Your admissions file is not a magic puzzle piece

Haley Williams/Staff

The man went over the mountain to see what he could see.

The other side of the mountain was all that he could see.

Don’t request your admissions files. Don’t ask to see them here at Cal — or at Stanford, Harvard or Hogwarts. Don’t set yourself up to believe that there is something in there that you don’t know about yourself. There is no magic puzzle piece contained in that information that explains to you why the admissions people thought you were special.

The truth is that you beat out 10 other people for your spot who were as good as you. There was something minute. Your sentence structure in your essay was a little more sophisticated. Your collection of numbers and letters looked a little better to someone. Your application was read after lunch, when people were more comfortable.

The process of admissions is painful. It is exclusive by its nature; not everyone who deserves to get in will get in. All of us who sent in our very best efforts then held our breath for six months know the pain of it. All of those who wade through these seas of paper — trying to shake off our desperation and hope and make a good decision — know pain, too.

Getting your hands on this paperwork will not justify to you why you got in and someone else did not. It will not explain to you why you missed out on an opportunity you believed you should have had. Your admissions status is not the measure of you in any sense; it is a microcosm of the larger confusion of life. Winning and losing, and privilege and luck, have swirled around you all your life and will continue to do so until you die. Your younger brothers and sisters and cousins cannot replicate your luck, your struggle or your talent.

Believe the admissions people when they tell you that what is in that file is what you sent them. Scanning them for the fingerprints of destiny or the semaphore of the gatekeepers is just another exercise in anxiety. If you are looking for proof of your intrinsic worth or a sign of whom you should be, your time is better spent taking selfies. Numbering the stars. Reading the omens in the guts of a disemboweled goat. You will not find it in your admissions packet.

What you will find is a not-too-terribly pleasant trip down memory lane. You might have already lost touch with the freshman you used to be. Do you want to cringe your way through her attempt to stand out? The kid who wrote that letter doesn’t exist anymore. Let her go.

What you will find is a way to stress yourself over something that is long over and done with — about which you can do nothing. You will find a way to berate yourself for what you might have done better, or to correct yourself with the merciless lens of hindsight. There is nowhere on your records where someone has circled your GPA or your single brilliant essay line and written in the margin: “Here is the messiah we were promised!” There is no box where someone has filled in: “Let’s admit this one just for fun, just to prove he can’t handle it.” These papers will neither confirm nor deny what you already know about yourself.

It is so, so tempting to peek between the journal pages of those who judge us. It is impossible not to read an intercepted love letter, or to ignore guilty screen caps where people air their frank opinions about us. Giving into that temptation does not improve our understanding of ourselves; it only makes us hate the people who said it.

Lastly, there is no system to be extrapolated from this information. There is no secret to sell to the desperate, based on your success. Alicia Dowd, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and co-director of the school’s Center for Urban Education, reminds us of the problem with that approach: “Application decisions are made in very contextualized settings,” she said. “If application files were all public, it would increase a drive to standardization and uniformity, which is not desirable.”

You are an individual who was judged in a complex ocean against other individuals, in a sea of variables, all of us adrift. We are not quantifiable figures. Knowing what was circled in your application will not tell you who you are.

The work you have to do will be harder than that. Do not assume you will be enlightened or satisfied by anything external. The answers you seek are within.

The man went over the mountain to see what he could see.

The other side of the mountain was all that he could see.

Meg Elison is a UC Berkeley alumna and former opinion editor at The Daily Californian.

Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.

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