Redefining Success

It’s that time of year again–the time when seniors are applying to college, college graduates are applying to grad school, and grad students are applying for funding, jobs, and post-docs.  Anxiety and excitement are heightened during the fall as students everywhere are bent over applications and essays in coffee shops, burning the midnight oil.

This is what writing a dissertation looks like...fieldnotes and all!  My photo.
This is what writing a dissertation looks like…fieldnotes and all! My photo.

A few years ago, when I was applying to my own Ph.D. program, I learned some very important lessons about what it means to be seek success in academia, and I’ve tried to carry them with me ever since (I think these lessons are applicable to lots of other settings outside academia, too!).  However, especially during this season when we’re crafting resumes and cvs, cranking out cover letters and college essays, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of letting others or the perceptions we have of others define success for us.

I can tell you that what worked well for me last time, when I was sending out these applications into the unsteady universe of academic competition, was to envision success not as the result that came following the submission, but the process leading up to it.  

But even before I did that, I set up a plan that worked for me.

When I was applying to grad school, I was also graduating from seminary and planning a wedding, and it seemed like an almost insurmountable collision of due dates and life changes.  Still, my husband-to-be at the time had an ingenious idea: what if we devoted one day a week to wedding planning, resolving to leave all emails and phone calls and appointments to that day in order that it not take over our life?  I did a similar thing with my grad school applications: I set myself internal due dates, parsed the endless list of requirements for each school into tasks and began carving out specific time from my life to set toward the task.  This way I could be sure that getting into grad school, a goal of mine, was not a task rushed through with leftover time, but a task for which time had been budgeted and safeguarded.

Trees on a foggy day.  My photo.
Trees on a foggy day. My photo.

Next, I reached out to people in the university and the seminary for help.  When you’re applying to college or grad school, try to anchor yourself in an academic community, where you have access to computers, printers, copiers, libraries, etc.  Take your application essay to the writing center and early, so you can go multiple times and through multiple drafts.  Essentially, set yourself up to put the very best effort you can toward this important task and trust that that is half the battle!

Do you how many brilliant people mean to apply, but never get their act together to do so?  You’re ahead of all of them!

Finally, and this really is the key, imagine your success to be grounded in writing the best application essay possible, achieving the best test score possible, or  writing the cover letter that is most representative of who you are.  When I finished my application essay for grad school, it was a piece of writing that I was sincerely proud of–I felt it represented me well and fully as a scholar and person, and therefore, I knew that I had been successful in applying to grad school, no matter the results.  I did my best, I accepted it as my best, and I was fully satisfied with the efforts and the results–this is the feeling, the goal, you are striving for–not admission to one school or the other, which you can’t control, and really has nothing to do with the quality of the work you’ve produced–and it should stand apart and for itself!

Now, you might think this is all easy for me to say, because I did get accepted to graduate school, and I’ve had a very positive experience throughout my Ph.D. studies.  But I will tell you that when I applied to college, I applied to at least 12 schools, got admitted to 8, and rejected from 4. When I applied for my masters, I applied to 2 schools, and was accepted to both.  And when I applied to grad school, I applied to 4 schools, and got admitted to 1.  Clearly the most “successful” results were not my grad school applications, but I remember focusing so much on those 4 rejection letters the first time around!  I could hardly see the 8 acceptances for anything, because I was so focused on 4 rejection letters.  However, when I applied to Ph.D. programs, I got 3 rejection letters, which honestly, barely scathed me.  When I got the final call from Princeton, I was elated, but I really already felt successful–I had done everything I could do, and it was just a matter of whether I fit somewhere.

The last flowers of fall.  My photo.
The last flowers of fall. My photo.

I admit these things, because another myth that we all subscribe to is that highly successful people don’t have any setbacks or failures.  Doesn’t it make you think a bit differently about the folks in grad school when you consider that they were probably all rejected from more schools than they were accepted to?  Doesn’t it make you realize that the rejections are rather meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but the way you feel about yourself is key to your crafting a great application, doing a solid interview, or writing a confident cover letter?

Now at the time I had some other options besides grad school, and that helped.  And if your goal is graduate school at all costs, you’re better off applying to a range of schools where you could be happy.

But that doesn’t change the fact that when it comes down to it, all it takes is one.

I rarely think about those 3 rejection letters these days–I feel so certain that I’m where I’m meant to be, in fact, that I wouldn’t have been satisfied anywhere else, and I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s certainly a matter of perspective.  And that perspective remains a definition of success that is tailored to my achievement, my goals, and my efforts.  Who cares what anyone else does or thinks or achieves as long as you can grow to be satisfied and proud, no matter what, with who you are?

This isn’t just about feeling good, of course, it’s about working hard and long for the things that you care about and trusting your efforts in the process.  What if we believed that graduate school or college, like other pursuits, was as much about the destination, as the journey?  Maybe you’ll get rejected and you’ll have to go back and try again, but wouldn’t you much rather have given it your best?  And when you do get accepted, I hope you’ll add to this culture of redefining success, you’ll pass on not just your success stories, but your rejection stories to those around you, so we can see that we’re all in this together, that none of us is immune to failure and setbacks and heartache, but none of us is incapable of success either.


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