The News of The Blake School Since 1916

The Spectrum

The News of The Blake School Since 1916

The Spectrum

The News of The Blake School Since 1916

The Spectrum


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Left on Read

Joan Didion inspires reflection

One of my many spring break reads was Joan Didion’s 1968 essay, “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice.” I stumbled upon this a bit by accident, as I had picked up an anthology of Didion’s work without first looking through its contents. This essay also quickly became a bit of a foreshadowing for my dramatic week of college decision notifications that would ensue during the rest of the break. 

Didion writes vividly about opening her rejection letter from Stanford and the deep despair that followed, how it felt like her life was over. (All is well eventually, as she later enrolls at the University of California- Berkeley.) All I could think about when reading this was that if Joan Didion, one of the greatest American writers of recent memory, was rejected from her “choice” school, then surely the college one attends is not an indicator of later success in life. Didion touches on this too towards the end of the essay, “And of course, none of it matters very much at all, none of these early successes, early failures.”

Another thing that struck me about this essay was how its content remains extremely relevant. Didion received her rejection in 1952 but didn’t publish this work until 1968. Even then she noticed an escalation of the pressure surrounding college applications. “I think it must be more difficult for children I know now,” she writes. “Children whose lives from the age of two or three are a series of perilously programmed steps, each of which must be successfully negotiated in order to avoid just such a letter as mine.” I couldn’t help but see these words exemplified in Blake’s current culture. As a college preparatory school, everything a Blake student does is in pursuit of their choice college. 

“[Children] talk casually and unattractively of their ‘first, second, and third choices,’”  Didion continues. “They are calculating about the expectation of rejections, about their ‘backup’ possibilities, about getting the right sport and the right extracurricular activities to ‘balance’ the application.” Like many others my age, I too, thought exhaustively about my first, second, third, and even fourth and fifth college choices and learning how to craft my applications felt like I was taking a marketing class. 

As someone who is, as of only quite recently, on the other side of the college application process, I greatly appreciate all that Didion has to say in this essay. I didn’t get into my “first choice” college or even some of my close runners-up. And while I can’t quite fully evaluate the school I chose yet, I’m pretty confident that I will be more than happy there. Everything worked out how it was supposed to; I am right where I am meant to be.  

Probably the most powerful of Didion’s sentiments in this essay, was its opening line: “‘Dear Joan,’ the letter begins, although the writer did not know me at all.” She boils it all down into one line; despite how much information and personality you can try to convey in a college application, the reality is that these institutions really don’t know you at all. Their decisions are based upon a fraction of your being and you are defined by so much more than who sends you an acceptance letter.

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About the Contributor
Mackenzie Higgins
Mackenzie Higgins, Editor Emerita
Hi, my name is Mackenzie and I am a senior this year! I have been writing for Spectrum since my freshman year and last semester, I was a Co-Editor-in-Chief along with the Creative Director and the Front Editor. This semester, I'm helping out with the features page. My favorite part of Spectrum is connecting with the school community and working with others in the newsroom. Outside of Spectrum and school, you can find me skiing, watching Criminal Minds, or drinking cold brew.

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