Dear Rejected Student,
Whenever Macklemore's "Can't Hold Us" shuffles into my iTunes playlist, I immediately recall the numb feeling of failure as I scrolled through the decision letters from several Ivy League schools.
Tonight is the night, we'll fight 'till it's over...
On that night in late March, I was rejected by all the Ivy League schools I applied to. First came a sense of anger, as I questioned how others with inferior academic qualifications succeeded in getting in. Then came a period of What-Ifs: What If I did better on my ACT, What If I became Class President, would I have been able to make the cut? And finally I sank into depression, worrying that my degree would not be impressive enough for McKinsey and Company to hire me (and to gloat for the rest of my life).
Perhaps I forgot how privileged I was to consider the nation's finest institutions.
I use the word 'privileged' because I have two parents with master degrees, a quality education, the ability to afford SAT tutorial classes and a Macbook Pro. According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, parental income correlates strongly with SAT scores (if your family income is $200k a year, you have about a 400 point advantage than a family earning under 20k). As a case in point, David Zax wrote in the Yale Alumni magazine that 69% of the Class of 2017 comes from families earning $120,000 or above, more than twice the median household income.
In most countries, top marks guarantee acceptance to its best institutions. The Ivy Leagues and other highly selective colleges sing a different tune. "We could fill our class, I think twice over with valedictorians", said Drew Faust, President of Harvard University. Elite universities have coined a term to address this dilemma: holistic admissions, which roughly translates to we won't tell you the criteria, but it's something other than grades and scores.
It is such vague language that has led to diversity initiatives, discrimination lawsuits, athletic recruitments and an ongoing debate towards legacy preferences. But for the majority of future applicants, admission officers and college counselors offer one remedial advice: do what you love, and do it well (similar advice is also echoed in many career advice books, with the onus on a seventeen-year-old). Be a parliamentary debate champion, a Chessmaster, the next Yo-Yo Ma, they say.
There is a certain exaltation towards Ivy League acceptances not only because it represents academic accomplishment, but also a validation towards a successful and passion-filled career ahead. The danger is in thinking that a student's future success can be predicted through three years of high school with limited real world experience. Most students, limited by 8-3 class schedules, lacrosse practice, and 11pm lights out, can't truly embark on a journey to explore and develop their passion.
While the Ivy Leagues are breeding grounds for Supreme Court Justices and future leaders, these institutions are by no means gatekeepers of success. Frank Bruni makes a case in his book Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be that most Fortune 500 CEOs do not come from universities with under ten percent acceptance rates. And many others, who did not solve the existential crisis problem before 18, end up finding success and achieving great things (Steve Jobs quickly comes to mind).
I learnt, through the long and sleepless nights crafting my perfect admissions essay, that I would not be able to write an essay like Jacqueline's, who shared a heartwarming story about her autistic brother and how her near loss of ability to speak served as inspiration to become a writer. Nor would I be able to write about how Vittorio Monti's Csárdás inspired me to play the fiddle, because my rendition contains a lot of squeaking sounds and unpleasant noises. And it's alright if you do not already know what you want to be. We are, after all, teenagers.