I did not initially apply to Penn.
Actually, during my senior year of high school, I almost intentionally avoided applying. I instead applied to every other Ivy League and an amalgamation of other prestigious universities. I had a pretty good transcript — a GPA of over 5.0 if you include honors credit and the 4s and 5s on most of my AP exams. I was well-involved in my high school’s extracurriculars and well-rounded with interests in both creative writing and astrophysics.
But on decision day, I didn’t get into any of the prestigious schools I’d applied for. I’d been promptly rejected from the entire Ivy League and proceeded to cry about it over Longhorn Steakhouse chicken tenders with my mom.
At the time, I was frustrated. I felt like I’d put so much work in and fought so hard to earn a spot. But despite the grueling hours I’d spent on homework, I just hadn’t made the cut.
Fortunately, I’d applied to more than enough schools (around 20, which, looking back, was definitely more than necessary), and had a backup plan. I attended Emory University, and applied in the spring to transfer elsewhere. I ended up, shockingly, getting accepted to Penn. Suddenly, I felt validated. I felt like I was worth something. I felt like maybe all of my hard work had paid off.
But what I hadn’t anticipated was the loads and loads of rejection I’d experience even after my acceptance to Penn. I applied for the International Affairs Association and got rejected. I auditioned for a cappella groups and didn’t even get a callback. Throughout my three years, I’ve been repeatedly rejected from board positions, jobs, and awards that I’ve really wanted. Most recently, I’ve applied to senior-specific awards that recognize the work seniors have done over their Penn career, and have been rejected by pretty much all of them.
Every rejection hits me the same way. At first, I feel irritated and want a scapegoat, and then the disappointment hits. I move on but still feel that sting that tells me that I wasn’t good enough for some reason.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be self-confident. It’s often portrayed as being bold with your decisions and being who you want to be. I’d never really considered confidence to be a struggle I dealt with — I’m happy with who I am, and I’m proud of my accomplishments. But as I consider my recent rejections and how they have affected me, I’ve realized that self-confidence isn’t just about loving yourself — it’s about loving yourself in the face of rejection.
At the end of the day, everybody will be rejected plenty of times in their life. Everyone will have an experience where they feel that they really deserved this award or that position but they just didn’t get it.
But when it comes down to it, the people who are choosing these awards or positions are just people. I’ve been in the position of accepting and rejecting applicants. During the decision-making process, I sometimes felt unqualified. I felt like I was just another student — what right did I have to decide that somebody wasn’t suited for something that they wanted? In the end, I made my decisions based on what I prioritized, which for me, was leadership. But somebody else on that same application committee could have prioritized something else, such as organizational skills. The decisions that were made came down to the opinions of those on the evaluation committee.
In reality, a decision to reject or accept you is not some grand statement on your personality and effort as a whole. It’s just someone else’s opinion. It’s not a statement from the universe saying that you are unworthy — whoever is evaluating your application is just as human as you are.
This applies to more than just applications. Without a doubt, in your life, you’ll come across people who don’t like you, who don’t support you, or who simply want to tear you down because of your background. I’ve struggled a lot with a need to appease everyone around me. I’ve felt the overwhelming urge to completely change myself just to fit into someone else’s ideals and make them feel more comfortable. What I’ve only just begun to realize is one, you can’t ever really change who you are at your core, and two, other people’s thoughts should not define you.
Sometimes, it can feel unfair. Sometimes, it really is unfair, but there isn’t much you can do about it. At the end of the day, the key to self-confidence is realizing that other people’s opinions of you do not matter more than your opinions of yourself.
It’s important to remember that out of millions and millions of hard-working people in the world, only a small percentage will be recognized for their work. Sometimes, people can go an entire lifetime without recognition. There are plenty of people throughout history who we don’t even know the names of, but who contributed massive amounts to our modern-day society. So, rather than letting other people define your worth, take control of it. You define your own worth.
JULIA ESPOSITO is a graduating College senior originally from Trumbull, Conn. studying physics. She’s worked for 34th Street since transferring to Penn her sophomore year. She’s written as a staff writer, beat writer, and was most recently the section editor for Word on the Street.