35: I Just Knew

35: I Just Knew

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

I Just Knew

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

~Mark Twain

Most people grow out of their “I want to be famous” stage. Somehow, I didn’t. From the moment my grandmother took me to see Cats when I was four years old, I decided I wanted to be on Broadway and there was no changing my mind.

Twelve years later, I was still pretty sure that’s what I wanted to do. I was visiting New York University with my stepmother because one of her friends taught an acting class at Tisch and said I could sit in on it. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I walked out of the class and onto the streets of Greenwich Village thinking “If I could go to school for this, I would be the happiest person alive.” I watched the urbane NYU students walk past me, their clothes vibrant and funky, and decided I would be a performance major if it killed me.

But things changed as I started actually applying to college. My grandparents, who always wanted the best for me, found a college counselor who lived a town over. She was skinny and blond and looked at me knowingly when I sat on a leather sofa opposite her. I felt lost in a sea of applications, median SAT scores, possible majors, and resumes. I hoped she could help me keep my head above water.

Unfortunately, she didn’t seem to get me. She’d never had a student who wanted to go to school for performance, so she consulted some books. I’m sure if I had said I wanted to be pre-med, she would have known what to do in an instant. Instead, she was trying to improvise.

“How about Catholic University? This list here says it’s good for drama.”

I tried to keep an open mind. “Do they have musical theater?”

She looked at me blankly and then opened my file. She clearly had no idea.

When she looked at my qualifications, she decided I shouldn’t settle for NYU. Because I mentioned I also wanted to be academically challenged, she made a list of schools I had thought were out of my reach. She rattled them off: Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Northwestern, Vassar. Sure, I’d considered some of them. But did I really belong at Princeton? I hadn’t thought so.

I’d spent my high school years staying in the upper echelon of a student body that was large and diverse. Fights broke out often at school and parts of the building were in disrepair. It was easy to flounder in a school where classes were sometimes large and teachers were often disorganized. I lived in a privileged area, but my high school definitely didn’t reflect that.

So in retrospect, my college counselor’s idea to pit me against students coming from the most elite private schools, who had had years of tutoring, was unfair. I had the grades and the SAT scores to get into the schools, but something told me I wasn’t going to shine in a batch of applicants whose parents hadn’t gone to art school, like mine had, or who had been on winning sports teams (my school had none).

Still, the allure of the words “Harvard graduate” seeped into my long-term goals. I started having interviews and visiting the schools, convincing myself they were right for me. I remember my tour at Yale with my mom on a rainy, dreary day. I walked through the beautiful buildings, glancing down the empty corridors. The few students I saw walked by in sweatshirts and jeans, heads down and books in hand. Where were the fun, artistic types that I wanted to hang out with? As much as I convinced myself they did, no one really looked like me, or the person I so desperately wanted to become.

I had interviews with alumni and told them how badly I wanted to go to their schools, knowing in my heart I really didn’t. I wrote an essay for Vassar about why I wanted to go to the school and had my stepmother read it for me. Her criticism was succinct and stung at the time: “It sounds like you don’t want to go here.”

I had an interview with a Princeton alumnus in a Starbucks in my town. I remember trying to look at him as the sun coming through the window made me squint. I could only see the outline of his head from where I sat, fidgety and uncomfortable. Knowing I liked singing, he asked me whether I thought musical talent was more about “nature and natural talent” or “lessons and nurturing that talent.” I labored through an answer and wished he would stop “picking my brain” and just ask what kinds of extracurricular activities I was into.

I still auditioned for NYU, but not Tisch. I did a summer program before my junior year with the Steinhardt School Vocal Performance program and knew that the faculty liked me there. If I had the grades for Brown, I surely had the grades for NYU. Plus, I had something else, something a lot of applicants didn’t have—a passion.

As I started to hear from schools, I was largely unsurprised. Waitlisted. Waitlisted. Waitlisted. Rejected. Rejected. Rejected. I spent my birthday, March 31st, with my best friend, checking our Yale and Brown accounts. Luckily for our friendship, we had the same outcome. Rejected and waitlisted, respectively.

But NYU accepted me. They sent me an invitation to come to a luncheon for a few select accepted students. They asked me to join their scholars program. They gave me a small merit scholarship. Finally, it was nice to be wanted.

Best of all, it was nice to breathe a sigh of relief when I realized I had been given a sign. I didn’t want to go to Harvard to study business. I didn’t want to go to Princeton and be an engineer. I wanted to sing and I wanted to be in New York City, where the students were cutting-edge and exciting.

Today, I’m a junior at NYU and I couldn’t love it more. I found a way to double major, so I get to be academically challenged as well as explore singing and performing. I’m now one of a teeming mass of NYU students who congregate around Washington Square Park and set the trends for the rest of college campuses across America. And if I see a tour pass by, I think of myself walking the streets of Greenwich Village as a prospective student. I try to smile at them and look as happy as I am, because I want them to see me and think “Hey, that looks like someone I’d want to be friends with.” I want them to have that same gut feeling that I had. Because although it took me a while to come to terms with it, I just knew—at four years old, at sixteen years old, and now. I just know I’m where I belong. And I say thank you to Princeton for rejecting me and confirming that.

~Madeline Clapps

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