What do a Lottery Winner, a Paraplegic, and a High School Senior Have in Common?

A Yale rejection tormented me for months, but for what? College acceptances don’t correlate with happiness — it’s psychology.

As of August 1st, the Common Application — the online portal through which most students will apply to college — will welcome the class of 2021. Endless checkboxes, word counts, and cryptic questions await applicants, as do six months of confusion, stress, and a fair bit of self-examination. As a recent high school graduate, I know how soul-crushing the college admissions process can be. It occupied my every thought at a time when I should have been enjoying my senior year; but for what? College acceptances don’t correlate with happiness — no seriously — it’s psychology. Growing up, college didn’t pervade my world the way it seems to for an increasing number of children, or even for my father who, as a teenager, found his bedroom adorned with embossed lithographs of each of the eight Ivy League institutions.

My father’s father (and my namesake) John R. Hill, III, is a Princeton and Yale-educated pediatrician. John Hill served as a tremendous role model (my dad is now a practicing pediatrician himself), and, when it came time for my father to apply to college, he selected three schools: his top choice Princeton, along with Yale and Rice, a small but well-respected research institution in Houston, Texas. In the end, he was accepted into Princeton and Rice.

Even as the son of two doctors with a combined 25 years of higher education between them, attending college was pitched to me more as a means to an end than as a stand-alone accomplishment, and even as a sophomore in high school I would have been unable to list more than a handful of colleges — that is until I enrolled at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in 2018. For those who are unaware, the school (NCSSM) is a public boarding school in Durham, North Carolina that hosts 680 selected juniors and seniors from across the state for two years of rigorous, residential education.

At NCSSM, it seemed that everyone was ahead of me when it came to college applications. My fellow students touted prestigious internships, research positions, non-profit organizations and transcripts padded with courses my old high school didn’t even offer. Like many rising seniors feel right now, I felt out of the loop and hopelessly underqualified. A mandatory class on college applications did little to demystify the process, and it became clear to me that there really was no formula. The counselor said things like “show your WHY” to supposedly guide me, but I ended up feeling more lost, like I was being left out of a secret, known set of answers.

An October college tour opened my eyes to why so many strove to attend these schools. Columbia, with its prime Manhattan real estate and grand architecture, stunned me. Princeton was elaborate, but felt too snooty for my taste. Then Yale — I was in love. I spent the next two months cobbling together essays that I thought would surely give me a fighting chance at early admission to my dream school. Every day in the shower, before I went to sleep, and when I woke up I envisioned myself opening the decision that would change my life. In mid-December, I got my answer: a deferral — I would have to wait until March to hear a final decision. My response was something I am still ashamed of: I shut down, cried, and kicked furniture. I felt like I had failed to achieve my only goal, and I felt intensely jealous of friends who had received better news. In a moment of lucidity I saw how damaging my mindset had become. I submitted my senior quote to the yearbook: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Four months later, at 7pm on March 26th, 2020, I sat in a distressed wooden chair in my dining room, my heartbeat pounding in my ears. Over my shoulder stood my mother and 15-year-old brother. In front of me, on a video call, sat my father and stepmother — champagne flutes in hand. “We’re gonna start with Harvard because it’s the one I care the least about,” I announced, aware of the absurdly slim 2.8% regular decision acceptance rate. I logged in and clicked “see decision” as I had rehearsed in my head all too many times. A year went by in the blank white screen that followed; then text popped into view. My gaze settled on the bolded word “Congratulations!.”

I could produce no words as my mom shook my shoulders and pixelated champagne flowed. As emotion finally came flooding in, I began opening new tabs. Cornell, accepted — another round of applause. Yale — rejected — saw that coming. University of Pennsylvania — rejected — damn. Duke — waitlisted — ouchie.

The realization quickly set in that it was over. Months and months of obsessing, researching, and worrying and culminated in 15 minutes of action. I called my friends and family, emailed teachers, and hugged my mother tightly — but it was done. I woke up the next morning satisfied, riding each waning hit of dopamine as I reread my acceptance letters. I say this with the understanding that many students woke up that same morning with a pit in their stomach, feeling as though they had worked so hard for nothing, the way I felt that night in December. But as each day marched onward, we converged by necessity of human psychology — what’s called “hedonic adaptation.”

It is hard to demonstrate the concept of hedonic adaptation better than was done in a 1978 study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts titled Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?. The paper, which compared happiness levels between individuals who had recently won large sums of money in the lottery and people who had been rendered paralyzed by accidents, found that there was no significant difference between the long-term happiness level of the two groups; in fact, paralyzed individuals even reported higher levels of happiness during mundane, everyday activities than the lottery winners¹. Receiving a college rejection is in no way comparable to paralysis, but in a sense acceptances are much like winning the lottery — a momentary spike of happiness.

In the end, my father chose to attend Rice, a decision he emphatically commemorates with both a bumper sticker and a license plate holder. Calling into question my authority to write this article, I chose Harvard. I know it was the right choice, because any choice would have been.

Seniors, whatever shakes out in the next year, you are going to be okay. Not only will you be okay because fantastic education is so widely available in the US, and because university prestige has little measured effect on career success or salary, you will be okay because you are programmed to be — it’s psychology.²

[1]: Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917–927. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.36.8.917

[2]: Pew Research Center. Public and private college grads rank about equally in life satisfaction https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/05/19/public-and-private-college-grads-rank-about-equally-in-life-satisfaction/

Sellers Hill is freelance writer, photographer, and member of the Harvard Class of 2025 from Wilmington, NC.

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