Feature image from admissions.caltech.edu.
Xuan and I were top students at our high school; he took a ridiculous courseload and made it to ISEF, I aced standardized tests and ran clubs. Our college application lists naturally had a lot of overlap, which we thought was great – we helped each other come up with unique responses to Caltech’s short-answer prompts and argued over who would get to use Garamond and who got stuck with Perpetua for our resumes. Olin was my dream school, so I signed up for their mailing list and scoured every e-mail looking for anything that might boost my chances of getting in. When I read that an Olin recruiter would be in town conducting interviews, I immediately reserved a spot and let Xuan know.
Through pure chance, our interviews were scheduled an hour apart. My mom and I showed up at the hotel just as Xuan’s interview ended, so we chatted over dinner while waiting for my turn. It was pitch black outside by the time the recruiter was ready for me; when my mom heard that Xuan was planning to take public transit home, she insisted on giving him a ride. Even with waiting for my interview to finish, driving would be faster.
We were comparing interview answers on the ride back when Xuan’s phone rang. The conversation was in Chinese, and when I asked Xuan to translate, he looked uncomfortable.
“My mom was just asking why I was so late.”
“You talked for way too long. What else did she say?”
“Uh…” he glanced nervously at my mom. “I’ll tell you later.”
We talked on the phone later that night, and Xuan gave a more complete overview of the conversation.
“I said your mom was driving me home, and she said, ‘The 2400 girl? Why was she there?!’”
I stopped him. “Wait, you told your mom my SAT score?” My friends and family had made a huge deal out of my score, but this was the first time I’d heard it used as a nickname. I felt weird being condensed into a number.
“Well, yeah. She thought my friends were a bad influence, so I figured she’d be happy about it.”
“She doesn’t sound happy…”
“Um…” Xuan didn’t sound happy either. “So I said you also had an Olin interview, and she asked how you found out about it, and I said you were actually the one who told me…”
“Yeah, because I’m a good influence, right?”
“… And then she said ‘Oh, so she’s better than you that way, too.’” From how Xuan said it, it was pretty clear this wasn’t a compliment.
We were both silent for a few seconds. “But why does your mom hate me? I’ve never even met her!”
Xuan sighed. “She asked me what schools you were applying to, and I said pretty much the same as me. Now she’s convinced you’re going to take my spot everywhere.”
And my mom just wanted you to get home safely. I lay in bed with the phone resting against my face, at a loss for words. That was our unspoken fear throughout the college application process: that one of us would completely outshine the other. Our collaboration sat in the unstable equilibrium of a prisoner’s dilemma, and it sounded like Xuan’s mom didn’t trust me to keep cooperating.
She shouldn’t have worried; we got into every school we both applied to. At graduation, Xuan’s mom smiled brightly and shook my hand. I guess it’s easy to be friends once everyone’s past the finish line.