Oberlin Blogs

Being on the Waitlist: The Benefit of Low Expectations

March 4, 2021

Ben Smith ’24

Expectations are powerful. What’s worse: people give them power. They're willed into existence through each person’s perception of their own reality–a chilling, existential concept if lingered on for longer than a few moments. Scary, I know. It is for this very reason that expectations are powerful–often too powerful for their own good. From minute details such as expecting the TV to turn on when prompted by the remote control to life-altering events like hearing the results of a job interview, people are forced to check up with their expectations rather frequently–life’s way of keeping us on our toes. For me, I have had a conflicting internal battle of managing my own expectations; however, as I have progressed through life thus far, I have realized a valuable, can-be-applied-to-every-situation life lesson: the importance of maintaining low expectations. This lesson has reared its way into my life on many occasions, but it was an unavoidable truth I was faced with when I received my first (of two) Oberlin Conservatory admissions decisions: “waitlisted.” 

Before I begin exploring the inevitable gray area that was my emotional state after opening that first fateful admissions email, I will detail my overwhelmingly positive association and experience with Oberlin College and Conservatory. I was first introduced to Oberlin through the 2018 Oberlin Conservatory Magazine given to me by a friend during sophomore year of high school. 

“It seems like a good school,” she said, “but I’m not going into music. Maybe you should apply!” Back then, we had no idea of Oberlin’s prestige but, from then on, it was on my college radar. Fast forward to the summer of 2019 and I was meeting and lucky enough to be taking lessons from Dr. Alexa Still (Associate Professor of Flute here at Oberlin) at the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp. That summer was difficult; I was making more changes to my flute playing than ever before and, to say the least, I was embarking on a mountain climb all while being completely barefoot (I am not much of a mountain climber). Nevertheless, I left Interlochen knowing I would love to study with Alexa at Oberlin and, from that point forward, I began to look at Oberlin with much more intent. 

For any prospective music student, I feel as if it almost goes without saying that audition season (a tumultuous time lasting anywhere from early January-late March that remains a constant weight on your mind for the entirety of senior year of high school) is quite an experience. There can be a lot of pressure surrounding the entire application process, and it is a time filled with ups and downs. You will learn so much in a very small amount of time, but, rather than giving a lecture on an experience I just finished and have yet to fully process, I will leave it at this: try to enjoy the experience as much as possible. I wish I could have told myself that again and again. I was very fortunate to be in the position of auditioning at many of the schools to which I applied; however, nearly every one of my auditions was surrounded by dreary clouds of self-doubt that I struggled to see past. When it came to my Oberlin audition, I felt like I had something to prove–adding a hint of self-induced pressure to the overwhelming amount of adrenaline already coursing through my blood. My time at Interlochen left me with a deep desire to show improvement. Not to mention, after all the students I interacted with on campus and the tours I went on during audition weekend, Oberlin had soared to the top of my college list. It was a place I could envision myself at. A lot of *successful* college articles, videos, and stories refer to this ~magical moment~ where the author stepped on campus and felt right at home. For me, I can attest that Oberlin did feel like home, but it was not in the romanticized way that I had pictured. Coming from a town in Georgia of roughly 13,000 people, Oberlin reminded me of where I came from–a feeling that did not initially appeal to me. When I was applying to college, I had envisioned grand ventures out of my hometown and, feeling particularly hopeful, a big move out-of-state. Yet when I stepped on Oberlin’s campus, there was a strange wistful feeling that was distinctly different from the other gut feelings I got from the rest of the schools I applied to. Though it may not have been what I was expecting, Oberlin appealed to me in a way that no other school had. That sentiment is what stuck with me as I walked into my audition which, overall, went… okay? I felt neither excited nor devastated by how it went (the latter of which I became accustomed to after auditions), but I was hopeful of an opportunity to study at Oberlin. I just could not help myself from thinking maybe there is a chance

So, back to being on the waitlist. While it was not necessarily the best of the three results of a college admissions decision, I was not disappointed. It was what I had hoped for… to an extent. This may sound like a rather pessimistic outlook, but I am in no way saying my goal was to be placed on the waitlist. Of course, I would have loved to have been accepted; I wanted that acceptance letter very, very, very badly. I had, however, conditioned my expectations to remain low in situations where the outcome is out of my control. Honestly, it was my safety net. To paraphrase Jenna Marbles (whose YouTube video on this subject is now private), there is a danger with having expectations contingent on the amount of work put into achieving a particular goal. For example, in this situation I did my best to prepare for my auditions–to try and give myself the best chance of success; however, I also did my best to not cross the line of expecting success based on the work I put in. If I had done so, the reality of my situation (being placed on the waitlist) would have hit me much harder. Disappointment, then, would have been inevitable. Instead I felt quite neutral towards the decision, and the hope I kept within me of being accepted did not die away. Rather, it grew. Being on the waitlist is an odd feeling, especially at a small school like Oberlin Conservatory. Naturally, I wanted to know everything about my chances: How many others are on the waitlist? Where am I positioned on the waitlist? I scavenged the internet for any advice I could find, yet I never found a concrete answer about what I could do. It felt like more than ever before that everything was far beyond my control. After sending a few emails to the Office of Admissions and Alexa herself, that feeling was affirmed; I just had to wait (as the term “waitlist” implies... but of course I wasn’t ready to accept that just yet). To be fully transparent, I still do not know the ins and outs of how the waitlist functions nor how to “increase your chances” of being accepted (if such a method even exists). The month leading to decision day was immensely difficult; figuring out all the backup plans–all the “what ifs”–was emotionally draining, overwhelming, and scary to think about at times. I had not considered the possibility of taking a gap year when I applied to college. It never seemed like an option (which is a topic for another day but, tldr: gap years are completely valid). Then, exactly a week before decision day (April 24th) and against all the odds that I have yet to fully understand, I received my second (of two) Oberlin Conservatory admissions decisions: “accepted.”

As someone who has held more than one waitlist position through their college application process, I know how itchy everything feels. Checking emails constantly, waiting for a phone call every minute of every day–I have been there. Coping with all of those emotions is difficult, but I assure you that these feelings are normal even if it may not seem like it. If you are in the midst of college applications or have found yourself in a situation similar to mine, take time to inspect how you truly feel about everything and understand the value of relieving the pressure that your own expectations may be placing on you. Because, chances are, the pressure is coming from a source that is beyond what you are capable of controlling. Be kind to yourself. Talk with friends, mentors, and teachers–they may be able to provide you with more insight into your personal situation than you could have imagined. Everyone has a story. So, though the future may be uncertain, learn how the people you look up to got to where they are (it probably was not a streamlined process!). And know that, though I may not know you personally, I believe in you and all the work you have put towards your goals–no matter where your expectations may be!

Similar Blog Entries