Winter break of 1996 was just about the most stressful time in my high school career. I had applied early to Harvard and gotten deferred. With my own students I now liken the early application deadline of November 1 as the headwall of the admissions season hurricane. It is followed by a mid-cycle lull, the eye of the storm, until early decisions come out mid-December. I always warn them that if they don’t work hard during the relative calm of this period, they are likely to get blown violently when the full force of the hurricane arrives on the January 1 regular deadline. Of course, in the vein of my current students, I did not follow this advice. Like them, I waited until Dec. 15, or more like Dec. 26, to get started in earnest on my regular application essays and supplements.
I was applying to only six schools: Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Georgetown, Middlebury, and Columbia. A fairly primitive version of the Common App had just been introduced, but it was all done by paper, with the consumer internet only in its nascent stages. My handwriting resembled that of a third grader, and my dad’s secretary was thus roped into typing my applications on an old-fashioned typewriter.
I remember surprisingly little about the essays I wrote that vacation. One that sticks out was a letter to my future Stanford roommate in which I described the truly artful way I intended to neglect my dorm room: “used socks draped over empty pizza boxes,” and the like. My main common app essay was a dangerously cliché “trip essay” about the summer after my junior year, which I spent renovating a pow-wow grounds in Little Eagle, SD on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, an area that catapulted to fame during a 2015 pipeline dispute. I framed my overwrought reflection using Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Despite the enormous stress that only procrastination can create, the deadline pressure of Jan. 1 got me to perform, as it always does.
And if I can put on my college counselor hat for a moment, I think that’s just a fundamental reality we have to acknowledge. Some people can (or think they can) only perform with massive deadline pressure. And that’s ok. If this is your MO, and you have experienced success with it, forgive yourself for waiting until the 11th hour. Just be ready to bear the brunt of a stressful winter break and trust me when I tell you: there is another, much less stressful way.
Back to my story. When the admissions decisions finally came back in March, I went 3-1-2, with acceptances to Middlebury, Columbia, and Georgetown, a rejection from Princeton, and wait lists at Harvard and Stanford. I did my due diligence by visiting the schools where I was accepted and ultimately decided to deposit at Georgetown, where I hoped my budding interest in the Arab world might lead to a career in diplomacy or international business. In May of 1996, I got a call from the Harvard admissions office offering me a spot in the following year’s class of 2001. The stipulation was that during my gap year I could not do anything for academic credit. I was encouraged to explore the world and thus widen the aperture of my experience. This practice, which was dubbed Z-listing in a recent lawsuit, is one of those hidden back doors into elite colleges often reserved for legacies. And yes, I fully acknowledge my white privilege.
I had been planning to take a gap year anyway, so this decision was like manna from heaven. Years later, I believe I discovered the source of my deferral→waitlist→z-list odyssey, when, searching through my Harvard application at the registrar’s office to pass out of some core requirement, I found the recommendation letter from my 11th grade English teacher. One word was circled in red: immature. She had a bit too honestly reflected on my behavior on the JV tennis team. I have often remembered this story when wordsmithing my own recommendation letters.
Taking a gap year, which I will chronicle in a future essay, was transformative and probably one of the single most important decisions of my life. All this is to say that this whole admissions thing has a way of working itself out. I am sure my parallel life if I had ended up at Georgetown would have led to an exciting career, as it did for my two St. Mark’s classmates who became Hoyas, comedian Mike Birbiglia and screenwriter Jordan Nardino. But ultimately, in the words of my spiritual mentor Abdul Badi, “Do your best, and Allah will take care of the rest.” Your college acceptances (and rejections) don’t determine your worth, you do. And if I could go back to that uber stressful winter break of 1996, I’m not sure I’d change a thing.