowledge that I knew then. Besides, those decisions have led me to where I am now, and it’s not a bad spot, all things considering.
I know that I should be happy enough with that, I tell myself. But sometimes, I still wonder. And that’s OK.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable.02 Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
The nature of applications, of course, means that there is always the possibility of being denied. Nothing is ever guaranteed in life, least of all admission to selective programs. But when I apply to things, no matter how selective, no matter what I tell myself, there’s always the small, small part of me that wishes that things turn out good. Hoping for the chance for dreams to be a reality. Sometimes, those dreams work out. But sometimes, they don’t.
I am a very risk-averse person. My utility function is decidedly concave. I don’t try to beat the stock market (despite econ major), don’t really gamble (despite liking poker and being from Nevada), don’t like taking chances that I don’t need to. But sometimes, there is no way forward but to try, to take the risk of what cards you’ll be dealt, and to carry on from there. And that is the way that decisions work: the only way that you have a chance to be admitted is to permit the chance to be rejected.
And if that chance to be turned away becomes reality, it can hurt. Especially when it’s something that you may have wanted very, very badly. If that was you, taking the chance to want, only to have it not come to fruition this past Pi Day, you are brave. “To love is to be vulnerable”.
Try not to regret that vulnerability, because to have loved something is to have lived. If we led our lives not loving things, not wishing for something to happen, well, we’d go on our days without really caring about anything. Do not regret trying, because future-you will have always wondered how it had turned out. Be proud of those essays, of the person that you have become, the person who went and wrote an application and showed themselves, all of your victories and your shortcomings, to an admissions committee. The person who allowed themselves to be judged. Of course, admissions is not a judge of your self-worth, but some days it might feel like that; and even so, you took that risk.
Life is much, much more than admissions, decisions, or “work” in general. One of my clearest memories at MIT comes from a group discussion the summer after my first-year, where we were asked what we’d do with an extra hour in a day. The three first-years in the group, myself included, all said that we’d take more classes, spend more time exploring the academic offerings at MIT. But the two seniors in our group both said they’d spend more time with the people around them, taking in the community and the life around them while they could.
Now that I’m a senior, living in these quarantimes, I think I’ve finally learned what that was all about. Despite what it sometimes feels like, work really is just “work”; there’s so much more life to be lived outside of it. In that same vein, I know that life is much more than just the classes I take, the research I do, the career paths I choose to go down. It’s about the people I’m around, the way I choose to exist as a person. And that person exists independently of any admissions decision that I receive.
The word continuing, the title of this post, derives from Latin; con- meaning “together” or “with”, and tenere, meaning “to hold” (the same root as “maintain” or “tender” or “tenet”). In response to “how’s it going”, I sometimes respond with “Eh, it continues”, especially these days with the way that admissions have been going for me. “Continue” here means more than just the persistence of existence, the passive and unstoppable movement through time. Continuing can be active; continuing is about the linkage between past-you and future-you, with present-you straining to connect those selves together. And some days more than others, I find myself needing a bit of extra oomph to pull myself out of the past and into the future.
I mentioned above that I sometimes have stayed awake until the wee hours of the morning, unable to sleep because of anxiety about my applications and where I’ll end up. The advice to deal with this usually goes something like “stop stressing about things that are outside of your control; you’ve done all you could, just let it happen, and things will work out”. And despite knowing this advice and hearing it and even having told it to other people, I know more than ever that that advice is very hard to follow. That advice tells me to separate my emotions from myself. But of course, those emotions, and all emotions, are a part of myself.
I’ve started to find a bit of peace in my own worrying. Yes, it’s stressful. I know that. But it’s my future that I’m worrying about. It makes sense to be stressed. The existence of my “safety school” (which isn’t a school at all, but a job) definitely makes me feel a bit better about it all.
And if schools tell me I should hold on a bit while they figure out how many more students they can admit? Well, there is hope. Hope that things will work out, hope that I’ll get off waitlists, hope that I’ll receive funding from fellowships. And if none of that works out, I know there is more than one path in life; I can end up working at a job or researching for a while longer, and figure out my next steps from there. Find new paths that I don’t even know exist, but paths I have open to me nonetheless.
When I read these blogs as a high school student, I really, really felt like the bloggers just had it all figured out. That they could give the magic advice with the wisdom that comes from being older, of having been through MIT, of having lived so much more life.
I don’t really feel like I can do that. I am a continuation of that self who existed in high school, someone who yes, has grown since then, but in stuttered, diagonal, ways, rather than the linear progress I always expected. I don’t feel like I’m in a position where I can truly offer you advice on how to make it all feel better, especially when I myself am experiencing many of the struggles that you are.
If this post didn’t quite help, here’s wisdom from many other bloggers of yore that might be better to hear (and many more posts along the same line exist in the blog archives).
But I hope that this post has helped you feel valid in whatever feelings you are feeling, and has given you the teensiest bit of reassurance. I hope that this post can be a part of the path that amazing and wonderful present-you takes, a path that will forge the even more wonderful future-you who is yet to come.