In August 2020, the end of the summer before my senior year, I laid sprawled out on my bed next to an empty pint of ice cream, filling out a college survey for my counseling office. Most questions were routine — simply asking about my classes, leadership positions, awards. But the final one gave me pause. If you would like to share, please let us know how you have been impacted by the events of this spring and summer.
By that point, I didn’t have much energy left for filters. I embarked on a 600-word rant, replete with profanity, explaining how most every aspect of my identity had been gutted — some perfect storm of Covid, my parents’ divorce, moving twice to two new apartments, Zoom school flattening my life to two dimensions, floods of disillusionment about academia and politics, and a new and puzzling struggle to get out of bed in the morning.
My counselor’s response, an interruption of my panic-ramble a few weeks later about how I’d never find a topic for my Common App essay? “Kate. Stop. Your answer to the last question on the survey — that was it.”
I was shocked, and more than a little intrigued. What I’d intended as an outpouring of vulnerability, she’d seen as an ability to overcome adversity. I turned the rant into an essay about having my family and identity upended and finding solace in volunteer work at a food pantry. I closed with my revelation that “the most beautiful parts of my life will be contained in rebuilding” and submitted the essay to Harvard.
It has since become clear that my survey response wasn’t me trying to draft my college essay; it was a cry for help. If I’d told Harvard the full story, my essay might have ended something like this: I have taken to lying on my back on the kitchen floor at 2 a.m. I habitually sit on the floor of the shower to figure out if or how water mixes with air. I feel like the world is falling apart around me. Thank you for your consideration.
I was dealing with two serious mental illnesses that I wouldn’t acknowledge or seek treatment for until nearly a year and a half later. In other words, the adversity was far from overcome.
But our culture, and by extension the college application process, doesn’t celebrate messy middles that have not yet led to something revelatory — some triumph that gives the mess direction and purpose. My essay became the place where I could wrangle all that mess into a compelling figure: the girl who did everything. She was a biracial three-season athlete with perfect grades who ran the newspaper and got elected class president and wanted to save the world, and to top it all off her parents were getting divorced and moving during a pandemic and damn it, she wasn’t falling apart, she was having revelations. She wasn’t not me, but she wasn’t quite me either.
My acceptance letter seemed like an implicit deal between myself and the University Hall powers-that-be. If I lived up to the put-together-despite-everything girl my essay depicted, my life would go back to normal. Messiness be damned.
I got a nose piercing the August before college started. (High school is over and I refuse to sit around being sad anymore!) I also fainted shortly thereafter, because I’d been crying all morning and hadn’t had enough to eat, meaning I managed to give myself a head gash and a concussion just in time for my first week. It was probably the universe trying to send me a sign (YOU! YES, YOU!! YOU ARE NOT OKAY!), but I was too concussed to hear her anyway.
Besides, I had a mission to accomplish: gather a blueprint of high school Kate and implant it onto Harvard. I excelled in upper-level classes, rationed my time meticulously between service, advocacy, and journalism groups on campus. Which left only a few small problems. I was having hours of near-unmanageable chest pain every day; I’d end nights out with friends entirely dissociated, obsessed with how dust flakes patterned themselves on the nearest wall; and the air around my skin seemed to hold as much resistance as water.
I knew, on some level, that I wasn’t okay. But I was terrified of what might happen if I stopped walking down the path I’d laid out in my essay: its tidy ending would fall apart, and it would become abundantly clear that I didn’t know shit about rebuilding. Would Harvard recognize me without that narrative? Would I?
In February 2022, my chest pain reached a crisis point. By pure serendipity, I found a psychiatrist within walking distance of my dorm. Our first session was two hours long; by the end, she’d diagnosed me with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder and called in my first round of medication to CVS. I don’t remember ever feeling so transparent or raw or fragile — or so cared for. It was as though she’d touched my shoulder and whispered: it’s okay. I see how hard you’ve been trying, but I also see that it’s not working anymore. Just sit for a while. Rest. What’s the worst that could happen?
The moment I started to get better was also the moment I let go of the identity I thought legitimized my place here. It took acknowledging that all my so-called revelatory rebuilding had been part of my mess — admitting that I actually wasn’t okay, that I needed help — to start rebuilding for real.
What rebuilding really looks like, most of the time, is the color-coded pill box by my bed and the printout of anxiety strategies in the drawer beneath it. It looks boring and self-centered and unproductive. It’s not something that would impress an admissions officer — or my 17-year-old self. It is simply what I need to do to survive.
But it has, indeed, been beautiful at other times: the sheer awe at the whisper of world-wind I feel in my chest while reading Rousseau, or the crisscross pattern I make dripping balsamic glaze over a salad, or the warm rain pouring down my neck when I bike back to my dorm late at night.
I think I might be rebuilding for a while.
— Magazine writer Kate S. Griem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is one of six essays published in FM’s 2022 “Rewriting Our Harvard Admissions Essays” series. Read the rest of the series here.