It's been two years, but I can still vividly remember the day I stomached all eight rejection letters from the Ivy Leagues. Thanks but no thanks, the letters said, citing the record number of applications and limited number of spots. Apparently, a 4.0 GPA and multivariable calculus on my transcript was not enough. Nor did having “editor-in-chief of school newspaper” on my resume make a difference. How about the hours spent tucked in the lab researching about three-dimensional cell cultures?
It was a humiliating setback. “Their loss,” my college counselor comforted me as I mulled over the rejections. Another teacher explained that admission decisions were often unpredictable; maybe Brown desperately needed an oboe player for its jazz band this year, he consoled. There was also the worst-kept secret in college admissions that Asians are negatively discriminated.
But I was not content. After all, two of my classmates—both Asians—had gained acceptance letters from Stanford and UPenn. I began to obsess over my rejections, scrolling through College Confidential posts and emailing admission officers who were responsible for my region. At one point, I thought about taking a gap year after graduation so I could boost my standardized test scores.
I also knew my application was lacking the “special sauce”, or, in admissions lingo, a niche. Throughout the admissions process, I’ve been told repeatedly that elite colleges want students who excelled in a particular activity; Stanford calls it “intellectual vitality”, Yale frames it as a “well-rounded freshmen class” (not to be confused with well-rounded students). Show, but don’t tell, in your essay that you’ll be the next Yo-Yo Ma or Richard Feynman!
My application was a mixed bag: I was interested in journalism, science, religion, and politics. Clearly, after eighteen years, I still couldn’t answer the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to major in; I applied to the arts programs at the Ivy Leagues, and went the engineering route for Canadian universities.
When I entered McGill the following fall, I was determined to make a comeback. I had a plan: narrow down a passion, get good grades, and transfer to Brown in my second year. So I took a class on international relations and audited a course on world religions.
I quickly learnt that the hundreds of pages of reading was not right for me. I decided to write for my college newspaper, and was shocked by the level of professionalism—a stark contrast from the four person operation I used to run. My first story was axed, and, in the words of my editor, sounded “too much like a lab report”. But after several hits and misses, I made an unexpected discovery: journalism helped tied my interests in religion and politics. I also found new meaning to my engineering degree—the power to understand and explain complex science concepts.
I’ve met a lot of friends like me, friends who had no clue where they would end up in high school and found a calling in college. Others might still be searching. And here I learnt an important lesson: A near-perfect SAT score, 4.0 GPA, and finding your “secret sauce” are enviable accomplishments, but they are, after all, achievements defined by admission committees. With press releases boasting record low admission rates and stories about overqualified students receiving the rejection boot, it’s easy to believe that the Ivy Leagues are the be all and end all. It's easy to forget that success comes in different forms, and at different times.
I’m not sure where this path would lead me, but I sometimes wonder whether an Ivy League acceptance would have made me complacent. Would I have found my love for journalism? Would I continue to challenge myself academically? Or would I have basked in the glory of an Ivy League diploma, satisfied by the fact that my CV included a line with a world-renowned alma mater written on it.