Two years ago, on the first of November, I sat at the dinner table with my parents and toasted to the culmination of 17 years of existence.
Nov. 1 is not my day of birth, nor is it a day that has any modicum of biographical significance. It was, however, the day my restrictive early application deadline was due.
Deeming that day as the culmination of my existence might seem controversial, indecent even. But at that moment, it certainly felt like it. My entire life lay before me then — compressed into one table and a string of paragraphs. I had condensed disparate interests into an extracurricular “theme,” psychologically probed the wellspring of my deepest passions and tested the mettle of my intellectual curiosity.
In the days between my application and my acceptance five months later, I was haunted by the word “crapshoot.” It adopted various avatars — the pre-emptive commiseration of a well-wisher trying to soften the blow of rejection, the bilious proclamation of a cynic rejecting collegiate meritocracy, the ignorant suggestion of an underclassman regurgitating the mantra of their seniors.
Clearly, the collegiate process worked in my favour. I was one of the lucky ones, the blessed few chosen to “hobnob” with sons of senators, celebrities and ambassadors. So, I understand it might seem privileged, arrogant even, to defend the process that led me here.
Although I find it hard to call the system completely broken, of course I agree it is irrevocably bent. It is colored by privilege and swayed by influence as it trudges on the path to an equity with which we can be satisfied. But the inequity of college admissions is neither equivocal nor the point I am trying to dispute. I am more concerned with the notion that the filtration of top applicants is entirely aleatory.
If my metric is simply the merit or the disposition of my classmates, I find myself reassured. In my limited experience of the Yale student body, I have found myself inspired by people who are as talented as they are committed to the idea of community. Of course, the community too is flawed. And yet, it seems everyone you meet at a class, or at a socially-distant Halloween gathering, has some Yale factor — that niche talent, that diversity of abilities or that radical individuality that must have come through on paper. How, then, can the system be a complete crapshoot?
The logical question you will pose, then, is that if the system works, it must be underpinned by some thread of reasoning, some tangible criteria. What is that Yale factor that admissions counselors look for? What makes you worthy of this school, or any of the other most selective institutions in the nation?
I do not purport to be an admissions counselor, nor an expert on college admissions. But I think the answer is exactly what we are told when we apply to schools like Yale. That this is a holistic process, that they care as much about why we do what we do as a list of achievements. That personality counts. And that the process is holistic.
The sounds of this sound advice are often drowned out by the stampede that rushes to get their foot in the narrowing door to an Ivy League. I, too, scoffed at the word “holistic” when it was shoved down my throat at every college tour. If only I had listened closer, I would have heard the subtext — intentionality.
It matters why knitting, rehabilitating refugees or financial economics is your raison d’etre, not just that it is. And that is clear when you talk to a Yale student about their ikigai: their eyes sparkle, their very eyes light up, their soul clearly overflows. And if they’re able to transfer even a fraction of that passion, and the reason for that passion, onto essays, recommendations, supplements and the multiple modalities of the admissions process, they’re probably better placed than most.
Of course, this itself is problematic. If the key to the college admissions process is that intangible, that illusory — a spark in your eye, a skip in your step — how are we to trust it? How are applicants meant to fit a passion that transcends words within the constraints of crude language? What about people who are not endowed with linguistic brilliance? Won’t they be disfavoured at the benefit of brilliant writers with hollow, empty souls?
That is the stumbling block of the college admissions process. Like adaptation, writing is interpretive, and can certainly embellish enthusiasm upon the advice of an astute admissions officer, just as it can vitiate passion with poor word choice. However, faking passion simultaneously in essays, recommendations that you cannot see, interviews and activity lists that are only so subjective, is probably harder than one might think. The process does fail sometimes, but its heart is in the right place.
And then, the point that there are more qualified applicants than seats to fill. That, I fear, I cannot rationalize away. I must confront that in the eyes, admit defeat to a world that is far too competitive for collective merit to completely flourish. However, I have faith that among the eight institutions that a top applicant might apply to, at least one will see that sparkle in their eye, that Yale factor.
For high school students, I hope this is reassuring — that if your heart is in the right place, with a lot of hard work and as much luck the odds may be more in your favour than you are led to believe. And for Yalies, I hope this can be a palliative to the imposter syndrome that arises from the debilitating question, “do I really deserve to be here?” Because if the process that led you here was a crapshoot, it was probably less crappy than you think.
PRADZ SAPRE is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin college. His column, titled ‘Growing pains’, runs every other Monday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.