Knowing where I really stood academically would have made me work harder

The letter was thin and flat. The letter was thin and flat.

I’m embarrassed to say it took a second for me to realize. Traditionally, they sent acceptance letters in big envelopes, but could things be different now? Maybe they sent the bulk of the information through email.

By the time the letter had been in my hands for two seconds, I could feel how paper thin it was. It sunk in like a stone in my belly. No Wesleyan. “I should have known,” I thought. The next realization was worse. I’m going to have to tell my parents. My cheeks flushed. I imagined the look on their faces when they learned their daughter wasn’t as smart as they thought she was.

I was still at the foot of my front porch. I hadn’t moved.

In the days and weeks and even years that followed, I wondered what the kids who got in could possibly have that I didn’t. I thought back to the long evening and weekend hours I spent taking a small school newspaper to a full-blown publication while my friends were out partying. I thought of the hours I spent revising my essays until they were perfect. I thought of the miles I ran―ones that almost brought me to tears because I was a horrible runner―because I was the team captain and I had to set a good example.

Who could have possibly done more than me?

The answer arrived during my second semester of college, when I decided to take a class at a prestigious liberal arts school down the street from the public university I attended.

(Amherst College, down the street from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The similarity in names has proved difficult in the years since I’ve graduated. When people ask me where I went to school, I’ll say UMass Amherst and their eyes will light up. “Amherst?” they ask with reverence. They haven’t even finished the question before I interrupt and say “No, UMass.”)

Stepping onto the campus of Amherst College was like entering an alien world, one where only beautiful people roamed. The students had skin so flawless and clothes so perfectly styled that I started seriously questioning whether looks were part of the criteria for admission. Everyone wore browns and tans, with leather boots and bags that said academic and “I don’t care” at the same time. Even the guys looked like models, with hair perfectly messed and working against gravity.

And they were smart. With an equal amount of ease, they said things like “I think we have to distinguish between asceticism and nihilism in Nietzsche’s take on the modern historian.” One day I heard the term “false dichotomy” three times in class and quickly Googled it when I got back to my dorm room. I loved the course, but I spoke up rarely and with a shaky voice when I did.

I learned more about my new classmates as the semester went on. Most came from wealthy towns, and had attended private high schools. Every one of them had read War and Peace in high school. They participated in debate teams where they presented oral arguments on philosophy and politics in front of large crowds. They had private tutoring to help them prepare for the SAT. They had expensive guidance counselors who, had I also had them, probably would have talked me out of writing an admissions essay titled, “My Red Hair.”

A sense of injustice began to form in my stomach, red and hot and angry. Some of these kids tried hard, but others were skipping class as I trekked to and from my 20,000-person campus, with buildings that looked like cement jails instead of Harry Potter-esq castles. Why should they have access to these amazing professors, while I visited as many as 10 classes a day during UMass’ add-drop period just to find a few decent ones?

But in time, another feeling started growing and working against the anger. It showed up around the time I was watching my boyfriend’s younger brother apply to colleges. He was a solid B student; not an athlete, but strong in theater. I watched his dad coach him through the college admissions process―forcing him to study for the SAT for an hour each day, run his essay by English teachers, and show up for swim team even though he hated it.

I started to realize that maybe I wasn’t as strong of a candidate as I thought I’d been. I only took one SAT prep class after all, and didn’t learn much from it. I managed my school newspaper, sure, but other students attended much bigger high schools and managed papers four times the size of mine.

Growing up, I had always thought of myself as better than my peers because I stood out in a small, working-class town. But the competition wasn’t tough.

My parents certainly didn’t make it any easier to piece together, with their ceaseless praise of me and my sister. Just the other day, while on the phone, my dad complimented what he called my sister’s “natural gift for talking people into things.” If you know my sister, you know this is the opposite of the truth. My mom rebuked him, then 10 minutes later started praising my sister herself. “She’s always been so kind. Did you know she taught dad how to set up a PayPal account today? And she’s been making dinner for us.”

I can’t help but think that if I had a better sense of how I compared with kids in other school districts, and even in other states, I would’ve stood a chance. I might have accomplished my goal of getting into a prestigious college.

But all I remember about those standardized tests was my mom giving me a quick glance at my score (usually in the 80th percentile, which I don’t think I would have been pleased with if I had known what a percentile was) before tossing it in the trash. This would have been fine, if my dream hadn’t been to get into the best possible college. But it was.

I don’t regret where my path took me. But I wish I had known what I was up against sooner―before college. I wish I had known that the world wasn’t a fuzzy place where I was better than everyone. The truth is, there are a lot of smart people in the world.

All of this is fresh in my mind as I’m applying for grad schools and going through this process all over again. But there are a few differences this time.

This time, I know what the average GRE score is for the top program I’m applying to. And I discovered I’d have to study hard for six months to meet it. At first, I was filled with fear and anxiety over such a high stakes test. Then, week after week, I realized I was making progress. That I could get better.

And I realized, I’d prefer this―an independent measure of how good I am. Even if it’s flawed in some ways, it’s going to be better than an admissions person looking at my application, seeing “UMass” or some other word they don’t like and tossing it aside.

I arrived at the testing station with sweaty hands and my heart pumping in my chest. After five strenuous hours, I reached a screen that said “View Score.” I slowly clicked the button.

Yes. I clenched my first, and let out a silent cheer.

This post originally appeared on the How Is My Kid Doing blog.

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Kara Billings

Kara Billings

Kara Billings is a writer and policy researcher, and works as a Senior Research Associate at the Council for a Strong America in Washington, D.C. She has authored over 100 reports and policy briefs on issues affecting at-risk children and families. In her free time, Kara practices creative writing at Studio Pause in Arlington, Virginia. Kara holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is currently earning a Master’s of Public Policy at George Mason University.
Kara Billings

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