Waiting to Hear from College and a Winning Essay

The high school seniors I know who are applying to college are all getting ulcers as they wait to hear back from schools, their parents are scrambling to submit financial information, and everyone is feeling nervous.

As part of the Cornell Alumni Ambassadors network, I interviewed three candidates applying to Cornell, where I did my undergraduate degree. They were all impressive 18-year-olds. My fingers are crossed for them.

College admissions have gotten so competitive. It can be psychologically devastating to these young adults to work so hard on their grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities and then not get into their first-choice schools.

It’s hard not to take the rejection personally. When you get rejected, you want to crawl under the covers and hide there, preferably for the rest of your life.

My little sister is a freshman at Smith College. My dad and her mom, by their own admission, are still reeling from the stress of last year’s college application process.

Kate was accepted early admission. After she visited the campus, she knew Smith was the school she wanted to attend.

Kate’s been suggesting I write a blog post about her for a long time (Kate, are you reading this?!), and she generously agreed to let me publish the essay that won her early admission to Smith here:


My sister Kate, who goes to Smith College, with Etani, Hesperus, and Athena in Boston when she was 14

My sister Kate, who goes to Smith College, with Etani, Hesperus, and Athena in Boston when she was 14

The Things I Carry by Katherine Margulis
I wrote this essay in response to the book The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.

I carry my violin. I start going through my scales and warm-ups, knowing that I should focus on tuning and bow strokes rather than letting my mind wander, but I can’t help it. I think of my teacher’s words and requests; he wanted me to play triplets, to go slower, to use more bow, and I try to focus back in. Because, along with my violin, I carry desire. I have a desire to please my teacher. I think back to my last lesson; Antoine had been frustrated with my sound at the beginning; it wasn’t big enough, loud enough. Then later in the lesson, with the words of my teacher ringing in my ears, there was a revelation. I had finally done it; I made a huge sound. I had felt myself being swept away in the music, my whole body engrossed in the beauty of the melody, the pitches growing louder in all the right places. My tone was clear and precise and I was perfectly in tune. I couldn’t help the smile that had spread over my face, and it only grew wider when I realized that my teacher was wearing one too. I had carried accomplishment.

But now, alone in my room, without Antoine’s encouraging words to remind me how to produce such a sound, I carry frustration. Trying to recall exactly what I’d done on that day of epiphany, I hear my bow scratch hard into the string. A wash of anger flows over me and I long for my beautiful playing to return. I put my violin down on the couch beside me, shaking out my tired hands and hoping that a break is what I need to bring back my lost music. When I pick my violin up again, carrying my instrument once more, I also carry hope. I hope that this time, my bow will find just the right pressure and speed, my fingers will land in just the right places and my sound will return with the same enlightening warmth and volume that it had at my lesson. I carry my bow, caressing the strings lovingly, pulling hard to make a tone that will grow into a wave of music. But something’s missing, something’s wrong. I remember then, what my teacher told me that lesson: I have to relax.

I take a deep breath now and I carry peace. I begin to play once more and I let go of my frustration and my anger. I drop my desire to please to the ground so that I carry only my violin and my bow. These are all I need. Now I play for only myself and I hear my sound return, more beautiful than ever. I feel myself get swept away by the notes, by the swells and falls of the melody. And finally, I carry music. –KM

Related Posts:
Why Not Harvard?
On Why You Should Try to Cultivate Rejection

Do you worry about your kids getting into college? Is your child or anyone you know waiting to hear back from schools? Why do you think it’s become so much harder to get accepted?

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13 thoughts on “Waiting to Hear from College and a Winning Essay”

  1. I had actual heart palpitations waiting to hear from colleges. I don’t even want to think about my kids applying, especially since it has become so much more competitive–and expensive. I think the burgeoning upper-middle class, with more money than ever, is looking to get their kids into good schools and using increasingly sophisticated means to game the system. It’s good to read about someone getting into the school that really felt right to her.

  2. I feel like it’s a group effort getting a kid into college these days. Kid number two was just accept at Cornell early decision — number one went to Smith. But there are two kids left so we go through the process again next year and then a couple of years after that. It’s exhausting.

    Loved Kate’s essay, by the way.

  3. I remember how stressful college admissions was! Glad that’s over. This essay is beautifully written, so literary talent must run in your family, Jennifer. 🙂

  4. lovely essay. i read with interest as my son is writing one for fifth grade now and i am realizing afresh how difficult it is to draft a truly good essay.

  5. That is a beautiful, well-written essay. I’m glad your sister got into a school that felt right to her. Although I went to an Ivy League school, I no longer buy into the idea that a top tier school will provide that much better of an education or experience than a middle of the road one. I’d be thrilled if my daughter chose to attend one of our very reasonably priced, excellent state colleges. Granted, not all states HAVE reasonably priced state colleges! But regardless, once I let go of the idea that it’s better in some way to attend the “best” college you can get into, I realized that there doesn’t have to be this level of crushing pressure on kids. This is not theoretical for me: my daughter is in 11th grade. Also, I think community college is an excellent choice for many kids for the first couple of years.

  6. Beautiful, well-written essay — three cheers! I could hear music in my head by the time I reached the conclusion. Congrats to your sister for her accomplishment, too. My son graduated from the U of Notre Dame in 2008, but it seems like only yesterday that he was applying to various schools around the country. I remember the stress and the tension each time we opened the mail box in those days!

  7. What a beautifully written essay! Clearly a young woman who takes after her big sister. It’s hard to imagine what it will feel like when our children are at that age. What I remember about my own experience is that applying early admission to the school I was sure I wanted to attend made it all so much less stressful and I was able to feel a sense of control over the process – not control over the end result, obviously, but felt I was able to manage the entire process better when I could focus on just one application. And I agree with what Jody says – there are many good options for college.

  8. Lovely, yes. Really lovely. (My daughters attended competitive colleges, and sometimes I think these colleges are not all they are trumped up to be. The stress level at Harvard, for instance, is incredible, and stress is not good for us.)

  9. I think college applications will be not-so-bad because I survived the brutal competition of getting my daughter into a kindergarten in San Francisco.

    Go Kate! Good writing runs in the family, huh?

  10. Beautiful essay. So lovely, like her music must be. I bet some day she’ll carry a pen, er, laptop, because that girl can write.

  11. This is such a beautiful essay and I’m so glad that your sister gained admission into a college that felt right for her. My eldest is 18 and had initially intended to start his college career at a community college – but now he’s dragging his feet at even that. He’s very, very aware of what he wants out of life and one thing he doesn’t want is education for the sake of a degree. While I’m trying to walk the line between being understanding and encouraging, ultimately the decision lies with him. Pressuring him to attend college when he’s not interested isn’t going to benefit anyone.

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