Written April 19, 2013
When the April 1st deadline to hear back from colleges arrives, millions of students around the globe tear open their letters or frantically click open their emails with their fingers crossed, hoping to find that special little line that says “Congratulations, welcome to the Class of 2017!” Unfortunately, virtually all of these students will be met with at least one letter that says, “I am very sorry to inform you…” With this year’s applicant pool being larger and more competitive than ever before, admissions committees all around the country were forced to admit fewer and fewer students. Statistics I have seen place admissions rates at Stanford, Harvard, and Yale at an all time low, wavering between 5.5–6.5%. Due to this year’s competition, admissions committees were forced to choose between thousands of equally amazing applicants to fill their freshman classes. The fact of the matter is, there were simply more amazing applicants than a school could fill, so many outstanding students were faced with rejection letters.
I’m fairly certain that the rental of the movie “Accepted” and sale of ice cream greatly increase the first week of April due to students receiving their letters. Upon opening their letters, I estimate 92% of students are upset and disconcerted; 6% are in a state of exuberance because they got into their “dream school”; and the other 2%, well, that’s where the truly passionate students reside. I am probably overestimating my sector, but for the sake of this post I will leave it as is. I am one of the select few who received his letter in a state of composure. Sure I was hoping and dreaming of getting into Stanford right then, but I knew deep down, that my time had not yet come. When I opened my letter, I saw that dreaded line, but did not fret. I maintained my poise remembering that it was all part of my plan.
I do not have the test scores to match those of other Stanford applicants nor do I have an overload of AP and IB classes (which my school does not offer). I do however have two things that I know Stanford was looking for: ambition and leadership. Although I’m not going to elaborate, I had both of those things in excess, but I couldn’t compete in the other areas in comparison to other applicants. Regardless, I have ambition and want you to know that I will not let a letter of rejection stop me. I will be resuming my activities and excelling where I can.
I am writing this letter to you neither to ask for an appeal nor to ask why I didn’t get in. I am not writing to criticize you and your staff or the University. On the contrary, I want to thank you for working so hard to keep Stanford University the (in my opinion) best school in the world. You ensure that Stanford brings in the best students who will thrive and go on to do great things. By not letting me in, you have given me a chance to better myself before I apply again and prove that I am worthy of being called a Stanford student. I want to let you know that I am thankful for my rejection letter and if possible, would like a physical copy on official Stanford letterhead (a few if possible) to place on my door and notebook to keep me focused on the end goal I have in mind (I already have Stanford poster on my desk and a Stanford sweat suit that I wear more often than I should). The other thing I would like you to know is that you will be hearing from me again. I am going on to do great things this summer and will hopefully sway you and the admissions committee in the fall. Unlike other students who grieve and switch their state of mind to “I didn’t really want to go there anyway,” I desire with all of my heart to go to Stanford and will be there one day, no matter what it takes.
I wrote that post during Spring Break — the week after I received my letter. For the past three years I had my eyes set on Stanford, thinking that it was the only place that was going to get me where I want to go (see long term goals). The pure intellect and passion of the students, the dedication of the faculty, the immense availability of resources, and the close proximity to the valley all combined to create my ideal environment. I couldn’t find any other University that would provide the things that Stanford could — mainly the proximity to SV and the students who I thought were just like me. Over the past year, I have been at the heart of my delusion as I pursued Stanford relentlessly, literally spending hundreds of hours writing, editing, and rewriting my essays; participating in extracurricular activities, and excelling academically. Anyone who didn’t know me would have said I had lost my mind, and those who did know me called me obsessive and overly analytical. Looking back, I now realize that I was; I was so wrapped up in achieving this one goal that I lost sight of why I had wanted to go to Stanford in the first place.
When I didn’t get in, I was crushed. What I said in my admissions post was some last minute psychoanalytical bullshit I pulled to cope with my rejection. That wasn’t the only thing; I spent my Spring Break excessively indulging in some pleasures of the body that could qualify as problematic in an attempt to get over my rejection. When I returned to school I couldn’t stand to face the entire school and tell them that I, Cameron Wiese, did not get into Stanford. One, it would be detrimental to all of my cadets in Bravo Company who saw me wear a grey Stanford hoodie and sweats everyday and heard me say, “I’m going to Stanford.” It would crush them, and some even questioned their chance to get into a good school if I couldn’t get into Stanford. I admit that mentality “what chance do I have” is a bit faulty when you consider the low acceptance rates, but I had top grades, high scores, leadership, EC’s, and everything colleges are looking for. Asking “if he couldn’t make it, how could I?” may surface as a presumably legitimate question, even though it’s not, and I’m sure most of my cadets will end up in decent schools where the acceptance rates are above 30%. Second, I built myself a reputation as a hard worker always going above and beyond doing what others deemed “unnecessary” and “pointless.” I wasn’t going to let people shove that in my face by saying, “All that hard work for nothing…what a shame,” which some proposed before I had even heard back from colleges. Instead of facing this and being subject to humiliation and ultimately an intensely degraded sense of self-esteem from the crude words of some of my ignorant classmates, I decided to lie.
When I got back, I told everyone that I had gotten waitlisted. This gave me an ‘in’ in the eyes of others for next year as I told them my plan to gain admission. I spent the next two weeks obsessively plotting my scheme to gain admissions for next year. I read a blog post (here) about a guy who took a gap year and then reapplied. I absorbed this post and envisioned myself as that guy. I began white boarding my summer and gap year. I knew that I would face heavy resistance from my parents — mainly my dad — but I thought it had to be done. I contemplated not enrolling in college to give myself a statistical advantage of applying as a freshman (5.5%) instead of a transfer (<1%) at the risk of being a year behind. I was acting the same way that I did when I had my self intervention that led to me attending military school (see post). I was obsessive, analytical, and ultimately delusional.
The week of my 18th birthday, I took a week off to visit colleges. Up to this point, I had been compulsively thinking of taking a gap year thinking it would get me into Stanford. I read a blog post by Max Marmer that talked about his rejection from Stanford. In his post he talked about Stanford as an accelerator for his goals. He, like I, knew that success would come in time regardless of the school, but he made the analogy that Stanford was like a freeway, allowing him to get to where he was going faster. I agreed and added the concept to my pro-gap year argument repertoire.
I landed in Seattle that overcast Saturday morning with my head fogged up with thoughts as I was about to meet my dad whose flight landed an hour after mine. It was the first time I had talked to him since Spring Break, and I knew that he would ask me what I was thinking for next year. It was inevitable. I knew he wouldn’t be receptive to the gap year idea, so I had to do what I do best — market myself and my idea. I habitually took a deep breath and organized my thoughts as I saw his feet and Swiss Gear backpack come down the escalator. It was on, time to sell. We did our ritual greeting and headed out to get the rental car. On the way I began to sell my idea, and it was working. As we drove down the on-ramp on to I-5, I brought up the analogy that Max Marmer had proposed — Stanford is like the freeway and will help me get where I want to go faster. At first my dad was going through his typical replies, asking moderately pointless questions to which I already had answers. But then he took it to the level that deep down inside, I was craving; I wanted someone to ask me questions that I didn’t have answers to. Finally he asked, “How do you know that Stanford is the right freeway?” I shrugged this off as an axiomatic question, but he persisted and flipped my analogy around. I had said that Stanford was like the I-5, getting us through downtown Seattle. He, knowing Seattle much better than I do, mentioned that the 509 and 405 were two other ways to get through Seattle. “If there was an accident on I-5 that would take you two more hours to get home, would you stay on that route because it seems the most direct? Or would you merge off, onto the 405 or 509, both of which have no traffic and will take you where you want to go?”
I was perplexed. I pressed my head against the headrest; my eyes rapidly scanned the Seattle skyline for inspiration in hopes of finding an answer, but I didn’t find anything. I had to quickly turn the situation back around to sell my idea; I couldn’t let that one counter statement collapse all of my progress so far. I kept driving my point and eventually the conversation dwindled out as we stopped at Dicks to get burgers and shakes.
At the time, I thought I had won. I had sold my dad on the gap year, and even though he didn’t like it, he said he would support me in whatever I wanted to do — something that he wouldn’t have said if the conversation had not taken place. As much as I want to think that I can outsmart my father, I know that he has years of experience and knowledge that I can’t compete with. I don’t know whether I was as convincing as I thought, or if my Dad recognized that I was emotionally compromised and delusional and let me win. Either way, when he asked me that question, we both knew it was over. The idea had been planted, and I was thinking about it. It was planted in my head and would grow into something that I would eventually have to agree with. He knew me though, and let me persist with my argument like I always do.
Two days passed and the idea had fully developed in my mind, but I still didn’t want to fully accept it. Monday, we flew into San Jose to go visit Santa Clara University. I had been there before but tried to keep an open mind about it. On the tour, we were passing through the dining facility and the guide told us that the school has a food delivery service for students. I loved the idea, and stored it in my idea bank. When the tour was over, we were discussing the school as an option, but due to my lack of financial aid from the school, I crossed it off my list. Next we headed up toward Palo Alto to go to Stanford. Even though I didn’t get admitted, I wanted to pick up some stuff from the gift shop to keep myself focused on my goal for next year and to talk to the admissions office about getting a copy of my rejection letter printed on Stanford letterhead to serve as a motivator.
After patiently waiting at the admissions office for a good 15 minutes, I was greeted by one of the faculty who sat down and discussed with me the school and transfer options (both of which I was already thoroughly educated in). She told me that I could not get a letter printed because “they don’t give them to those rejected to conserve paper” to which I restated my understanding of the process and explained that I just wanted one sheet of Stanford official paper to print my rejection letter on. Once again, I was told that it wasn’t possible because Stanford does not print letters on special paper. I mentally called bullshit, thanked her for her time, and left. I spent the next half-hour walking around campus observing the students, who I hadn’t seen there before (the only times I visited were when there were no students on campus). There was no sense of camaraderie like I dreamed of and everyone seemed to be one-track minded. It was a dog-eat-dog atmosphere that reeked of competition and focus on academics instead of a friendly equality with a ‘change the world’ mentality that I had anticipated. As I continued to walk around I noticed that I, as a white male, was the minority. Now diversity isn’t a bad thing at all, it was just that I realized it was extremely competitive for me to get in. I don’t play an instrument and I don’t play a sport. My application was competing for probably 200–250 spots.
I’m going to go off of the statistics on the website (link) 38,828 applicants and 2210 accepted:
Using admissions data from previous years I have concluded that 40% of applicants are white and 52% male. Doing the calculations based on this year’s numbers, out of 2210 admitted there were approximately 442 spots for white males at Stanford. Now subtract the athletes and musicians you are left with around 200–250 spots.
Anyway, my chances of getting in were much lower than most and that helped me realize that it was slim no matter what advantage I thought I had (leadership, ambition, vision, etc). That combined with the atmosphere of the campus, I realized that it wasn’t what I really wanted. It wasn’t the right highway to get through Seattle.
We drove down the coast and the further we drove, the further I got away from the Stanford mindset. It was like each mile was an eraser, gradually wiping away my Stanford delusion. For 186 miles my mind was clearing its cache. When we stopped at In-N-Out Burger, I scarfed down two double-doubles to replenish my body of the energy that it had been exerting trying to refresh my slate. When we reached SLO, I was about 75% in the clear. I spent the day at Cal Poly (CP) soaking up the campus. At first it was strange because I knew that I was going to end up there, but my parents did not. In their minds I still had Claremont-McKenna slated as an option which, due to the excessive partying and raging alcoholism, was not on my list anymore after some personal reflection that had taken place since I visited the campus in August. (See my post on my internal conflict) I kept getting validation that CP was the right school for me and with each validation I was getting closer to stepping out of my delusion.
I attribute my validation of CP to three things:
The campus was vibrant and alive. Students were talking and looked genuinely happy. In the middle of the beautiful state of California, San Luis Obispo is three hours from the distractions of a major city — San Francisco or Los Angeles — during the week but close enough to allow for a weekend trip. SLO is less than 10 miles from the beach, the weather is almost always 60 degrees +, and the campus is surrounded by mountains perfect for hiking, biking, and exploring. The complete renovation of the REC center (which is, holy shit, amazing) and the new Math and Science building slated to open in the fall are an added plus along with the dorm options which include a themed dorm called “Inception” which emphasizes leadership and entrepreneurship; perfect for me. Oh, and CP doesn’t have a food delivery service…so I already have a startup in the chamber, ready to go.
Unlike the UC system, the CS system is a lot less expensive. My two UC options would have been Berkeley or UCLA both would have been $55K+, so I decided not to apply. Stanford and Santa Clara (SC) both boasted excellent financial aid, and I had the potential to receive a lofty merit scholarship from SC. While not my first priority, I do want to note that I applied with finances in mind. Due to some financial circumstances I was not eligible for any need based financial aid. So as I stated before, SC was out. CP has an extremely reasonable tuition at $36K. Going to CP, I can reasonable expect to graduate with a limited amount of debt, if any at all.
As I said, the students looked genuinely happy. Everyone I talked to said that they love SLO and CP. They wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. But the real validation for this aspect came when I was on the tour. I met a girl who was looking at the same schools as I was, including Stanford (she was admitted). We were talking, and I made several connections that revealed that we both had the same type of personality and expectations of college. She turned down Stanford, my dream school, to go to CP. That 25% left of me thought she was insane, but the other 75% kept pushing the validation and telling me that this was the best highway for me to be on, and apparently it is for her as well.
At the end of the day, I decided on CP. I traded out my grey Stanford hoodie and sweats for the exact same sweatshirt with Cal Poly — San Luis Obispo embroidered on it. It was at this moment when I fully realized I happy I was going to be there. The people, the campus, and the cost all attributed to my decision to go to CP, but in the end it was the idea that my dad planted in my mind in the car ride through Seattle that truly validated my choice.
The next day, we didn’t have to go look at Claremont McKenna so I proposed we go to my favorite place in the world, Disneyland. Little did I know my parents had the same idea, so for my 18th birthday we spent the day at Disneyland. Now I love Disneyland for a multitude of reasons (see Disney post), but at this point in my life it served as my final validation and the step out of my delusion. Before you enter onto Main Street USA, you pass under the railroad tracks. On the overpass at the beginning of the tunnel lies a plaque that states “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” I walked past the gate and passed under that plaque where I left all of my concerns and worries behind because those only existed in ‘today.’ When I left the park, those worries were completely obliterated. I left them at the foot of that plaque never to see them again and with that, my validation was complete.
Next year I am not taking a gap year, nor am I going to apply to Stanford as a transfer. It is not because I am giving up, which was the primary concern of mine for not trying; it is because Stanford is not the right freeway for me. It doesn’t make me any less of an intellectual nor does it impact my ambitions and goals like I thought it would. I can and will change the world from wherever I am, and it just so happens that that my stepping stone is Cal Poly, not Stanford. For any readers who are not already past this stage, I offer some advice.
People say it all the time, but the only thing that matters is what you make of your college experience. In my earlier years I would have shrugged that axiomatic statement off like I did with my dad’s proposal about the freeways, but after letting it sit for a while, the truth always reveals itself like it did for me. It’s always funny when you go in a complete circle and find yourself recognizing the truth that you previously pushed to the side. Try to listen to others who try to give you advice. Always take it with a grain of salt, but recognize it and think about it. Otherwise you will waste hours of effort, stress yourself out, and be miserable until you come back around and acknowledge the truth that was there all along.
Once again, I am extremely excited for next year. Cal Poly is going to be a great fit for me and a life changing experience. I look forward to all of the people I am going to meet and the opportunities that will present themselves to me. More importantly, I am clear headed and back on track. My three year delusion is over and I can get back to working on Agora and changing the world that had been ceased due to a seemingly more important goal. These past three years have been a journey of discovery. I have discovered that things are not always as they appear and I have learned a lot but now it’s over and I can set my sights on my true goals.
“Fixing your objective is like identifying the North Star — you sight your compass on it and then use it as the means of getting back on track when you tend to stray.”
- Marshall Dimockz