Podcast: On Dream Schools

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike talks to Spivey Consulting's COO Anna Hicks-Jaco about a question from Reddit—one that we hear many times every year. "How do I stop being so attached to my dream school?"

This episode mentions several other interviews, including our episode with Dr. Guy Winch and our episode with Dr. Judson Brewer.

"Life teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough." –Tony Bennett

You can listen and subscribe to Status Check with Spivey on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, YouTube, SoundCloud, and Google Podcasts.

Full Transcript:

Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. Today I'm joined with our COO Anna Hicks-Jaco. Hi, Anna.

Anna: Hey, Mike.

Mike: I feel like it's been forever since I last saw you.

Anna: Yes, just since two days ago—in person!

Mike: Two days ago in person at dinner. There's a question on Reddit, do you want me to just read it?

Anna: Yeah, read the question.

Mike: So the question was, “How do I stop being so attached to a dream school? A serious question.” And that is a serious question, I've seen it for 24 years. “Columbia has always been my dream school since I was a teenager. I applied several cycles ago with a very low LSAT, and was obviously rejected”—I don't like that word, so I'll say ‘denied’; that’s my insert—“I studied for the LSAT one more year and managed to get a 179. It was a really difficult journey, but I managed to get through it somehow. So I reapplied this cycle, and right now I am anxiously waiting for results. I understand that times have changed and high scores aren’t a guarantee for any school now, but I've been crazy anxious about the whole process, and I'd really love to get some realistic advice on how to stop having the mindset of, ‘If I don't get into X school, I can't ever be happy.’ It sounds pretty childish, and I'm honestly super embarrassed that I'm saying stuff like this in this first place, but I needed to vent, because this has been eating away at me for months now.” Thoughts Anna?

Anna: I think that person should not be embarrassed. My experience resonates with what you were just saying, like, from that Reddit comment, a whole lot. Let's just disclaim, no more embarrassment, no more being ashamed of these emotions. I do think that some of my preoccupation with a certain law school was embarrassing, now looking back, but let's just get rid of all of that for this conversation, because we feel what we feel, and that's okay. And I think that the best way to deal with that is to accept it and try not to judge how you feel about this type of thing.

Mike: Yeah, it's the least childish thing I've read in a while.

Anna: Because it's self-aware.

Mike: Yeah, it is self-aware. And I have 24 years’ experience of people asking this question. You know, Anna, I texted you that quote I heard from Tony Bennett on the Amy Winehouse documentary. It's the literal last sentence of the documentary. Tony Bennett, who is 90,000 years old, said, life has a funny way of figuring itself out… It might be easier for us to say, I can look back and feel very little embarrassment, worry, about almost anything now. But I understand where this person's coming from. It's a real phenomenon, and one that I have a lot of experience in—and you do too.

Anna: Absolutely. I mean, when I applied to law school, I very much had a number one dream school in mind. And, now, the reasons for that are prestige-based. It was not based on a specific academic program the school had. It was based on all of these ideas about this school that I had gathered for my entire life and through watching Legally Blonde, and so many various different ways that you learn about the schools. It was mostly prestige. That’s how I'm going to attribute my reasoning for really being preoccupied with the school.

Now the reasons that I was focused on prestige are very complicated and have to do with a lot of my background, and I don't think it makes sense to get into. But at the time, I was very prestige-focused, and as a result, Harvard Law School was my number one absolute choice. I did so much to try to get into Harvard Law School. I wanted to be above both of their medians, which I did through a whole lot of work. That was my big goal. This is the law school that I want to get into. And when I was denied, I felt devastated. I cried, a lot. That's one of those things that you might feel some embarrassment about, but I'm trying not to feel embarrassment about. I cried because I was denied from Harvard Law School. And now here I am several years later, and I can't tell you how deeply happy and grateful I am that I did not go to Harvard Law School.

My life would be incredibly different if I had gone to Harvard Law School, in many negative ways to be honest. You can draw direct causation, and we can talk about some of that, to several things in my life. I'm not the type of person, typically, who believes, in the sort of cosmic sense, that “everything happens for a reason.” But I do think that—when you’re looking at something like a decision from a law school—it can feel like the end of the world to be denied, but you really just have no idea at all. For all you know, it could end up being the best thing that ever happened to you. And that's hard to hear and it's very hard to internalize. But it became very, very apparent to me over the years after I was denied from Harvard Law School that it was a blessing in disguise, for me personally, just because my personal circumstances.

Mike: And there's various components we can break down. One would be, why would you have a dream school when as a teenager you probably have never set foot in that school? And then number two, how do you deal with the anxiety waiting for that dream school? And number three is the after effect. We can talk about all those. I am curious about one thing though—you interviewed with Harvard, so I wonder if that felt like—and I will use the word “rejection” although I often always use the word “denial”—ut I wonder if that added to the emotional response. You tell me.

Anna: I think it did and it didn't. On one side of it, I spoke to someone in their office as a human being, one-on-one, and they decided they didn't want me. And it's easy to take that really personally. But I mean—in my weird, wonky way, I had done so much work in terms of getting my numbers to be what they were, like that was the be-all, end-all of mine, and so that was my be-all, end-all. I don't think my interview was very good; I walked away not thinking I'd done a wonderful job. So in some ways, it made me feel a little bit better that, “Oh, well, I just had that crappy interview. That's why they denied me.” I don't know if that makes any sense for the vast majority of people, but for whatever reason, that was how I interpreted it.

Mike: Makes sense to me. Imagine being above both medians—and this happens to people, unfortunately—and having what you feel like is a home run interview, and then getting a denial.

Anna: It would be even more baffling.

Mike: Yeah, the process is tough. So let's start at the beginning. You don't have to go into the—you refer to “prestige”; I would call it attribute, but the attribute-based esteem of Harvard. But it is an interesting phenomenon that X% of applicants will have one school—I've seen this, God, I’ve seen this for so many years—one school that, if you were to plot it out on a graph, is feet on a piece of paper away from school #2 in their minds—and sometimes it's for sensical reasons. It's near family, it's where I want to work. And sometimes, like for you, it's just—I'm going to guess because of your experience with musicals and production in Legally Blonde, you fell in love with Harvard at a pretty young age.

Anna: Yes, Mike does know that fact about me, that I was obsessed with Legally Blonde. And just in general, I think, if you are someone who is very prestige-focused—and even if you don't think of it that way, and I don't think that I would have thought about it exactly that way at the time—but now looking back, I think that's what it was mainly rooted in. If that's your focus, Harvard Law School specifically does have huge—not only prestige within the legal world, but lay prestige. So of course, everyone in the legal world knows that Yale Law School is number one by everybody's ranking metrics. But Harvard Law School has a special something in terms of laymen’s prestige that appealed to me—for maladaptive reasons, as I mentioned.

Mike: Well, you said maladaptive, which would imply they were adaptive at the age you applied or fell in love. You needed that reason. Do you think if that was adaptive at an earlier part of your life, it was helpful?

Anna: To some extent, maybe. I'm not as familiar with these terms as you are, Mike; I might be using them not quite right. I think that certainly, my family was prestige focused. When my husband got into Yale, my grandmother was so excited, she was more excited than I think I had ever seen with any of the actual grandchildren's accomplishments. I do think that prestige was a… present metric of success and worthiness in my family. So whether it was adaptive for me to chase prestige or not, I don't know.

Mike: So you come from a family that had a high value on prestige. What does a child want above all else? Not to be abandoned. So what was the attention in your household? Being noticed, and that came from prestige. That's very adaptive as a child. And the reason why I focus, I think, on the psychological part of this is, I think it's going to help at the end part: how do you stop being so anxious? So at an early stage in your life, like for me, performance brought attention. For you, prestige brought attention. You probably weren't consciously aware of this, most of us aren’t. But you were just subconsciously associating prestige and attributes with not being abandoned, not being left, with value. And that's stuck in your subconscious mind. So you had a number one dream school, fair.

Anna: I think so. I think that's probably a pretty good summary.

Mike: I’m going to guess that's the case for, maybe not the vast majority, but a large portion of people who have a dream school, which is why I think it's worth just mentioning—we have a subconscious mind, which is what experts call a child-like or emotional mind—and then we have an intellectual or our adult mind. Here's the tricky part, we're often not aware of our child-like subconscious mind. So to this person's Reddit post—I don't know them; I don't want to put words in their mouth—but it's possible, and it’s true for other people, that they have a dream school for reasons that—their subconscious mind is overriding their intellectual thought process.

Anna: Yeah. I do think that the person in that Reddit comment seems a lot more self-aware and a lot more grounded than I was when I was applying to law school. Since then, I have been through a great deal of therapy and think I'm much more self-aware, but at the time that I was applying to law school, I don't think I would have had the understanding of my own mind to make a comment like that Redditor did. They're already ahead of me.

Mike: It's always a journey. It's never linearly up—it's the lightning bolt, you have ups and downs. I just want people to be aware, if you think maybe, “Okay, I have this dream school, but why do I have to go to Princeton Law School? Why am I so anxious?” You are capable of walking away from that emotional response and saying, “Okay, intellectually, I can only go to one law school, and it might be Harvard, it might be Columbia. But what's going to happen to me if I set foot at NYU or Penn?” Let me just speak from 24 years’ experience doing this. Your career is probably going to be no different. Let's say you go to Penn instead of Columbia, you're going to meet people that are going to be friends for the rest of your life. Now, you would have at Columbia, but you don't know that. So what you're going to start saying—because I've seen this, I've worked in many law schools; I've seen this every year when I was at Vanderbilt—it was so fascinating to me how the majority of our students wanted to go to Duke or somewhere, Penn, NYU, Columbia, Harvard, and they didn't want to be at Vanderbilt. And a month in they would say to me, “Hey Spivey, remember when we talked about me transferring? I have no interest in transferring anymore. I couldn't see myself.” That's the norm times a hundred. That is not an outlier. Did it happen to you at UVA?

Anna: 100%. I fell in love with Charlottesville, I fell in love with UVA. I made friends, some of whom are some of my very best friends to this day. I loved it pretty much as soon as I stepped foot on grounds. You can tell I'm a UVA person since I said “grounds” and not “campus.”

Mike: And how much debt did you have at UVA?

Anna: That was the big one. And one that I think a lot of people should think about when they're talking about dream schools, because I think the idea of a dream school implies, at least, that it's a school that is somewhat of a reach for you, that it's a school that is not squarely within someplace you would expect to get in. And those reach schools, those dream schools, are often schools where you would end up with a whole lot more student loan debt than you would elsewhere. And that is what happened with me; I went to UVA on a full scholarship. And what happened? A semester and a half in, I had to take a medical leave of absence, ended up working for this company called Spivey Consulting Group, ended up wanting to stay there long term, and I could walk away from law school without any debt. Versus if I had been at Harvard, I would already have tens of thousands of dollars in debt. And that would have been a much more difficult decision and question.

Mike: Tens of thousands of dollars of debt and little interest in being a practicing attorney.

Anna: That would have been a pretty crappy situation.

Mike: Now we're not—obviously—implying that people listening to this aren't going to be practicing attorneys. But life has a funny way of twisting and turning. So, for you not getting into your dream school—you're crying, I'm sorry to hear that, I actually didn't know that.

Anna: I'm a big crier, Mike, it's okay.

Mike: But years later, it was like the best thing that happened to you, for many, many reasons.

Anna: Oh, yeah, I mean, I mentioned my husband. The only reason that my husband went back to school—he didn't take the SAT in high school; he was not going to go to college at all—but we were in Virginia, in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Virginia community colleges have guaranteed admissions agreements with public universities in the state, where if you go to your local community college, you get above a 3.4 GPA and take the right classes, you get automatically admitted to UVA for the rest of your undergrad. And that's an amazing opportunity that we would not have had elsewhere. So my husband went to community college, did fantastically, blew that 3.4 out of the water, ended up transferring to Yale. So now I think to myself, if I had gone to Harvard, would my husband have maybe never gone to Yale? Might he—if he had pushed off school for how many more years, I don't even know, it is impossible to think. But I'm very grateful for how things did turn out, and they would not have turned out that way.

Mike: I think it even benefitted me; you being at Yale got me to New Haven, which helped me reconnect with one of the closest people in my life.

Anna: That's so true.

Mike: We could plot it out but it's chaos theory, just, butterfly effect. I don't want to make it any bit religious, but there's an expression, “We plan, and God laughs.” I mean, the typical law school student, probably, is a lot like me: I over-plan. But the amount of control I actually have in my life is minimal at best. So it's kind of nice to be nimble with things. Life is going to happen regardless. You can get the 179 and have the grades, you might get in. Congrats. Go, if it's your dream school. Go, if you get money and you're not debt averse. Go, if you've always wanted to go. But if you don't go, I have a funny feeling—again, I've seen it for 24 years—reach back out to us on Reddit or email or whatever. 9.5, 9.8 out of 10 times it's, “I can hardly remember why that was my dream school. Why I felt emotional. Why I was crying.” It's crazy how this works out.

So there's a second half, the waiting, the worst part of admissions. And then there's the final part, which we’ve kind of addressed, right Anna, which is what happens if I don't get in?

Anna: Yeah, I mean, if you don't get in, you launch yourself into your next best opportunity with all of the enthusiasm and talents and skills that you would have gone into Columbia with. And you know that you have that within you. And you don't know how things would have gone in that other direction—you are going to know how things go in your current direction. You just put your full force and your full passion and all of your skills and talents into what you are going to be doing, and you're going to do amazing things there. If you would have done amazing things at Columbia, you're going to do them where you end up. I promise you.

Mike: The best speech I've ever heard is “This Is Water” by David Foster Wallace. Have I made you listen to that, Anna?

Anna: I think so.

Mike: He says something as part of that speech, which I would encourage everyone to listen to, which is—almost by definition his words not mine—but we have always been the center of our universe, by definition. We know nothing but our own viewpoint, our vision, nothing but that. So if you want to go to Columbia and then you end up at NYU or Penn or Michigan, by definition you'll have no knowledge of what it would have been like at Columbia, and as Anna alluded to, it could have been miserable. And you will have every vantage point of what it's like in Michigan or Penn.

I just want to share good news. It's likely going to feel like home for you. It's likely that you're going to fit in. And when those two things happen, when you're on the grounds at UVA, or you're with your new friends at Michigan, getting sushi and coffee with your new significant other at Penn—I mean, these are all real things. The whole concept of, “I have to get into this dream school,” that's external-based. That's not unconditional self-based. That's external-based. “I have to get into this school.” That melts away. If you get into your dream school, it might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Life has a funny way of expectations—have you ever seen a movie that you're dying to see? The more you want to see it, the more often, for me, it's a little bit of a disappointment.

Anna: That's true.

Mike: No, it's 100% true! And if I go into a movie knowing nothing about it, Cabin in the Woods as you know Anna I’ve watched like 20 times, I had no expectations. World War Z, I was like super excited about watching and then I came out, “Blah, this was like a poorly written choose your own adventure book.” Turn to page 15 if you go to Korea, now turn to page 64 if you go to Israel for no reason.

I think like it, on occasion, actually sometimes dampens those dreams. And what almost every researcher in this field, therapists, would tell you is, acceptance versus expectations. That's the slogan. There's a great short Audible book Unfuck Yourself. And that's his sort of principle. If you expect things, you're going to be let down for the rest of your life. If you accept things, and then work with them, you're going to do well for the rest of your life.

Anna: That is very apt for this conversation.

Mike: Even if you don't have a dream school, this is all a work in progress for all of us. You, me, and everyone else. This is so hard to do, and our clients do it, and the applicants we talk to do it, but—"I expect to get into these three schools, I expect to get waitlisted at these three, and I think I'm going to get denied at these two.” Maybe reframe the whole thing as, “Let me see what happens. And then let me accept that I'll make a good decision when it happens.”

Anna: Definitely.

Mike: Any other points of wisdom?

Anna: Should we talk about waiting specifically? Was that in the question?

Mike: Yeah, the question alluded to, like, the waiting is producing anxiety. Well, of course, I mean, we had Judson Brewer on our podcas,t and the definition of what causes anxiety is an uncertain future. I can't remember exactly Dr. Brewer’s interventions. Dr. Guy Winch talked specifically on our podcast about waiting.

Anna: We’ll link those.

Mike: Winch was kind of like, “You're about to be busy for the rest of your life, person. Take advantage of this time. Go follow a passion or a hobby.” But that would track on the lines of stay busy.

Anna: Yeah, I agree. I agree. And as it pertains to this specific question, what I would specifically not do with your waiting is spend your time fantasizing about you being at Columbia Law School. I did this myself, looking at apartments in the areas of the law schools that I was interested in, putting myself mentally in that place of, “Oh, what would it be like if I got into this law school?” and just spending time thinking about and fantasizing about that. That's not going to be helpful to you. So I specifically recommend not doing that in your waiting time.

Mike: Agreed 100%. Again, if you stay busy, don't see yourself in any particular place, easy for us to say on this side of the equation. The other thing I would say is don't check your status checker every 15 minutes. Don't live on Reddit. Reddit's fine, I have nothing against Reddit per se. But I have a lot of concerns for people who live on Reddit. We've seen that so many times we were able to predict, I think, the right transition point. Reddit starts getting acerbic and hostile because people are stressed. So this is the time of year Reddit's going to start morphing into attacks and lies and made-up stories. So I would say, as the cycle wears on, maybe transition away from that medium.

Anna: Yeah, to the extent that you can just take it as a lighthearted place to connect with other applicants, I think it can be a real positive and a way to feel some camaraderie in this process, that is stressful. But as you said, Mike, it's not always that. And as you move forward in the cycle, it becomes less and less of that. So if you can continue to take away only the positives of it, then great. But be self-aware about it, and be thinking about it. You might come to a point where you realize, I'm getting a lot more negative emotions out of being here than I am positive. And that's the point at which you should reassess how much time you're spending there.

Mike: I think it's a pretty good note to end on. We don't have the exact key for the exact lock for everyone. But I do think that everyone being self-aware to ask the question that the person on Reddit asked, to not expect and fantasize about, “These are going to be my outcomes.” They're going to come, and they're coming soon. There's only March, April, May, June, July. Maybe it seems like a lifetime, but it's going to be a blink of an eye before everyone listening to this, who is applying this cycle—of course, everyone is going to know their results by the end of the cycle except for the people who drop out.

Anna: Yep, it’s coming. I'm also very impatient, I get that it's hard to wait, but that's why I think the advice that we've had on our podcast previously was spot on. Just fill your time up. No time to be impatient because you're off going and doing fun things and engaging in hobbies and being with your friends and all of that.

Mike: Do you think you’re more impatient than me, Anna?

Anna: That's a good question. I do think of myself as an abnormally impatient person, but you are also pretty impatient.

Mike: I would have guessed you would say that I'm more—

Anna: Well, you're my boss, so...

Mike: Well, sometimes when I say “When is this going to be ready?” it probably seems more like I'm impatient than I am; I’m just looking for an output.

All right, happy note to end on, I’ll pick on Anna over text! Keep well, everyone. We hope this was helpful.

Anna: Thanks, everybody.