Lighting up the future despite the darkness within:  What is the flip side to the glamourized college application process?


College applications: the most exhilarating, crucial time in your senior year. Your entire school life has built up to this one process; your parents have ensured you have the most prestigious college counsellors and academic tutors to enhance your application. Although it’s meant to be a time of growth, introspection and joy, it usually leads to an endless cycle of anxiety and self-deprecating thoughts.

Looking back, my experience was a lot more harrowing than it was for my peers. I was diagnosed with clinical depression around the start of 11th grade which had taken a rapid toll on my academic performance, extra-curricular activities and my attitude towards school as a whole. Barely navigating through the constant fatigue, low moods and hopelessness, attending a top university seemed like a far-fetched dream.

The competitive culture cultivated in my boarding school only added to the pressure I was under; there came a point when all my peers would talk about breakfast, lunch and dinner were their ‘dream’ schools. Academic guidance counsellors would host monthly grade meetings to discuss our progress and aspirations. As time progressed and my workload increased, so did my anxiety around academics and college counsellor meetings.

I started to avoid discussions with my college counsellors by skipping meetings and certain teachers. I was terrified that if I got too overwhelmed, I would end up having an anxiety attack in front of my teachers and peers.

However, the main emotion that springs to mind when I think of my experience is the SHAME. I’ll never forget the pitiful look on my counsellor’s face as she advised me to take a gap year and told me how the only offers I would receive would be from ‘low-grade’ colleges.The looming fear of having an uncertain answer to my friends' questions about my college acceptances or the overwhelming despair at a peer's acceptance celebration were what gripped me during this process and rendered me hopeless.

After being repeatedly told my application simply wasn’t good enough, I was certain I had zero chances of any college acceptances which only added to low self- esteem and pessimistic view of my future. You can only imagine my surprise when months later, with the encouragement of my older sister, I ended up applying to four esteemed universities and got offers from three of them.

After hours of shock and confusion regarding my acceptances, it finally dawned on me: I was not just the sum of my grades and ACT scores on a sheet of paper as I had been taught to believe. I am a sum of my experiences, my potential, my passions, my empathy and so much more. These are the qualities the admissions team, individuals I had never met, had seen in me while I could only focus on my shortcomings. It sounds just a tad bit ironic doesn’t it?

During this difficult time, I longed for compassion and understanding from my peers, mentors and teachers. When I socially distanced myself, my friends automatically assumed it was because I was no longer invested in our friendships. When I skipped classes, was frequently unwell and performed badly in tests, my teachers reprimanded me for slacking off. My question is, why was it easier for the people in my immediate environment to automatically make their own assumptions and attach a harsh label rather than to reach out to really check in on me?

Recent conversations with my peers have been extremely eye-opening as I realized I was not alone in how I felt; a lot of them had felt similarly: lonely, inadequate, anxious and misunderstood.

Though this ordeal marred my prime high school years, it led me to recognize the systemic flaws that exist within educational institutions and their understanding and treatment of mental health. Once I explained my emotional distress to my school faculty, I discovered their indifference had stemmed from a lack of awareness, not from a lack of empathy. Unfortunately, it can take months to build up the courage or mindset to attain this kind of vulnerability for someone struggling with a mental illness. And what about those who do not?

As a community, supporting each other in the face of adversities is vital and the first step towards that is by honing in on developing awareness and empathy. I especially convey this to those who work in academic and educational settings. According to recent research conducted by the Mariwala Health Initiative, 50% of all mental disorders begin by the age of 14 and academic professionals hence play a critical role in children’s mental health.

We must also create a school environment in which we not only celebrate and congratulate those who are thriving but also the ones who are doing their very best to stay afloat. When we measure potential and success simply by restrictive, rigid parameters, we are dismissive of those who are struggling with mental health concerns or who aren’t as academically inclined.

Lastly, if you’re a student reading this I hope you will remember to take some time off and value your mental health over an exam or deadline. And if you’ve been wondering if things will ever get better, this is a quote by Matt Haigs that I want to leave with you:

“Yes, it does get better. There will be dark moments when your mind convinces you otherwise, but it is a lie. Your illness is smaller than you, even if it feels vast.  It operates within you, you do not operate within it. It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky but - if that is the metaphor - you are the sky. You were there before it.”

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