Early College Admissions Decisions didn’t go your way and you’re wondering what to do now? Let’s talk about trees and dream colleges.

6 min readDec 9, 2020
Upset African-American teenage boy sitting alone near window

Dear Seniors,

I know many of you are feeling stressed about your December decisions. I get it — it’s a crazy tough time.

I want to share with you a speech I adapted for a group of parents about helping their kids handle stress.

Applying to college is stressful, and can be overwhelming. But there’s also something really amazing about the admissions journey.

And here’s why: Some stress is good for you. You aren’t going to live long, full, absolutely stress-free lives and the sooner you learn to handle it, the better. I’ve heard this called stress inoculation before.

I call it wind.

Now, I really hope there aren’t any botanists out there to call me out on the details of this story because anyone who knows me can tell you I’m no scientist, but I am a former English major and English teacher, so I love a good metaphor, and when I first heard this story, it struck me, and it stuck with me.

Back in the 90s, there was this big ole Biosphere in Arizona where they were trying to create a completely self-contained ecosystem and grow trees, so that, you know, if we get booted off Earth someday, we can take our plant life with us.

They made the conditions absolutely perfect for raising these baby trees. Perfect soil. Ideal temperature. Perfect amount of sunlight and water. And the trees grew and they grew fast and tall and seemed healthy and then — — they started to fall over. And do you know why? The scientists had forgotten to provide the wind in creating the perfect environment for raising their beautiful baby trees. And because there was nothing pushing on these baby trees, nothing trying to knock them over, the saplings never experienced any stress. And without the stress from the wind trying to knock them over, the trees weren’t creating “stress bark,” a bark that makes them stand strong, and they weren’t able to bear their own weight — even in this beautiful, protected, forgiving environment.

So, take heart in the idea that it’s ok and healthy and good and necessary for you to experience a little wind, a little stress. The college admissions journey can be stressful — or windy as I like to now call it — I’m not gonna lie, but that can be a healthy experience. For many of you, it’s the first time you’ve come across this level of stress and when you make your way through the admissions journey and you’re standing tall at the end — even when admissions results do not go your way — you’ll be incredibly proud of yourselves — and stronger.

We see your resilience.

Students come back and tell me this every year here. After they’ve cried, pounded their pillows, licked their wounds, and eaten ice cream — and I mean there’s a lot of ice cream eating going on during college-admission-decision time — a few months later, they come back and talk about how even though it was the most stressful experience of their short lives, they are proud of how much they learned about themselves and how much stronger they feel now. This. This is the good kind of stress.

Now, in case you think I’m trying to turn the admissions experience into some happy-ending forest-like fairytale — I’m not. In fact, I think there’s a lot wrong with it. I believe the non-stop college talk in schools and homes is downright dangerous for some kids — and the constant college admissions chatter causes unnecessary stress in many others.

Forget about Dream Schools.

Instead of spending so much time focusing on one school — a “dream school,” I encourage you to find your “Dream You” — Y — O — U, not your Dream U (just U). Look, I know you’ve been taught to “dream big” and “follow your dreams,” but you ask me, I tell you, it’s not about finding the school of your dreams; it’s about finding the you of your dreams. Find the best version of you. When you’re drooling over that perfect school with a perfect campus and perfect classes, you’re not dreaming about any one school. No, you’re dreaming about who you want to be and where you can become who you want to be, and there isn’t only one Dream School where you can do that. So, I invite you to think deeply — and figure out what it is about that certain school that makes you consider it your dream school — because, I guarantee that your dream isn’t out there in the form of a college; it is in YOU.

You can only control your own actions.

Probably the most relevant lesson to the college admissions journey is the understanding that we can only control our own actions — and it’s fruitless to spend our time and energy trying to control anything else. And what you can control in college admissions is what goes in the application — essays, activity descriptions, and grades and test scores to a limited extent. What you cannot control is the number of other well-qualified amazing students who might be applying to the same tiny teacup of schools as you are; you cannot control the bulk of your transcript by the time you’re a senior; you cannot control the institutional needs of the colleges on your list; you cannot control the mood, preferences, or predilections of the application readers. You cannot, in essence, control what colleges want at the particular reading of your application on a particular day, and as an admissions officer from U Chicago once told me, “just when you think you’ve figured out, what we want, we’ve changed our mind.” The only thing you can control is becoming who you are and then putting together the best application that reflects the best of who you are.

Institutional Needs? What does that mean?

I’ve been asked before what institutional needs means so I’ll explain here: it means they have to create a class, so they’re looking for all kinds of people with varying strengths, abilities, talents, and backgrounds. They don’t want to have a uniform set of people who are all robotically doing the same stuff. That’s why it’s important to have holistic admissions and not just base it on stats. Also, they have a school to run so certain departments and faculty might have more needs at different times. Or whatever their board members and presidents tell them they should keep In mind. This is the part of college admissions that we have no control over and why applicants need to not take any of it personally. Institutional needs change year to year so you can’t prep and plan ahead.

Now, here’s what I love most about college admissions:

It can actually be this period of amazing self-growth and development — like no other if you allow yourself to recognize that some amount of stress is necessary and good for your development, and if we acknowledge that there might be ways to reframe our understanding of college admissions by changing the words and phrases we use. When you take control of your admissions journey and you incorporate some mindfulness into your lives, you can grow in self-confidence and maturity as you dig in and learn more about yourself than you ever have. Figuring out what you want in a college, developing a list, and writing personal essays all require deep reflection and self-investigation. Taking the reins and handling the details and difficulties of the application process demonstrates your abilities and strengths. And, no matter the outcome, no matter where you end up going to college, no matter how painful some of this journey might be, this transformational experience, filled not only with stress but also with excitement and joy — is turning you into a stronger human, ready to take on college — and life.

One last note: It can really hurt when life doesn’t go your way and sometimes you just have to give in to the pain — that’s the only way through it. So slam doors, eat ice cream, bash pillows, cry — it’s all ok. It’s their loss. You are gonna be sad for a day or two, and then you’re gonna get your shit together and thank-you-next them so that you can recognize that this one door shutting? This is your chance. This is your time to learn how strong you are and learn more about colleges and what you want for yourself. This isn’t an ending. It’s a beginning.

tl; dr You are a badass. You don’t need them. You have you.




College Admissions Consultant. Mindfulness in College Admissions. Author: Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit. www.admissionsmom.college