What nearly not getting into any college taught me

In all honesty, not getting into any college was almost the best thing that ever happened to me. Here’s why

David Gould / Getty Images
David Gould / Getty Images

We all go through decades long of education only to reach one goal: financial independence.

It has been traditionally a long-held premise that getting into a good institution will guarantee a good occupation and, thus, a good income.

At a young age, I was taught no different. Having it almost engraved in my head consecutively led into days filled not with playdates, or running around the neighbourhood park along with the other kids. It was, instead, filled with days of burying my head into workbooks and walks to KUMON only to reach a single goal.

I never really enjoyed school nor learning because it felt repetitive, mundane, and monolithic. Despite this, I worked hard and counted my wins vigorously: I met the prerequisites to enter high school and accelerated to the grade without completing primary school, my efforts were commended by my school and I was awarded the academic scholarship, I gained the opportunity to go to Japan with a full scholarship to attend a Harvard conference (in which I received one of the two honourable mention awards), I successfully started the Speech and Debate Club for my school to remind students that we can shake mountains with our minds, I trained on the sharp peaks of Hong Kong and won multiple trail running awards in my category, I was then awarded the Sports Scholarship by my school.

All while studying and maintaining a grade point average (GPA) of 3.8. Inevitably, I was definitely (wrongly) expecting to receive scholarship offers, and admission letters from top schools in life after high school.

Senior year came, I submitted my internal assessments and revised for mocks. My supportive teachers would always mention that I am unequivocally an exceptional student and this was reflected in my grades.

I had the intention to pursue law and received an early offer to study it in the City University of Hong Kong. I had 12 days to pay HK$5,000 to accept the offer but I was initially reluctant since I felt certain that I would receive offers from better institutions. In fact, I accepted the offer late.

Along with my classmates, we were all scheduled to sit for the May 2020 exams. Months of January until March were filled with illegally downloading past papers, and filling up white smooth pages of crusty handwriting for notes.

Unprecedentedly, the COVID-19 continued to plague communities and the exams were, ultimately, cancelled.

Initially, I was relieved. All of the earth’s burden felt lifted from my shoulders. It was as if world hunger was solved and climate change was a thing of the past. I finally had time to relax and watch Netflix because I could (and definitely not because I had to cope with the mental or physical fatigue).

Months leading up to the release of the IB grades. I felt a sense of reassurement from my years of sleepless nights and hard work because to get to this level of academic aptitude, it required immense studying and I felt confident.

On 6th July 2020, when the thousands of pixels that shifted my screen as I logged into the IB portal to view my grades, I saw the number.

Then, I felt as if the world were crashing down on me.

The number that illuminated on the screen was a grade that was 7 points lower than the number I was anticipating (the grade which was predicted and given by my teachers).

I thought at the time that my identity is fixated by good numbers and are defined by my successes, if I had none of this, then what was my worth?

As many times as I had visualised this moment, I had never imagined such a radical drop in my grades.

Frankly, this failure was not life or death. I would still get a good night’s sleep on a comfy mattress. I would go home and be able to have a proper meal. Life would go on, virtually unchanged. Yet, life felt so bleak.

It was an abysmal feeling because I still could not fully comprehend the new reality life has thrown me in. Then it hit me: I would not be able to take law as my first degree and no universities would take me in because of how unqualified the number was.

Instead of receiving admission with full rides to prestigious universities, I was frantically begging City University, the very college I looked down upon, to take me in.

I wrote essays to illustrate my academic aptitude and intellectual curiosity for knowledge citing back to my transcripts and leadership positions. I discussed topics of hope, triviality, and failures. I explained how my past failures shaped the way I approached my studies and that on days when I feel like quitting, I am resilient.

At the time, I clung onto these words like life or death because I was losing hope and I wasn’t sure whether I really believed in my own writing piece. The months led to a series of ignored pleas, rescinded offers, and an ambience that reeked desperation.

The imminence of September made me feel a particular pang of hopelessness and fear. My parents seemed hesitant to allow me to pursue community college and I was gutted because I was unsure of what to do next or whether there were still any other options for me. The deadlines have passed, the quotas have been filled, and the universities were ready to shut their doors.

While I was on my way to eat dinner feeling the usual somber outlook on life. I received a notification from my watch and I abruptly stopped in the middle of the bridge.

It was a bizarre email because it had the initials ‘CU…” then the small screen of my watch could not display the rest.

I held myself back. Trying to pull my thoughts together and reminding myself that this email could not be the one that can move the heavens and earths for me. What felt like an eternity, after a couple of swipe on my iPhone, my heart was pounding, my palms sweaty, and my brain was racing to comprehend the following sentence : “CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR ADMISSION TO CUHK [ECONN]

Water, as David Foster Wallace puts it, resembles the obvious, important realities that are often the hardest to see in life. It centres around the idea that as we experience and go through the chronology of life, this shapes us in often invisible ways.

Abstractly, while it can easily be acknowledged what are the forces at play — the people, the event, the location we’re in, it is still concretely difficult to pinpoint or determine how each of these experiences, especially the bad ones, will mould us.

In other words, it is hard to see the water we’re swimming in.

Though once our (mini) crisis is over, these moments are really great — they’re a rare chance to see specifically how we’ve been shaped differently, and in the best cases, also why.

These moments help us see the water we’ve been swimming in.

Gaining admission to the Chinese University of Hong Kong where I will later pursue an Economics & Statistics degree with a minor in Computer Science made me realise how fleeting human ambitions are.

The process of failing in which I finally received the letter made me rearrange my aspirations, forced me to quickly figure out what I prioritised, and how, in retrospect, menial my other problems were. In general, it made me more compassionate, aware of the events occurring around me, and most importantly, more thankful for living in a better now.

In the grand scheme of things, as Liam Corrigan puts in, “I discovered why failure is so trying. It is not the failure itself. That is only a moment of pain in your life that will be over soon enough. Instead, it is that fact that in spite of failure, you must persevere, no matter how bleak things may be, and hopefully, one day you will succeed. Along with each success will come many failures, but you must try your best to endure and overcome these obstacles time and again.”

I’ve recently been able to see the water I’ve been swimming in. I’ve realised how it’s shaped me and better yet, I’ve reached the finish line for this one swimming tournament.

The statement: “If you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, it isn’t the end yet” holds a degree of truth that I can attest to.

I already began university in the first week of September. Cheers to the next four years to come.

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