I have not eaten in the dining hall during my lunch hour since the beginning of my senior year of high school last September. I have adopted this hour, which for most students remains a frenzy of gossip and greasy french fries, as a time to catch up on work or scribble in my journal.
It might seem like strange behavior for a teenager whose goal for the past three years has been to fit in with her peers. But when the college-application process began, I felt as if I had no other choice. The giggly familiarity that had once pervaded the hallways of my prep school quickly morphed into a backstabbing mentality that consumed cheerleaders and calculus whizzes alike.
I realized something was amiss last spring. Just as crocuses sprung up around campus, so did SAT vocabulary flashcards. Even the most gifted linguists obsessively clutched neat, rubber-banded stacks of them. Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number 13. This and other bizarre nouns, adverbs and adjectives started to preoccupy my friends, some of whom pored over definitions and Latin roots ritualistically.
Soon, what seemed to me a test of mindless memorization emerged as a test of financial clout. One by one the juniors enrolled in SAT prep courses that cost upwards of a thousand dollars. Despite being the only student in a class of nearly 90 who didn't pay for SAT preparation, I scored well, but I was frustrated by a process that is so easily manipulated by those willing to drop a couple grand.
Then came the horror stories about students at rival schools. The trilingual professional speed skater who scored a perfect 1600 on her SATs, did community service for 30 hours every weekend, won an international physics prize and was rejected from Harvard for getting an 89 in AP history. My friend, a gifted pianist, was shocked to learn that he would have to pay half of his summer job's earnings for studio recording time in order to create an audition tape equal to those made by some of his fellow applicants. I thought the photography portfolio I sent to prospective schools was impressive until my college counselor told me about a girl from another school whose work had been put on display in a Manhattan art gallery.
The competition reached a fever pitch in October. Suddenly the enemies taking our spots at Harvard and Yale weren't kids we had never met; they were our friends. Girls in my AP English class accused one another of sabotaging graded presentations by stealing the required reading out of each other's backpacks. I didn't tell my girlfriends where I was applying, so I was surprised when they knew anyway. Someone had broken into the school's college office to find out where my transcripts had been sent. One friend, furious that I had applied to her top choice and predicting that I would be a strong competitor, tried to change my mind for a solid week. "Connecticut is absolutely horrendous in the winter," she'd say. I hoped that once most of the applications were in, the tension would subside. I was wrong.
"If I don't get into Brown, I'll die."
"Maybe if you hadn't dropped AP calculus, it'd be possible for you, honey."
"Maybe if your grandfather wasn't a trustee at Columbia you wouldn't be so freaking smug."
Two very talented girls I know applied to a prestigious school, waited nervously for three months and logged onto the school's Web site at exactly midnight on the day the results were posted. One was accepted and the other was deferred into a later admission round. The girls, who had lived within walking distance for 13 years and had framed pictures of each other in diapers on their dressers, stopped speaking. I witnessed their mothers pretending not to notice one another in a coffee shop no bigger than my bedroom.
I suppose the warped mentality of emphasizing college over friendship arises when one equates self-worth with an acceptance letter. It is difficult not to succumb to the idea that there is a perfect college, a utopia where dorm rooms are palaces and every class is an orgasmically enlightening philosophical journey. Once you do, rejection becomes synonymous with failure.
I was shocked when I realized how blind I had been to my options after meeting a Vassar graduate. "It was such a wonderful experience," he beamed. "I can't believe it took me two years to transfer there." The possibility of transferring had never occurred to me. Maybe this decision wasn't life or death.
By the time "fat-or-thin envelope" season began last month, I had reclaimed my sanity. Two weeks ago, I received a fat envelope from Yale and exhaled for what felt like the first time in months. I was thrilled to have been accepted, but I was just as satisfied to know that a slip of paper cannot really determine my or anyone else's future.