It took me a minute to realize the mix-up, since so much of the process had been out of my hands. I knew what was supposed to happen. First, answer the generic questions that can be used on more than one application (“What has been the most formative experience in your life?”), then write the essays that are unique to one school’s question (“If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would it be and why?”), have Dad’s secretary type them up and photocopy them as needed, put the resulting papers in the proper application packets, mail them off, get accepted into all the elite universities, have a successful college career, have an amazing life. The steps were pretty straightforward.

The trouble actually started much earlier in the process. The first whiff of misstep was the day I took my turn in the guidance counselor’s office, where he would magically lead me to the college that was right for me. He was going to assess my skills and talents, judge my grades and scores, and sift through the countless learning institutions to find the perfect match for me. Not only the place I could get into—a solid B+ student with decent test scores at a competitive high school was not going Ivy League, I knew that much—but the school that would provide me with successful endeavors, where I could become who I was meant to be, even if I had no idea who that person was yet. I had lost track of that in my latter three years of high school; I hadn’t found my footing after the move halfway across the country, without my three older siblings who had already left for college. I lost so much of myself in the adjustment, surely college would offer me the path to get it all back. It had to.

I don’t recall an actual conversation with the guidance counselor about what I was looking for in a school. I do remember the computer program I spent 45 minutes navigating. The green word on the black screen flashed through a series of multiple choice questions like What size school: Small (under 1,000 students) Medium (1,000-6,999 students) Large (more than 7,000 students)? I have no idea, what’s it like at each one? How big does a large school feel, will I feel lost? Is it hard to make friends? Will a small school feel too much like high school? Will it be smothering and confining? I guess I’ll split the difference and say Medium.

Question after question about the schools themselves: setting, class sizes, majors offered, minors offered, Greek system, sports, languages, clubs. I was not the subject of the Q&A, the imaginary school was. I had a hard time putting myself in the scenario, it felt more like a rational exploration for The Ideal School. Eventually I managed to print out a list of average schools to apply to: medium student body size, not in a huge city but not out in the sticks, offering a variety of generic majors that might be workable, competitive but not cutthroat, with activities and clubs that seemed to represent an average college experience. I had a list, and sent away for applications to an average number of schools.

Before all the applications had even arrived, the essay writing process was started. By my mother, who spent countless hours drafting multiple essays. More than 20 years later, I can still see the yellow lined papers, in her tight and semi-legible handwriting, crossed out in places for better turns of phrase, with occasional insertions of the shorthand she had learned at junior college, confused with arrows suggesting paragraphs re-ordered into a more flowing piece of writing.

More I don’t recall: When did I actually decide to use her essays as my own? Did I attempt my own answers and find them lacking in comparison? Was it just easier to let her words stand in for mine, less work for me preferable in my senior year? Or was I already so removed from the process of planning for my future that it seemed natural and right for this part to belong to someone else as well?

Sometime in middle school I suspect, my personal investment into my education was depleted. During that heightened stage of puberty, when every kid is scrambling to figure out their shifting sense of self, my marker of Teacher’s Pet was erased in favor of Cool Kid. Sleepovers were vastly more important than test scores, and paying attention in class was less interesting than saying the clever answer that got snickers. And moving after freshman year made fitting in and getting by more urgent than ever. By the end of high school, as I sat in the back corner of calculus and played Trivial Pursuit with my friends, the only goal of my education had been firmly established: Get Good Grades When It’s Easy, and Go to The Best College You Can Get Into. “Best” was defined by how much cachet it carries when you tell people where you got in. Podunk College? So lame. Big10BabyIvy U? Look at the big brain on you.

The hindsight irony is that I was a pretty good writer in high school. I got good grades on written assignments and supportive feedback that suggested I could make a genuine go at writing, maybe even  a career. Why hadn’t I believed it? Why didn’t I think I could handle it? Why didn’t my mother think I could handle it? Why didn’t she believe in me?

The underlying message of her writing may have dictated my ultimate mistake. Removed from the process, feeling unable to meet the challenge of applying to college on my own, not really knowing what I wanted or why, I arrived at the crossroad. The pages from Dad’s secretary aren’t right. Cornell is missing its essay answer, and this last one doesn’t match. Was it accidentally inserted in one of the other envelopes? Which essay was that supposed to be? What happened? No matter, the clear issue is that I have one too many copies of a different answer, and the answer to this Cornell question is not here. What should I do? What’s the deadline? How much time do we have? What should I do?

I placed the wrong essay in the Cornell envelope, sealed it, and put it in the pile with the other outgoing packets.

I did not get accepted to Cornell.

The truth is I don’t regret not going to Cornell. Although it is beautiful there, it’s an exceptional school, and three good friends from my old school went there—certainly I would have had a positive experience. And although I had a less-than-ideal experience where I did go (a lot of interpersonal drama, dissatisfying academics, and an eventual transfer to a nearby arts-centered city commuter college), it set me on a life path that I would not want to undo. That city is where I met my husband, had our two children, and made life-long friends whom I can’t imagine life without. I have more cherished memories than that city can hold, and I wouldn’t want them erased.

But, oh, that decision I made, standing at the kitchen counter, sifting through a stack of incorrect papers. Why wasn’t there a loud alarm going off in my head, alerting me to the very wrongness of what I was doing, had been doing, in such an important and defining time? That numb choice to put the wrong essay in the envelope was the last nail in the coffin of my self-perception, and it would be years before I even came close to removing the lid on that sucker.

Changing majors, transferring schools, temporary jobs and a constant confusion about both what I wanted to do and what I was capable of. That was the future I set for myself when I made that choice, and it’s still a part of my present now. What am I capable of, who do I want to be, how can I find the answers?

Part of who am I now is a mother, and I try to take the lesson of my mistake into their lives. I don’t want to be the helicopter mom who does everything for her kids, telegraphing the message that I do it because they can’t. They can do it, they can do anything their hearts desire, and my job is to support them as they do it themselves, not do it for them. As much as I regret my mistakes, I am optimistic that I won’t repeat them. I am heartened by the final line in the Mother’s Day poem I recently received from my 9-year-old son, which was actually how the poem started as well. So nice he said it twice: “Mom, the most important thing about you is you always believe in me.”

If only I had always believed in me too.