I received my first college rejection letter while standing in the TSA line at Logan Airport. It was March of my senior year, and after months of crafting the perfect Common App essay and laboring over group projects that would make or break my GPA, my hard work was rewarded with a flat-out rejection.
Standing amidst the bustling crowds of travelers, I felt overtaken by defeat and disheartenment. As I stared down at the cold screen of my phone, all that I could process from the blur of letters before me were the words I had spent the past year fending off: “We regret to inform you.”
At that moment, I saw rejection as nothing short of total failure. Five simple words were all it took to send me tumbling from my mountain of accomplishments into the dreary abyss of averageness. I had long believed perfectionism was the key to success, but it was not until I faced this first major failure that I realized living in pursuit of perfection was no way to live at all.
I spent all of high school chasing perfection. I had straight A’s, near-perfect attendance, and held almost every leadership position I could. I held myself to an unsustainable standard, viewing an A- or missed club meeting as a betrayal to the image of myself I had spent so long constructing. I never admitted it to anyone, but I spent every day riddled with anxiety, consumed by a deep fear of imperfection.
So when a single college rejection letter shattered my perfect self-image, I slowly started to let go of the unrealistic standards I held myself to. While I couldn’t control which colleges accepted me, I could control my reactions to their rejections. I began reframing my understanding of failure.
Our understanding of failure is determined by the pressure to present ourselves as flawless. We push our failures to the side and hide them out of shame. We define our failures as the inability to live up to unrealistic expectations or—if you were anything like me in high school—the feats of our past selves. It might sound cliche, but the only way I’ve been able to truly move past rejection and stoke personal growth is by viewing failure as a gateway to second chances rather than an excuse to give up.
I’m sure my 17-year-old self would have a breakdown at the mere thought of accepting imperfection, but I learned a lot when I decided to abandon my old, fear-driven understanding of failure.
I learned that I am not my high school self. Not having a perfect 4.0 GPA or five different leadership positions does not make me a failure because life is about so much more than racking up resume boosters. Take time to find things you are passionate about and learn to view mistakes as natural parts of life rather than indications of failure.
I have learned that giving myself grace in times of disappointment is just as important as celebrating my successes. Being understanding, especially toward yourself, is an unmistakable sign of inner strength.
Finally, I learned rejection is simply redirection. That fateful day in the TSA line of Logan Airport may have started with a flood of uncontrollable tears, but the story has a happy ending—I was accepted to Boston College later that day.
Sometimes you get lucky and redirection lands in your inbox just hours after a breakdown, but often, it requires a bit more patience. That patience, the willingness to persevere through times of self-doubt, is what empowers us to move forward and what makes life’s imperfections so perfect.