Surviving College Acceptance Season

You may not always be able to see it on their faces, but some of the young people in your neighborhood are elated with acceptance, some are crushed with rejection, and some are indifferent having long given up on college.

We all encounter acceptance and rejection throughout our lives, but college acceptance season is a unique time when both are magnified. College acceptance is a formal public milestone. We receive our acceptance and rejection on letterhead, giving the experience a feeling of formality and finality. Unless you and your parents have absolutely no friends college acceptance is a public experience. When I was going through college acceptance season (many moons ago) I felt like everyone I knew had a spreadsheet in their heads keeping tally of all the acceptance letters everyone had received. These days you don’t even need a spreadsheet because we have Facebook. Then as if dealing with the formality and publicity involved with getting accepted and rejected by colleges were not enough there is the added pressure of going through a major milestone. There is a sense that not getting into college or settling for a backup school will rob us of something essential to becoming an adult.

The Pressure to Perform and Pretend

Getting accepted by the school of your choice is harder than ever. There is more competition than ever before. Today’s student is under tremendous pressure to either perform and pretend.

Students are under great pressure to perform. As they prepare to apply to college they are compelled to distinguish themselves from others through their grades and activities. Consequently getting into college has become its own cottage industry. For the right price, applicants can submit a designer application (i.e., Made by Kaplan).

Closely associated with the pressure to perform is the pressure to pretend. Students are compelled to pretend that they are stronger candidates than they really are. They pad their applications with extra-curricular activities. They look for experiences and extenuating circumstances that make them stand out.

Learning to perform under pressure and to present yourself in a positive light in an application process are very valuable life skills. The danger lies in finding your identity in your performance. What makes the college application process potentially crushing is that when a school rejects your application, you feel like they have rejected you as a person. That’s a lot for a person of any age to go through.

If all that you have to get you through college acceptance season is your performance then your experience is going to be very unbalanced. You are going to feel (though you may never say this) like getting into the school of your choice makes you a good person and that getting rejected from the school of your choice makes you a bad person. More importantly, there will be no room for God in your experience.

Another way to survive college acceptance season

Performance and pretending are the opposite of the gospel. The gospel tells us that we can never earn God’s love through our performance so we can stop pretending. If you are going through college acceptance season, you need the gospel now! If you know someone who is going through college acceptance season, you need to give them the gospel now!

More than ever, while schools are sending you formal letters indicating your acceptance or rejection, you need to know that your identity is not in those letters. In a world where people are accepted based on their ability to perform, God has provided a different way.

The gospel turns performance upside down. Consider the words of the apostle Paul to the early Christians living in the Roman province of Corinth in the first century:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

In this world, performers have the right to boast and pretenders feel ashamed that they haven’t performed enough.

The gospel turns this upside down.

Something happens when a person finds their identity in Christ that makes their performance seem small. Under normal conditions this would make us feel small, but the strange and wonderful thing about the gospel is that when Christ exposes how small our performance really is he makes us feel bigger than we ever dreamed we could be. As we own up to our weaknesses, Christ takes away our shame.

Jesus is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. In Christ God sees and accepts us as perfect. How could anything we do ever compare with that? In Christ we are already loved and rewarded by God with everlasting life, glory, and joy.

There is no room for God in a life defined by performance. We will not really boast in Christ, we will boast in ourselves. We will be like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable whose prayer sounded like this, “thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:10-14). We may thank God for our acceptance letters but deep down we are not humbled; we are proud. Life defined by performance will work great for performers, until it doesn’t. Eventually they will feel the sting of rejection. It may be in their career, in their love life, with friends, with family, with God. In the end performance can not save any of us. We all need God’s grace found in Christ alone.

If you are feeling the sting of rejection right now, you have a unique opportunity to stand out from the crowd and find your identity in Christ. Rather than losing yourself in self-pity and feeling worthless, you can look at the cross, look forward to the resurrection, and believe that you are living large. You can pray like the tax collector in that parable, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) and know that your rejection letters are not a curse but a blessing. Walk tall and boast in Christ in your weakness, because God chose to display his glory in moments like these. It’s in these moments of weakness in your life when your boasting in Christ will be most credible and real.

College acceptance season can be a wonderful time to experience the sweetness of the gospel. If you know someone going through this season, give them a hug and tell them that Jesus loves them.

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About David Lee

I am the pastor of New Life Mission Church of Fremont meeting in Newark, CA. I live in Fremont with my wife and three children. In my former life I was a history teacher at Irvington High School in Fremont. I love watching and discussing movies (but not at the same time), playing board games, hiking, visiting local cafes, and watching and complaining about (at the same time) Bay Area sports.
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