By Tina Lu
Just a few days ago, I clicked on the dreaded “View Update” link, only to find an acceptance letter to perhaps the world’s most prestigious university: Harvard. On top of pure joy, I felt mixed emotions: relief (that the college application process was finally over), gratefulness, and even a twinge of guilt. I know I deserved to get into Harvard. But every year, only a fraction of those who deserve to get in actually do get in. Of course, I wanted to be a part of that fraction, but I didn’t need that acceptance—not in the way thousands of other students did. I already had fantastic backup plans—Princeton and Yale—but for numerous friends of mine, that wasn’t the case.
The college application process is a really great metaphor for the injustice of life.
First and foremost, college decisions are really a superb example of discrimination based on race, sex, and ethnicity. You’ve probably heard this complaint against affirmative action before, but I want to approach this subject as somebody who does not (entirely) oppose affirmative action. Sure, it’s unjust—but on the other hand, I don’t want to attend a university with a 90% rich white population (disclaimer: I’m not rich, and I’m not white.) So, I view the injustice of affirmative action as a necessary evil, an essential component of creating college utopias. Is it fair? Nope. But life isn’t fair either—there will always be people who experience advantages or disadvantages for personal characteristics beyond their control.
And, of course, (as a really good metaphor typically dictates), college application processes have another layer of unfairness, which some people would refer to as “luck.” Every single year, during the college decision season, you’re going to think, at least once: “I don’t get how he got into University of ABC.” And if this is the case, University of DEF and XYZ probably won’t understand either, because they’ll just outright reject him. And on the other end of the spectrum, you’re going to encounter people who deserved way more than what they actually got, and this is really where the feeling of injustice hits home. It’s fine, even good, if a not-so-great person gets into a great college, but it’s certainly not fine if a great person doesn’t get into any great colleges. I do not at all believe that your list of college acceptances defines who you are. But I do believe that hard work and dedication deserves recognition, though colleges (and life) don’t seem to care about that.
…But that doesn’t mean you’ll be on the receiving end of the injustice.
Six months ago, if you told me I would be deciding between Harvard, Yale, and Princeton for my future alma mater, I would’ve never believed you. As a smart Asian interested in math and computer science, I wasn’t exactly getting any brownie points for my race or ethnicity. I was, however, getting some as a girl interested in computer science, a traditionally male-dominated field.
So here’s my advice to you: take any advantage you can get. It might seem unfair to pull the “female” card if you haven’t really faced any challenges as a female in engineering (I actually have, but that’s a discussion for another time), but as we’ve already discussed, college applications inherently are not fair. There are a lot less spots than qualified applicants, and even if you are admitted with an affirmative action advantage, that does not make you any less qualified to be admitted. It’s simply your own unjust weapon to fight the unjust process.
Don’t simply rely on affirmative action and luck to get you through the door. I personally couldn’t: though my gender played in my favor, my ethnicity played against it, so it ended up as a wash for me. Obviously, you need the good grades and good standardized test scores to get you on the doorstep. But once you’re there, you have so many ways to get past the threshold.
Do something that sets you apart from everything else. Do something you’re actually passionate about. If you’re interested in gender equality, perhaps consider writing for Project GirlSpire. If you’re interested in engineering robots, email local professors and ask if they have open spots in their labs. But don’t do this to get into college. Do this because you actually care, and because you’re actually curious about X, Y, or Z. I spent a lot of time trying to fit the mold colleges expected from me. But once I broke out of that mold and started doing things I cared about—and not things colleges cared about—I became happier, more genuine, and a better college essay writer (ironically). In the end, where you go to college does not determine the rest of your life. You can go to your local community college and turn out better than Harvard grads. Your passion is infinitely more valuable than your college admission letter. I am thankful that the college application process pushed me to find my passion. The process was certainly not fun (I probably cried in the shower every day in November), but I came out of it knowing more about myself, my limits, and my passions.
Update: I will be attending Harvard College in the fall of 2017.