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Credit: Alice Choi

Dear high school seniors,

A lot of you will be opening your college decision letters soon. To start, congratulations on arriving here without losing your mind in the college application process (or maybe you did) — which is a feat in itself. The next few weeks and months could be a time filled with excitement, congratulations, and a sense of satisfaction for the hard work you’ve put in throughout high school, which I sincerely hope to be the case for you. Or it could be dominated by confusion, frustration, and anger. Having been in your shoes two years ago, I want to share some of the things I learned and emotions I felt along the way as you begin your college matriculation journey.

Though it feels like an eternity ago, I distinctly remember what transpired on March 27, 2020, that year’s Ivy Day. An aspiring journalist, my dream school at the time was Northwestern University, which released its decision on Ivy Day as well. As the hands on my clock inched toward 7 p.m., I popped my knuckles nervously, teeming with a bit of hope. As the emails began to come in, I opened them one by one in my bedroom. My parents waited eagerly in the living room, hoping to hear me cheer or scream out in excitement.

I didn’t cheer or scream. In fact, the whole experience was utterly anticlimactic. I was rejected by every single Ivy League university other than Penn, which had waitlisted me. I was also waitlisted by Northwestern, a decision that flattened me and left me dazed. Otherwise, I was accepted to one other top-20 college and waitlisted by another.

Other than sending follow-up letters to the three schools by whom I was waitlisted, there was not a lot to do in the following days. The COVID-19 pandemic was at its height globally, and I flew back to China as my high school in southern Pennsylvania was closed due to COVID-19. Without much opportunity to go outside, questions perfused my mind: What happened? Was my GPA not good enough, or did I not do enough extracurricular activities? Were my essays not convincing? Was I not good enough?

A lot of my focus was also spent getting to know the college that accepted me. Don’t get me wrong — it is a great college, I was very lucky to get accepted, and I looked forward to going there more and more as I got to know the school. Retrospectively, it was conceited to assume that things would go the way I wanted them to because let’s face it — the college admission process is hardly a formulaic math equation. There is a lot at play: luck, timing, and more factors excluding those on paper. All we can do is be our best and let things unfurl, knowing that acceptances and rejections are in no way holistic judgements of our character.

About one month later, I got off the waitlist at one university and received the same message from Penn three weeks after that. I ended up choosing to enroll at Penn. In many ways, I am glad I went through two waitlists to get to Penn: It showed me that neither Penn nor any other university is everything. As I got to know the other two universities along the process, I realized they have so much to offer: programs, classes, friends, and more. Though no two colleges have the exact same opportunities, at the end of the day, every one of them has plenty for us to explore and thrive in.

When I shared my story in the past, some have said, “It is easy for you to say that everything will work out for the best, you got into Penn!” They are right in that I was very lucky. Though in all honesty, I didn’t like Penn when I first visited — and I chose it very much under the sway of the fact that three of my best friends would be coming with me. Admittedly, the community and the school has grown on me in the last few months, and I could not imagine a college experience without the friends I have come to be so close with. I didn’t think Penn was the school for me, and though I will never find out whether I would have thrived more at other schools, I now firmly believe this is the community that is best for me. It is almost strange how puzzle pieces I thought wouldn’t fit together did at last.

The questions I asked about my own eligibility on paper and in life were never answered, nor will they ever be. However, I now know that the judge of those questions should not be college admissions officers or any outside players but myself. Moreover, just because we didn’t get accepted to our dream college doesn’t mean the process has failed; it takes unexpected routes to foster unexpected growth and discoveries. Through all of it, we can only trust that everything happens for a reason, and that regardless of where those decision letters take us, we will grow and discover, to our own surprises, new aspects of ourselves.

Best of luck on your next adventure,


JESSE ZHANG is a College and Wharton sophomore studying Marketing and Communication from Shenzhen, China. He is the DP’s photo editor. His email is