If you’re reading this, you’re probably a high school student with big plans. Many, many years ago, I was in the same position—juggling all the stuff you are supposed to do in high school, hoping for admission to a top-tier college, and dreaming of possible futures. Like you, I did my best to excel in school, compete at a high level in extracurriculars, and pick activities that would be particularly flattering on college applications.
Once I actually started college and got to know my classmates, however, I realized that some of my peers had done things in high school that seemed absolutely incredible, from high-profile internships to national-level competitive titles to long lists of independent projects. Some were things I never considered for myself; others were things I never knew existed. I was somewhat baffled to find that these otherwise-ordinary people had had such amazing opportunities at such a young age.
Of course, many different factors contributed to this. For one, since I was one of the few from Pakistan becoming a college student abroad, my family and community had limited experience preparing me for college, much less seeking out prestigious activities. Years later, I realized that I had also been holding onto a great deal of misconceptions about how people accessed exceptional opportunities. I learned some important lessons, which I would like to pass on to you.
THE CHOSEN ONE VS YOURSELF
I don’t know when or how it happened, but at some point in my young life, I developed the idea that if you worked hard, performed well, and most of all, were special in some indefinable way, good things and opportunities would come running to you. That might have arisen from too many Disney movies featuring magical intervention, but either way, by the time I got to high school, it was firmly embedded—and definitely applied to school and college planning.
If I were worthy of truly special opportunities, I reasoned, those opportunities would actively seek me out. If I were worth mentoring, a potential mentor would find me and ask to advise me. If I merited inclusion in a special program, some authority figure would come along submit my name for membership. The clouds would open, trumpets would sound, and I would be crowned with a coveted award. (Or something like that.)
Mentorships, independent projects, prestigious accolades—all of these things seemed to me to be blessings that some higher authority conferred upon a chosen few. That makes it sound a bit like being chosen for a divinely inspired mission, which of course it isn’t, but frankly, sometimes that’s how it felt. If nobody selected me for such opportunities, well, I must just not be good enough for them.
As it turns out, that’s not how it works. When I met my college classmates and before I learned about their illustrious backgrounds, I thought they were just ordinary people. And that’s the thing—they were (and still are) ordinary people! They procrastinated, climbed trees, watched trashy TV, and made mistakes, just like anyone else—they were far from perfect.
I realized that my resume and academic records weren’t simply documents recording my talent level—or, as I felt on some level, my personal worth. They were records of what I chose to pursue, not necessarily of my full capabilities. The important difference between my peers and I was that, while I assumed that I would be chosen if I was good enough, my peers understood that, at least on some level, they could be the ones doing the choosing.
Sure, sometimes an unsuspecting person is chosen for a potentially life-changing opportunity. Sometimes, an important or accomplished authority figure is struck by a particular young person and takes them under their wing. Sometimes, someone nominates you for an award you didn’t even know existed, or calls you out for public recognition.
If that happens to you, that’s awesome! Being chosen for an exciting opportunity you didn’t seek out feels pretty great, and you should take advantage of it. If your fairy godmother doesn’t appear with your glass slippers, or if you are not gifted the magic sword to slay the dragon and save the princess however, don’t be too surprised, and definitely don’t take it personally—it doesn’t mean that you’re undeserving of similar benefits.
Most of the time, the chance to do something special, whether it’s an exciting internship or a relationship with someone you admire, doesn’t just drop out of the sky. These chances require more from you than passive acceptance—you must actively work to find and secure them.
The first step in that process is seeing yourself as someone who deserves opportunities like these, and not knocking yourself down with self-doubt before the process has even started. Everyone’s capabilities and practical options are different, and not everything is possible for every student, of course, but at the very least, you deserve the chance to try for something big.
THE POWER OF ASKING
I know, I know. In some ways, encouraging you to ask for what you want is an obvious suggestion. If you are shy or non-confrontational, though, asking you to ask for something special can literally be asking a great deal.
I was a person who had a hard time asking for things, especially when they could be considered special treatment. I worried about appearing too demanding, seeming entitled, or demonstrating any number of other unappealing attitude problems. I did not want to overstep my boundaries or look foolish.
However, there’s no way around it in this case: you have to ask for what you want. You have to specify it, put it into words, and put those words out into the world. You can’t simply hope that, somehow, you will develop a psychic link with someone in a decision-making position, and they will find themselves strangely compelled to offer you the perfect summer job/intersnhip.
You may be worried that if you ask for access to a special opportunity, you will be unfairly excluding someone else from that opportunity, possibly someone who is more qualified than you are. To this, I would say: don’t sell yourself short! Remember also that any person you ask has the right and the ability to say no if they want to.
Rather than sending brain waves to someone really hard about what opportunities you would like to find or pursue, you are going to have to pursue actual, real-world communication. You may not get what you want, even with good communication, but you certainly will not get it with no communication, and some possibility of success is better than none.
Another person might have stellar qualifications, but you’re the one who went after the opportunity, and sometimes that makes all the difference in the world. Putting in that effort shows that you’re really interested and that you’re willing to devote time and energy to reaching that goal. Those factors are just as important as inherent characteristics.
Realistically, the providers of these opportunities probably don’t know you exist. Most likely, no one is going to proclaim themselves your advocate and go around finding opportunities for you. Even talented and motivated high school students don’t usually have agents or managers.
It’s totally normal and okay not to have people banging on your door day and night, asking to mentor you or trying to get you to join their organization. It doesn’t mean in the least that you aren’t worthy of participating in that kind of activity. It’s just how things work. If you want to access special resources and do really unusual things in high school, you’re going to need the determination and the maturity to ask for what you want.
REJECTION AND MOVING ON
Asking for what you want is great, but it certainly isn’t magic. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes you will be rebuffed or refused, and sometimes that rejection will come in a way that’s particularly embarrassing or difficult to endure.
In college admissions circles, the major rejection we always talk about is being turned down for admission to a college. However, there are many other situations in which you can ask for something and be turned down. Your prospective mentor is too busy to advise you. That prestigious internship chooses to hire someone else. It happens.
It would be cold and unfeeling of me to tell you to just “get over it.” Rejection is legitimately difficult, and you are allowed to have negative feelings in response! It can do a number on your confidence in yourself and your plans and aspirations. Still, after a reasonable mourning period for the opportunity that wasn’t, you really do need to… well… get over it.
There are times when it’s appropriate to push back against a negative outcome or challenge a rejection, but there are also times when that is inappropriate. The colleges of the Ivy League just plain don’t accept appeals to their admission decisions, for instance, and protesting after someone else is given the job you wanted is never going to be mature or impressive. (It’s also not going to work.)
You’re going to fail. Again, that sounds harsh, but everyone fails in some way at some time. I wouldn’t even say that you risk failure when you go after interesting opportunities—instead, I’d say that it’s dead certain you’ll encounter failure or rejection, no matter how much you want the opportunity or how thoroughly you think you deserve it. Having a dream dashed is never a fun experience, but it’s an unavoidable part of being human. And it won’t happen every time you try.
Ask for and pursue what you want anyway. That’s a hard thing to do, but it’s absolutely essential to your long-term success. The sooner you learn to accept that you have come to the end of a particular road and need to move on, the sooner you will be able to effectively chase after—or create—your next big opportunity!