How to Survive College Applications Limbo
For students stuck in the no-man’s-land of college applications, life can feel especially uncertain.
The word Limbo comes from the darker side of Catholic theology. It is the postulated place between the threshold of Heaven and the edge of Hell. It is where the unsaved await their redemption amidst celestial elevator music and dismal shades of grey. In common usage, it refers to a state of temporary, though often vexing, uncertainty.
Deferred from her preferred school and awaiting word from others, my sister feels deposited solidly in just such a realm. She finds it difficult to do many of the things that once came easily to her: being still, enjoying free time, looking forward to future happenings. Suffering is relative, but the simmering anxiety of waiting takes a toll on the mental health of high school seniors everywhere.
I know for sure that college applications messed with my head.
My college applications journey
After countless hours of writing and revising my application, a slew of schools rejected me during the winter of 2014. Each few weeks was punctuated by a sudden upsurge of hope followed by swift deflation and brewing dread. I couldn’t focus on the daily joys of being a high school student: spending quality time with friends, feeling valued in a tight community, not having the burdens of adult responsibility to contend with. Looking back I can say with certainty that I wasted a lot of time with worry. Time I could have used to my advantage.
Finally, in April (the ecstatic month of redemption), I began receiving some good news. I’d been admitted to my backups, a few match schools, and waitlisted at my reach. There are several strategies to improve your chances of being plucked from the waitlist, but I’ll address those in a later post.
I want to talk about how to make use of the waiting. Whether you’ve gotten into the school of your dreams, are in the suspended animation of deferral or waitlist, or won’t know anything until regular decisions come out this spring, all of you can make this lagtime count.
Locate your present moment
In the third act of Shakespeare’s comedy, Measure for Measure, Duke Vicentio visits the young Claudio in prison, where he hopes for pardon from a death sentence. He tells him: “Thou hast nor youth nor age; but as it were, an after-dinner’s sleep, dreaming on both.” (Dinner here refers to the midday meal of lunch.) In this dispatch on the nature of time, Shakespeare illuminates the condition of most seniors on the cusp of college. Indeed, he speaks to any of us living in the liminal space between what was and what will be.
Of this line, the critic Samuel Johnson wrote: “This is exquisitely imagined. When we are young, we busy ourselves in forming schemes for succeeding time, and miss the gratifications that are before us; when we are old, we amuse the languor of age with the recollection of youthful pleasures or performances; so that our life, of which no part is filled with the business of the present time, resembles our dreams after [lunch], when the events of the morning are mingled with the designs of the evening.”
What Johnson is getting at here is the terrible difficulty of locating ourselves in the present moment. We are always on one or another side of it, brooding over its passage or anticipating its arrival.
What should you do now?
You who are still at the beginning of your adventure, take note: every fiber of you spells potential. There’s plenty of time to plan for what’s ahead, but only a fleeting couple months to complete this childhood chapter. This is a time to reflect on what you mean to yourself. Don’t let the stresses of college admissions take over.
You’ve spent the last few months imagining what you’ll mean to this college or that, what you’ve meant to your high school, to your teachers, to your communities; but, free of the pressures of external assessment, how would you evaluate, on your own terms, the person you see in your bathroom mirror now? What does he value? What makes her excited to get out of bed in the morning? Who does he love? And why?
This is a profoundly difficult assignment and one that you’ll be wise to repeat at various milestones of your life. We need to practice making use of the endings life presents us with: graduations, break-ups, friendships that fade, the loss of those we love. Only by facing these passages with intention, by enjoying them entirely until they’ve gone, and by mourning them properly on their way, will we be able to face our own last end with grace. And, surely, to greet all our new beginnings with the sweet readiness they deserve.
As you await the next section of your path paved out for you, revel in the present boundlessness of your potential. You may not be sure where you’re going–but who knows: anything could happen yet.