College & Career
May 27, 2016
On April 17, 2015, I had my first (and, since then, last) panic attack. I curled up in an empty classroom, hyperventilating, shaking, sobbing and feeling completely out of control.
It was the afternoon before the ACT. I had just taken a practice test and scored far below my goal for the next morning.
To an outsider, it seems ridiculous. How did I let a test—a Scantron!—get the best of me? If I told anyone, I would look pathetic, uptight or crazy. I’d be the weak link. So I didn’t. I Googled, “How to look like you weren’t crying,” then wiped away the tears, splashed some cold water on my face and went on with my day.
Call it the pressure of perfection. At high schools and on college campuses around the country, students are succumbing to academic pressure and systemically covering it up. Why wouldn’t you? Who doesn’t want others to think their entire life is Instagrammable?
And the worst part? We all know that our peers are playing by the same dirty rules. If it’s not a panic attack, it’s feelings of inadequacy, despondence, depression, apathy or frustration. Instead of banding together, we antagonize each other. First, “Which high school did you get into?” Then, “How many APs are you in?” Finally, “How did you do on the ACT/SAT?” But we wipe away any traces of struggle and act like it’s all OK.
I’m writing to say that it will be OK. My peers in the class of 2016 and I have come out on the other side of the college admission craziness. Of those of us who wanted to go to college, the vast majority cemented our plans May 1. And the more I’ve visited colleges—public and private, rural and urban, large and small—the more I’m convinced that college is … college. You go to class, you go out with friends, you intern or work and you graduate. Sure, specific programs and certain campus cultures can be attractive, but we’re ultimately going to college.
It sounds easy, almost like a cop-out, now that I’m into college and excited about it. But I wish I could go back to last March and walk into that classroom. I wouldn’t tell myself to get up and stop crying. I’d tell myself that my feelings were OK, that I’d get stressed again. I’d tell myself that all of my close friends have confided that they deal with academic stress in similar ways. I’d normalize it. I’d tell myself that there was more than one student at Payton, more than a handful in Chicago and countless in the U.S. who were also freaking out about the upcoming test. I’d show myself the acceptance, rejection and waitlist letters. “It’s going to work out,” I’d say. “It’s going to work out.”
On April 18, 2015, I could have (A) sat for the ACT in the wake of a bout of anxiety or (B) slept in, taken a walk and met an old friend for coffee.
I chose (B).
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