I wanted to be one of those people, who come college-decision time, rack their brain, weigh their options, make spreadsheets and weigh their attendance options. I wanted a difficult decision.
But I didn’t get one. Lehigh was by far the best school I’d gotten into, as well as the one that offered me the most financial aid money.
I applied to a few Ivy League schools, and even liked a couple of them, but their decisions were unanimous.
I recognize that it is a great privilege that what made me feel my entire life had been ruined, to another, it would be a small setback.
Although my decision to come to Lehigh was an easy one, the unanimous decisions against me were sobering — since I expected at least a bit of drama to come from it all.
After rejection, I understood that my mind would do a few things in the months ahead of me, and I was terrified of this.
Cognitive dissonance is defined as when one’s thoughts about themselves and their behaviors are not in accordance with each other. It is an uncomfortable emotional state.
For example, if someone believes themselves to be a maker-of-peace type and then punches a stranger for strangely looking at them, they might experience cognitive dissonance, as they wonder why they were so wrong about who they are.
We can deal with cognitive dissonance in one of two ways. First, we may change our behavior to match what we believe. Second, we may change our perception of ourselves to assimilate the event and get a clearer picture of who we are.
I thought of myself– although not exactly consciously– to be a pretty smart, capable guy who had a chance about as good as anyone else. And I was probably right.
But still, the rejection got to me. I was angry. I felt wrong about myself. And I didn’t want to go to Lehigh. I began planning to transfer within a week of my rejection.
I knew about cognitive dissonance then. I knew that when I got to Lehigh, my attitudes about myself would begin to change, such that the dissonance would resolve itself. I knew that I’d feel better, whether I wanted to or not.
So, if I wanted to follow through with transferring, I would have to maintain my anger. But of course, that would make life miserable. But maybe that was the price to pay.
Coming into my first digital year of college, the wounds were still embarrassingly fresh. Seeing or hearing the word “Harvard” made me react viscerally, almost six months after rejection.
I really liked two professors in particular, and I asked them to write me letters of recommendation. I’m sorry I did that, because in hindsight, I was still very confused about whether I would try to transfer at all.
I felt that I couldn’t trust my feelings to guide me since I knew they were always changing and confusing me. I also couldn’t trust logic to guide me. Since college is such a subjective experience, it hardly seemed fair to use Lehigh’s online instruction to make the decision that would be best for me. I was stuck.
I felt I couldn’t definitively make the decision, and I ended up not applying. I felt some relief after the deadlines had passed. I think I’m the kind of person that cannot decide until it is literally impossible to go back on it because I will always dwell on the other option.
Starting my sophomore year, I began thinking about transferring again. It wasn’t too late; Obama transferred to Columbia University after two years at Occidental College, after all.
But, as I expected, any charged feelings I still had were washed away the moment I became busy here. I am in a place now where I feel significantly more comfortable in my decision to be here, and I can understand how it can fit positively into the narrative of my life.
In other words, I’m giving up. Since I knew what my mind was going to do, was it my responsibility to fight it?
It’s always a challenge to be able to predict how your mind will react to situations. With that knowledge, you can stop it if you’d like, but the cost is always some level of inflicting pain on yourself. And I just refused to do that.
By some interpretations, I failed. I got soft and gave up on something I really wanted. By other interpretations, I succeeded. I refused to inflict further pain on myself in order to achieve a transient goal that would not actually improve my wellbeing in any way.
I tend toward the second interpretation, but of course, I do; that’s the interpretation that the correction of my cognitive dissonance would construct.