HOLMES: Consider the crapshoot

My favorite story about ending up at Yale involves a tattoo and a bet. Senior year in high school, my friend’s chemistry teacher, in a somewhat last-ditch attempt to convince my friend to apply to Yale, offered her a wager: If you’re accepted, we’ll get matching tattoos. My friend now jokes how the delicate ink “Y” on her ankle casts her off as some angsty philosopher, but to me, it represents her most admirable qualities — complete humility combined with openness for anything.

A little more than a week ago, high school senior Suzy Lee Weiss published a supposed satire in The Wall Street Journal criticizing the college admissions process. Her piece was largely a knee-jerk reaction to her rejection from several Ivy League colleges, Yale among them. Hearing from current high school students always unearths my willfully buried memories of senior fall, of falling asleep over calc homework while still in shin guards, of three-bite breakfasts, of looming college deadlines. The stress of college applications has a sinister ability to consume, and we’ve all served due time as its fodder.
What I struggle to sympathize with, however, is the expectation of acceptance that seemed to underlie her tirade.

I didn’t want to apply to Yale. I just didn’t think I would get in. I’d witnessed the deferrals and rejections of previous classmates with better grades and far sexier activities than mine, and I assumed their fortunes plainly spelled out my own.

While my dad did not offer to get a tattoo with me if I got into Yale, he did urge me to apply early. For a while, I refused to even field his opinion, rebutting that I didn’t want my first letter to be a rejection. But my mom and dad, as they always have, thought that I had as good a chance as anyone — I was, after all, their daughter. And I probably couldn’t have had it any easier; I also attended a pretentious prep school and had a college counselor who guided me through the whole process.

I wanted to make my parents happy, so I applied. As I waited, I focused on finishing up my more realistic applications while my parents started secretly picturing themselves in blue. On the day early decisions were announced, I tried to postpone my forthcoming grumpiness until a friend of mine sat me down in front of her computer and wouldn’t let me go until I checked. It took us 30 minutes to find the right link, but somehow it paid off.

Few of those currently at Yale expected to be admitted. I have friends here who were rejected, in rapid-fire succession, from five other schools before Yale took them in. Many were the first to apply from their high school, while an incredible number navigated the process without help from parents or counselors. Others applied here on a whim, on a dream or on a bet.

Once on campus, there are of course those people who stroll about with the sense that they are “entitled” to be here, whether due to legacy, money or some numerical marker of intelligence. But for me and most of the people I’ve met at Yale, we spent the first few weeks wondering how we’d wound up here — where students were experimenting with both vodka and stem cells, writing plays for theater festivals and creating smartphone apps faster than I can read Mockingjay.

These feelings of befuddlement and awe, of being a scruffy stray among sleek Great Danes, persists well beyond freshman fall. Most of us are continually seeking means to confirm our right to be here, up until the day we graduate, because we know that throughout the grand college crapshoot, our SAT scores determine about as much as our bowel movements.

In her piece, Weiss exalts such “killer SAT scores” and bemoans her lack of diversity. She says that colleges don’t want to hear about how you worked at the local pizza shop or were the slowest on your cross-country team. But it’s always been my understanding that admissions officers don’t care whether you write about counting change or curing chimps, as long as you show the capacity to think and reflect on your experience.

These days, applying to Ivies is like playing the slot machine. You’d probably agree to get a tat if the cherries lined up, right? You might well deserve to be here, but you can’t forget how lucky you are — because that’s just it. Beyond a certain point, it’s nothing more than luck.

Tao Tao Holmes is a junior in Branford College. Contact her at taotao.holmes@yale.edu.

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