With your grades? And your skin color? Not a chance. Go to an info session or two and humor your parents with the whimsical idea that you might proudly don a Crimson gown at your college graduation, and then accept the reality that the best crimson you’ll wear will be in Tuscaloosa (roll tide!).
College admissions are scary, especially for you, anxious and self-loathing teenager. I’m here to help make it a little less scary. It’ll save us both the headache if you can understand that it doesn’t matter where you go, so it’ll be best to choose the place that you can afford in a climate that you can tolerate (it gets frosty in New England).
When other aspirational eighteen-year-olds come to me, soliciting guidance, I have them answer these three questions:
- Are you poor?
- Are you particularly talented in anything? Do people other than your mother recognize your talent?
- Do you want to go to college? Why?
That last one is particularly puzzling to people, and it’s my favorite of them all. Something you will soon realize is that not everyone has to attend college, and that not everyone should attend college, and that you, the most generic of students, might be one of those ‘shoulds.’ You remember those D.A.R.E. sessions in middle school? The ones where the cops herd everyone into a classroom to give a 45-minute lecture on the evils of drug use and how to combat peer pressure? Too many kids go to college because it’s the next step in a path prescribed to them by their parents, their teachers, their friends, society and whatnot. It’s hard, I know, but try and see if you can ‘just say no’ to college if it’s not right for you.
If you are persistent on attending college, then I will help you figure out which schools you can apply to. If the answer to the first question is ‘yes, you are poor,’ then limit yourself to in-state public options or the most elite of private schools—they’ll pay for everything and then some. Disclaimer for these schools is that it becomes incredibly apparent that you are significantly poorer than other students, and I mean significantly. You might go camping during Spring Break while they’re spearfishing in the Maldives. You might take the bus to your local Walmart once a month and pass by Cory from Chem 133 driving an Alfa Romeo. It is very easy to identify the wealthy students in the winter based on their brand of parka (watch out for Canada Goose). Try to develop your code-switching abilities, master the prep-school dialect, and you may find yourself rubbing shoulders with the sons of CEOs and the daughters of heart surgeons. If code-switching isn’t to your liking, you’ll find company with the other financial aid kids during vacation periods who also can’t afford to fly home more than once a semester (hope you like dining hall food).
Next, determine if there’s anything special about you. Are you good at anything? You don’t have to be a world-class hockey player or the next chess grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, but are you solidly above-average at any activity, and can you prove it? It doesn’t matter if you won an award from your school’s Rubik’s Cube club for ‘Most Improved’ or you were invited to teach fourth graders about the woes of nitrates in the water supply—is there some external recognition of your competence? This is your marketability as a candidate: sell it! If you aren’t talented at anything (likely), tell them about an interest of yours. It doesn’t matter how inconsequential that interest has been on your life, or how niche the interest is. In fact, the nicher the interest, the more it sets you apart. Convince the admissions office that you will be that one kid that is really into Chinese yo-yos, or that you will start the Kyrgyzstani Culinary Club.
Once you figure out your marketing strategy, it is time to prepare for rejection, and you will be rejected quite profusely. After the first few rejections, you rationalize and reason, you just weren’t the right fit or it was a longshot anyway (no one even wants to go to Princeton). After several roll in, then you start to question yourself. Did you forget to include your transcript? Did your teachers write incorrigible recommendations? Are you just stupid? Your mom will comfort you, reassure you that you’ll get in to a few. What does she know. Back in her day, if you were literate and mildly law-abiding you could go to Stanford on a full-ride. Now you have to testify in front of the FTC about antitrust policy just to get into Georgetown. Your safeties get back to you, but it’s little consolation to settle for UT Dallas when your classmates announce their admission to Rice. You go to school, kids already wearing their future college sweatshirts. Use every impulse of self-control to stop yourself from setting these people on fire along with their sweatshirts. Your college counselor counsels you, tells you that you were a sure thing to get into Georgia Tech, that it’s always a toss-up. Thank them for their sympathy, Ms. Salinas is trying her hardest, and you wander the halls like a lost ghoul, the misery and self-loathing burning in the back of your head like a bonfire. You will remember this feeling.
You need to burn off steam. Text your group chat of best guy friends, the ones that you forget about all of your obligations with and blow off steam chucking melons off of cliffs after midnight, but they don’t respond quick enough for you. Ask your parents if they want you to pick up dinner so you have an excuse to drive the Mazda. As you open the garage and watch the amber hue of streetlights trickle onto the concrete slabs below your feet, you see the neighbors across the street have put up a congratulatory poster for their child—MIT. Good for her. You’re in too much of a rush to queue music from your phone so settle for the radio. You haven’t heard this station since you rode the bus in sixth grade. As you begin to cruise down the highway, fixate on your very proximate and uncertain future. You can’t remember the last time you were happy, but then you think that’s too dramatic. And it is. But then wonder why this has affected you so deeply? Question why you are so emotionally invested in these decisions. Blame your classmates, your teachers, your school, your generation. Then remember your parents, the immigrants that worked night shifts to pay for your SAT tutoring, the ones that never went to college. Remember your mother, the one who told everyone how you were going to be the first person in your family to go to college, how you were going to make everyone so proud when you inevitably got into Harvard. Twitch at the thought.
Eventually arrive at your spot, the overlook on the west side of town where you sneaked smooches before curfew with the captain of the swimming team, where you learned that there is such a thing as too much tongue. Sit along the brick guardrails and survey the sumptuous suburbs that have encroached on your home. It is here where you meditate, but not really, because you are nowhere near calm enough to consider it meditation. Fume, pout, stew. And amidst the beauty of city lights, bury your head into your knees. A salty drop floats off your chin and floats down the cliff, drifting into the airy foliage of oak leaves beneath. Your solitude is disturbed by a vibration in your pocket—an email notification. It’s a decision letter. Immediately unlock your phone and click the link to your admissions portal. The reception is bad so get in the car and drive down the mountain. When it finally loads, pull over on the side of the road.
I am writing to inform you that the Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid cannot at the time make a final decision on your application for a place in next year’s entering class. However, because of your outstanding achievements and promise, the Committee has voted to place your name on a waiting list of men and women for whom we hope places may become available.
Re-read the message six times. Stop halfway through the seventh when you get a text from your mom. Waitlisted! It’s not perfect but it’s a start. Good things are coming your way <3. You weren’t sure how to feel, but after reading the text, a grin creeps in. Remember that, in the end, it doesn’t matter where you go, and that you’ll pave your own path. Remember that college doesn’t create successful people—you determine your worth. Remember that the to-go order your mom placed is ready, and put the Mazda into Drive.
True Pham studied creative writing and Political Economy at Williams College. He is the recipient of the Benjamin B. Wainwright Award for Best Fiction (2021). He is an avid soccer player, film lover, and he will be working in Vietnam next year as a Fulbright Fellow.