73: Perfect

73: Perfect

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


When you aim for perfection, you discover it’s a moving target.

~George Fisher

I spent my eighteenth birthday sitting in front of a computer with my best friend, who was celebrating her birthday as well, waiting with bated breath to see what we were going to do with the next four years of our lives. We had spent a tense day giving each other presents and carrying balloons through the halls of our public high school, the whole time wondering what the computer screen would tell us when we logged in and entered our passwords.

Yale University and Brown University had finally made their decisions. Would we be able to call ourselves Yale students or Brown students at the end of the day? We looked at each other, fearful and excited, and clicked.

It turns out I couldn’t call myself either of those titles. A week later, I couldn’t call myself a student at Tufts or Wesleyan. That same month, I found out I wasn’t going to be sporting a Johns Hopkins sweatshirt or drinking from a Columbia coffee mug any time soon. I was currently the top candidate for Valedictorian in a class of 450 people, and I had only gotten into one school. One. And it wasn’t an Ivy.

Everyone has at least one thing that they’re good at, something that becomes their hobby or passion, almost part of their identity. When I was little, I wanted that. I wanted people who knew me to describe me easily, to say, “That’s Natalie. She’s good at...” Whatever. But for me, that one thing wasn’t easy to find.

I was a good athlete, but only when it came to certain sports. I was meticulous but I wasn’t very crafty. Sure, I could color neatly in the lines, but my doodles were lifeless and boring, nothing particularly special or creative. You can imagine my relief when we moved from pasting macaroni pieces to counting them — math was something I learned early on that I could totally do... and do well.

In middle school, I learned that I was an expert studier. I could make myself do schoolwork for hours on end. I could ace my tests. But it wasn’t enough to just study and get As... lots of people do that. To really make school my “thing,” I would have to be perfect.

For the next few years, I pushed myself harder than I ever had. In a math class of twenty-five kids, I needed to get the 100 percent. On AP exams, I wouldn’t settle for less than 5. The word perfection resonated in my head with every 97 I got on a test or every essay my teacher edited and changed. Almost perfect, but not quite what I wanted. The only person I was consistently letting down was myself.

Senior year of high school rolled around, and I was (once again) striving for perfection. My qualifications were impressive. Accomplished Irish dancer. Black belt in karate. Flutist in the marching band. National Merit Commended Scholar. I was ready to apply to college and see my hard work finally pay off, to have a college acceptance or two as proof of what I was good at.

The waiting was torturous. I sat in my classes looking at the other students who applied to the schools I did and my competitive nature would cloud my vision. “Look at her,” I’d think in calculus, staring down a competitor. “Does she really think she has the grades for Wesleyan?” I was scared and miserable, but I knew it wasn’t because people had applied to the same schools as I had. It was because of the nagging voice in the back of my head that wouldn’t shut up, no matter how hard I tried to muffle it. What if you’re not good enough? It asked. What if nothing you’ve ever done is good enough?

And then that voice won out, as the rejections and waitlists came pouring in. I sat in biology class as a guy who had also applied to Yale talked about how he’d been accepted, owing mostly to the fact that his father worked there. I looked down at the impeccable test grade I’d just gotten back and knew, instinctively, that his was lower. His grades were always lower. That feeling in the pit of my stomach, the anger mixed with sadness and a dash of “What the hell am I going to do now?” only worsened the more he spoke, a great big smile on his face. Had I really worked as hard as I had to be told I wasn’t good enough? My entire identity had revolved around my being (or trying so desperately to be) perfect. Now who was I?

Bit by bit, life slowly started to improve. I was Valedictorian of my class, and gave a speech to my 450 classmates about new beginnings. I got off the waitlist at Haverford College, a tiny but good school in Pennsylvania. But Haverford, it turned out, was not the right fit for me. I felt smothered by the smallness of it, the homogeny of the personalities surrounding me, and the isolation I felt from the world outside the campus. Only then did it hit me, a truth that I had known deep down all along: the prestige of the school and the Dean’s List didn’t matter if I was not happy.

I transferred to Barnard College for sophomore year. Ironically, I was finally attending a school with a name I could tack on to “Valedictorian” and “straight A student” with ease, things I did not care about anymore. I was just happy to be in an environment I enjoyed, around people I could connect with.

The whole college application process exhausted me. But it also forced me to confront the part of me that needed to be perfect. Because as much as it made me who I am, it made me constantly pressure myself to reach the highest standards. It turned out that admissions officers may know more than I thought they did at the time. They knew I needed to learn a few things about myself to be happy... and not just perfect.

~Natalie Howlett

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