By Deanna Sass | Director of the diocesan Department of Pastoral Care
It’s the time of year when high school seniors run to their respective mail boxes (or more likely, email inboxes!) after school each day to see if the long-awaited “fat envelope” from their dream college has arrived. Some refer to this as a time of stress, but in my experience, many seniors approach this time with a great sense of excitement. With each new letter or email delivery comes something that could potentially determine the course of the rest of one’s life. A rejection letter closes a door. A hope that had been entertained must be let go. An acceptance letter opens the door to possibilities only previously dreamed of.
For every closed door, there are some that open. Now, the senior can focus on their remaining options more seriously. In our house, we are going through this senior waiting period for the third time. Our third child, our son Joe, announces the news each day, “I got in!” or “I didn’t get in,” or “No mail for me today.” As I observe him and his friends going through this experience, I look for any indication that they see “rejection letters” as failures on their part or a judgment of their overall worth and value as human beings. When I can, I try to put in a word for that not being the case. I try to point out that with every “non-admit” letter they receive, it is God’s way of saying that He has other plans in store for them. Still, those letters can be hard to take.
With each letter coming in with an offer of admission, I see the kids soaring 10 feet in the air. These letters seem to mean so much more than “you are admitted to our school.” They seem to carry an affirmative judgment much weightier than merely “admission to a school.” They seem to communicate to the recipient, “You are great!” and “You made the cut!” or “Your hard work in high school has paid off, and we LOVE you!”
Teenagers tend to give college admissions offices and other things in their lives a disproportionate degree of “power” over their lives, their happiness and their sense of self-worth. A guy breaks up with a girl, and she questions if she is loveable at all. A guy does not make an athletic team, and he sees himself as a loser. A group of friends decides to ostracize someone from their group, and he or she feels totally rejected by the whole world. Wouldn’t it be marvelous, if as parents, we could help to put all of these normal experiences that are a part of every teenager’s life journey into perspective?
Imagine if we could help them to see that not getting into one particular college means just that – not getting in to one particular college. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not a general assessment of one’s intelligence, goodness or value as a person. Imagine if we could help our sons and daughters recognize that “getting in to a college” is merely that – getting in to a college. Nothing more, nothing less.
I think if we adults look back over our lives, we can see the good reasons why everything happened as it did, and maybe this is the sense of perspective that we can offer our children at this uncertain time in their lives.
My husband and I often look at our “chance” meeting while we were undergraduates at Georgetown University. My husband, Tim, went to Georgetown because, to his disappointment, he did not get in to Princeton. I went to Georgetown because the July before I was to start college, I got in off of the waiting list. It was Tim’s second choice, and it was my “reach.” For Tim, God revealed His plan by way of a disappointing “non-admit” letter from his “dream” school. For me, God’s plan unfolded by way of a very long and agonizing summer, until I finally received the exhilarating news that I had gotten in. The fact remains that we both ended up at the same place, and only in hindsight can we see that it was truly God’s divine plan. Not to mention that it was also God’s plan for the five children who came into this world because of our having met at college.
So in this season of senior angst, if we can share this faith perspective with our children who are high school seniors, we will do them a great service. We can help them to see that what may seem like a terrible disappointment today may actually be the greatest gift that God ever gave them when viewed from a place down the road. And what can seem impossible today, can and will happen, if it is meant to. If we can help our children to truly trust God with their lives, and their important choices, and their futures, what a priceless gift we will have given them.
This column originally appeared in The Monitor in 2004 under the column title “Faith in the Family.” The author suggested republishing it, as the feelings associated with the college application process remains the same.