Dear Therapist: I Staked My Identity on Attending an Ivy League School

I’m trying to accept that the school I’m going to is where I am meant to be, but I feel like my accomplishments mean nothing now.

Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

I am currently a high-school senior in California. I recently applied to colleges and among the rejections I received, one was from my dream school: Brown University. The moment I read, “I regret to inform you …” the tears streamed down my face, and everything I had planned for, an Ivy League education, was gone. I feel like my identity was rooted in receiving an Ivy League education, and suddenly I feel lost and discombobulated.

I’m trying to accept that the school I’m going to is where I am meant to be, but I feel like my accomplishments mean nothing now. While I know I will make the most of my experience, I can’t help but wonder why I couldn’t have continued my story at an Ivy League as I wanted.

One of my good friends got into Cornell, and when I look at his accomplishments, I can’t help but think that I didn’t do enough. I had begun to build up a résumé and had accomplished a lot, but it seems like all my friends have accomplished so much more. It seems as though my achievements weren’t good enough for the goal I had set for myself, and now I feel crushed because I feel that I haven’t done enough.

Are the standards I have set for myself too high? How do I get out of this?


Dear Anonymous,

I’m sorry that you didn’t get an offer of admission from the school that you had dreamed of attending and that meant so much to you in a variety of ways. I understand how heartbroken you are, and I see how confusing and painful this is as you try to make sense of what happened and what it means for your future.

I’m also glad that you reached out, because you’re not alone in these feelings right now. Thousands of high-school seniors have received at least one admissions decision like yours, and for many, this loss will have hit them especially hard—partly because it’s typically the first disappointment of its kind in a young person’s life, and partly because college admissions have become less about finding an exciting place to grow and learn, and more about winning a trophy after years of grueling self-sacrifice. The thinking goes: If you got admitted to your top-choice school, you did everything “right” and your years of sacrifice were well worth it. If you didn’t, you did something “wrong” and, as you wrote, your “accomplishments mean nothing now.”

Going to college represents a step toward adulthood, so I want to offer you another perspective—one that will serve you well not just now, but also in your life as a full-fledged adult.

First, taking some time to grieve your loss is absolutely okay. Whenever we hope for something and it doesn’t happen, we lose an entire future we had created for ourselves. At the same time, though, consider that these futures are imagined futures. In other words, even if you had gone to Brown, your actual experience would almost certainly have been very different from how you’re imagining it now. You say that Brown was your “dream school,” and that’s exactly what it was: a dream. So do spend some time sitting with your loss, but remember that the loss you’re grieving is of an idea you had of what Brown would be like, and that this idea and reality would probably have diverged.

Second, most adults experience many rejections in life—romantic, personal, professional—and you will weather them better if you don’t interpret them as a referendum on your worth. In 2020, Brown University had an acceptance rate of 8 percent, which means that most applicants get declined, even though most applicants are perfectly qualified to be there. Colleges try to create an interesting class, and that entails mixing together lots of different kinds of people. Maybe they had too many applications from people who did Model UN when they needed a saxophonist. Maybe dozens of applicants did meaningful volunteer work, but of those, they admitted the one who came from a less populous state than California. And maybe someone who looked similar to you on paper got in not because the school didn’t want you, but because the gender ratio was skewed female and it needed more male or nonbinary students. Sometimes what we think of as rejection is actually just a case of not being accepted.

But even if the committee members decided that they didn’t want to offer you admission, regardless of the class mix, the key here is that what they rejected was your application—a file consisting of words on a page—and not you as a person.

I mention this because you say that your “identity was rooted in receiving an Ivy League education.” Many high-achieving high-school seniors worry that if they don’t go to an Ivy League school, their classmates will consider them less smart—and conversely, going to an Ivy League school will solidify their “smart person” identity. But the problem with pinning your identity on something outside of you is that your identity becomes precarious. Nothing—not a particular school, a particular partner, or a particular job—can stand in for your true identity. An identity is shaped from the inside, and nobody gets to choose it but you.

Right now you have the opportunity to choose who you will be as you finish your senior year and head off to college and a new community this fall. College, like life, is primarily about what you decide to make of it. There is no single school (or partner, or job) that is perfect. You can focus on where you’re not going and spend your college years idealizing Brown and the fantasy you’ve created, or you can get excited about the opportunities your college has to offer. You can focus on the fact that the school you chose felt that you were a good fit for its community, and that most adults come to learn that they would take a good fit over prestige (in a school, partner, or job) every time. They discover the value of being wanted, because when a school or job or partner really wants you, you don’t have to wonder about what you could be doing differently or better—who you are is enough.

In adulthood, you’ll see that the old adage tends to be true: When one door closes, another one opens. Many people who don’t get accepted to their dream school later say that they wouldn’t have traded their college experience for anything—this is where they met their spouse, where they discovered a passion that changed their career trajectory, where a professor had a direct influence on their later great success, where they had a class or participated in extracurriculars that connected them with their lifelong friends. And in contrast to our cultural myths about the path to “success,” many people who didn’t get into their dream school have also gone on to become Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize recipients, Oscar winners, university presidents, CEOs, and major philanthropists. I put “success” in quotes because ultimately a successful life is a fulfilling one, and studies show that there’s no difference in happiness between those who attend Ivy League schools and those who don’t.

I have a feeling that if you start to get excited about the college you chose and all it has to offer, something magical will happen for you there that couldn’t have happened in the same way for you at Brown. Congratulations on your acceptance—your hard work paid off. Now the real education begins.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.