I think I woke up around noon on Jan. 3, the day of Caltech’s regular decision deadline. I hadn’t even looked at the essay prompts until the night before. I was such a lazy piece of you-know-what back then.
I had instead spent all my time focusing on the “best” schools, as decided by my family and various online rankings.
Hint: they were HYPSM.
Spoiler: I got rejected.
I must have spent several weeks on the essays I submitted to those HYPSM schools. Many days consisted of staring out of Starbucks windows and contemplating essay topics like the super deep, intelligent, philosophical teenager I was. I camped out in various Paneras, and carefully assembled and reassembled my essays word by word. Here some figurative language, there an insightful epiphany. Maybe throw in a Nietzsche quote for good measure.
What a mistake that was.
“Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way,” asked Princeton.
I said Mark Cuban because of all his successful business deals, and something about how Shark Tank is a pretty dope show.
Maybe if I hadn’t tried so hard to sound smart and professional, I would have said Celaena Sardothien from Throne of Glass, the scarred yet beautiful queen of the underworld, vicious assassin, and fearless heir to the throne of Terrasen.
“Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development,” asked Stanford.
I said nihilism, and something about how knowing that we are but specks of dust on a rock suspended in an infinite and empty universe allows me to take more risks in life.
Maybe if I hadn’t tried so hard to sound deep and mature, I would have talked about how playing Block Dude in middle school math class every day instead of listening inspired me to program my own calculator games.
“How have you improved the lives of others in your community?” asked MIT.
I said volunteering in a hospital because seeing the smiles on patients’ faces was the greatest feeling in the world, and something about the importance of paying it forward in my community.
*Triple doubleplusungood cringe*
Maybe if I hadn’t tried so hard to sound thoughtful, I would have talked about the funny ways I dealt with downvote trolls as a Reddit moderator.
But here’s the thing: those essays weren’t badly written. Even when I read them now, I find them quite eloquent.
They just weren’t exciting, because they just weren’t me. And it was very obvious that they were the result of a stressed high-schooler trying too hard to impress an admissions committee. I spent so much time worrying about what to write about I ended up convincing myself that the genuine stories I wanted to tell were not appropriate — not what they wanted to hear. So I didn’t tell them. I wish I did.
Looking back now, I realize that maybe spending only a few (albeit stressed) hours on my Caltech application was a good decision after all. It couldn’t have been a coincidence that, for the two reach schools that accepted me, I had started both their applications on the day they were due. When I pulled up the essays I submitted to those schools, I noticed something they had in common:
They were all weird. They were all funny.
When you only have two hours to crank out a 200-plus word essay, you pretty much have to run with the first idea that comes to mind. And there’s a good chance that the first idea will be the one you are most excited about. And there’s an even better chance that it will be written, especially if you’re under pressure, with a type of raw sincerity you never thought would sound so good on paper.
Case in point: one of Caltech’s supplemental essays asked me to “please describe an unusual way in which you have fun.”
If I were left to my own devices for a month to ponder this prompt, I might have written something about how fun it is to teach middle school kids Python, which, to be honest, isn’t false — it just doesn’t capture the kind of spontaneous, weird person I really am. Thankfully, I didn’t have the time to think away my weirdness.
What I did think of was the time my best friend and I went to Walmart with a list of dares we found on Twitter. I walked around with a pair of Batman panties on my head, while she verbally abused the patio furniture in front of a bunch of confused customers.
(We got kicked out.)
“How do you believe Caltech will best fuel your intellectual curiosity and help you meet your goals?”
If I had a few weeks, I might have done enough research to namedrop a few professors, rave about the strength of their computer science programs, and come up with a compelling story about all my professional goals. But I didn’t have those few weeks, so I told them the unembellished, wholehearted truth:
I said I have no idea what I want to do in life.
All I knew was that I liked making calculator games and explosions and wanted to participate in the bread-throwing, water-dumping congregations otherwise known as Caltech house dinners.
As it turns out, being yourself actually works. Shocker, I know. Colleges really do want to like you for you.
I wouldn’t advise anyone to do as I did and start their college applications the day they are due. If I could do everything again, you bet I would have avoided all the stress it induced.
I also don’t mean to say that Mark Cuban, nihilism, and hospital volunteering are bad topics — if they resonate with you, then you do you. They just weren’t me.
But what I shouldn’t have done was trying way too hard to manufacture something likeable for those HYPSM schools that, even after many weeks of edits, still doesn’t compare to what I had written emotionally in a few hours. I should have just gone with the first weird and funny idea that came to mind like the weird and funny (I swear!) person I am, but instead I needed a little something called last-minute panic to force it out of me.
Do I have any regrets now? Actually, not a single one. My “mistakes” eventually landed me where I fit best, a place that liked me for the sincerest version of me: last-minute me.
To high school seniors: I just hope that you don’t have to make any of my mistakes to find that place.
Story by Michelle Fan originally published in CollegeVine’s Zen blog September 23, 2016.