Note: This was originally published on the Penn Admissions Blog in March 2015. It is no longer up on the site, but I like this piece a lot, both for what it directly discusses as well as its larger implications for accepting things in life that we don’t always have control over, and so I am re-publishing it here.
“Little surprises around every corner, but nothing dangerous. Don’t be alarmed.”
Willy Wonka, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
One of my favorite books in elementary school was Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In new worlds I do not yet understand libraries serve as my initial compasses, and my family had just moved to a new country; the first place I sought out during my first week at school, after my Grade 5 classroom, was the library, and when I asked for a book recommendation the librarian decided, for reasons I’ll never know, to introduce me to Roald Dahl. In the story Charlie Bucket, our protagonist, wins one of five Golden Tickets to visit a man named Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in the center of his town; the factory, in Charlie’s mind, is a world of unimaginable excitement and delight, a world of endless magic and possibility, and most of all a world in which he will have all the chocolate he could possibly think to eat, certainly as perfect a heaven as any ten year-old could imagine.
But Charlie’s life doesn’t immediately change upon finding the Golden Ticket, not in the way he imagines it at least. Over the course of the story, as various unfortunate happenings overtake the other four Golden Ticket recipients — who are revealed to be child-sized approximations of the Seven Deadly Sins — we come to learn that while Charlie and his family were by far the most deserving of receiving a Golden Ticket, what would become of them in their adventure through the factory had nothing to do with anything conferred upon them by being in possession of the Ticket, and everything to do with who they already were when they first walked through Willy Wonka’s gates and into the factory, people they had been long before Charlie happened upon the 50-pence coin in the snow with which he bought the bar of chocolate that would — or so he believed — change his family’s destiny.
A college or university offer of admission is, in a sense, this same Golden Ticket that, in fact, is not a Golden Ticket. Granted, there are differences between how these are yielded — our admissions process, unlike Willy Wonka’s, is not random; it is careful and thorough, and our Admissions staff have put tremendous effort and heart into the assessment of your applications. As hard as you have worked to craft your cases for admission to Penn, they have worked just as hard to imagine what a place for you at Penn might look like, and they have done their best to conceive of how you might fit into the incoming class. There are many measures by which we determine fit — if you have not done so already, you can look at our website and at Dean Furda’s blog to learn more about how we look at applications — but chance has no place in our assessment of your potential fit for Penn.
However, where the analogy does converge is on the question of the person you were before and after opening your admissions decision and, perhaps, even before and after the submission of your application. Everything you currently are you already were, and this stays true of the moments before and after you open your portal and have your decision from us. And while a decision of Admit may grant you access to an exciting novelty of a world, this will not make or break your eventual destiny in the long term: it is who you are, and how that person interacts with the places in life in which they find themselves, that will ultimately determine what becomes of you. The decision you receive from us, then, reflects a fit for Penn that we believe is either there or not there, but it is in no way a reflection of your intrinsic value as a person — that was there to begin with, even before you put down the very first word of your Why Penn essays, and this intrinsic worth will remain long after this phase in your life passes, as all time does, into retrospect.
So as you receive your admissions decisions from Penn and other places, remember most of all that this is but one part of a life — we are honored that you found Penn to be among the places most worthy of your future contributions, but the fact that you find these contributions in yourself to make is the fact that is most important of all, irrespective of where you end up for your college years. This place inside you is what will determine your life’s weight and assessment — everything else are merely stops along the way, at which you alone will make the decisions for how your personal legacy plays out. Not us — and, critically, this remains true even for those of you for whom we bear happy news: your life’s greater narrative is, at day’s end, yours alone to author and create.
Charlie Bucket and his family go on to lead a marvelous life, but it is not explicitly because of the Golden Ticket — it is because of who they already were, perhaps somewhat hard-up and worn down by life, but fundamentally good and hardworking people who, despite the odds, held on to the tiniest pinch of hope that their lives might one day be different from what they currently were. Life then presented them with an opportunity, and they took the opportunity and gave it the same heart that they had always infused into their lives before Charlie opened the chocolate bar with the fifth ticket inside. By the time we find ourselves in the book’s final pages we have come to realize that Charlie and his family could have been given any one of many opportunities, and the same happy fate would have found them, precisely because of who they already were as people. We expect the same for you, too; and we hope that you, too, put the fullest of your heart into whatever comes next, be it Penn or elsewhere. For it is at the center of the manifestations of that heart, whether we are fortunate enough to be a part of your journey or not, in which you will go on to find your life.
We wish you every success in your future endeavors, whether at Penn or elsewhere.
“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of the dreams.”
Willy Wonka, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory