My interests have always been all over the place. When I was little, I wanted to be a novelist and a scientist and a poet and an actress and… I eventually realized I couldn’t do everything at once. In middle school, I finally settled on being a scientist. The logical next step was for me to attend my district’s science and tech magnet high school, SST.
Some background trivia about SST: first, it was tiny. The entire school was composed of 180 students and 8 teachers. Second, it’s consistently one of the top high schools in Oregon. Third, joining a club was mandatory – instead of homeroom, we had a chunk of time in the middle of the day for clubs to meet.
After trying out a few clubs as a freshman, I found myself joining Science Bowl (a competition akin to science-themed Jeopardy). The upperclassmen in charge of the club had an impressive breadth of knowledge, and I loved learning the concepts behind each question. One student in particular, Paul, captured my attention; he had a serious knack for explaining complicated science in simple terms.
His talent had applications far beyond our little club. That year, he and his optical engineering project raked in science fair awards. Paul didn’t just make it to the biggest high school science fair in the world – he won.
At such a small school, information (okay, gossip) spread instantaneously. Everyone knew that Paul was easily the most impressive student in the entire district, and everyone wanted to know where he’d go for college. My fellow sophomores and I paid such close attention to Paul’s application process that he practically did our research for us.
The big-name schools like Harvard and Princeton weren’t a surprise, but I’ll admit, I didn’t know about Caltech until Paul mentioned it was one of his top choices. Olin was another total unknown that jumped to prominence; a tiny college that was barely two years old at the time, it was trying to build name recognition with the most promising high school students by offering a completely free education. This was the sort of high-risk, high-reward proposition that kept us hooked on Paul’s college saga.
As my sophomore year ticked by, Paul started receiving invitations to jet around the country and get acquainted with each college he’d been accepted to. Listening to him describe his experiences at various visit weekends gave me an idea of each college’s personality, the sort of intangible quality you can’t pick up from a website.
After receiving offers of admission from every school he applied to (except the Air Force Academy – he couldn’t run a mile quick enough), Paul ultimately chose Caltech. And after hearing his reasons – the people, the environment, the unmatched quality of the physics program – Caltech became my top choice, too.
(Well, one of my top choices. I actually couldn’t decide whether I wanted to study physics or some type of engineering, so Olin tied with Caltech on my final college list.)
I knew I couldn’t be sure I’d get into either school, and this is usually the step in the college application process where you begin to pad your list with a bunch of similarly-competitive schools to increase the odds of getting accepted somewhere ‘good’. Heck, one girl in my year applied to the top 27 colleges on US World & News Report’s list, including a couple of all-girls schools she’d never want to attend.
But here’s the thing: despite (what I now realize was) a very impressive portfolio of achievements, I wasn’t positive I was actually qualified to go to a top school. I would have preferred to just trust the admissions staff at MIT or Stanford… but Affirmative Action made that, in my mind, impossible. My mom is Mexican, and I’d consider it a bit of a betrayal to leave the ‘Hispanic’ box unchecked on an application. At the same time, I wanted to be sure that any college that accepted me was doing so because I was objectively a good fit – not because I’d help them hit their diversity targets.
Paul was also half-Mexican (he really was a great role model for me), but unlike Paul, I didn’t have an ISEF win under my belt. There was no single quality I could point to that proved I, and not my demographics, had earned admission.
To the best of my knowledge, both Caltech’s and Olin’s admissions processes were race-blind, but all similar schools practiced AA. If I couldn’t get into either of my dream schools, I knew I’d be second-guessing myself for the next four years at any other highly selective school.
Of course, I wasn’t cocky enough to only apply to a couple of the literal best science and engineering schools in the country; I needed to pick a safety school.
Finding a safety was, in some ways, more complicated than choosing my dream schools. After attending such a small high school, I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable anywhere with more than about five thousand undergrads, which eliminated some great state schools. And I couldn’t just use Paul’s safeties as a starting point – if he ever talked about that part of his college list, I tuned it out.
My high school wasn’t entirely unhelpful. All juniors were taken on field trips to nearby colleges in Oregon and Washington, and while none of the schools struck my fancy (okay, I’ll admit I was really tempted by Reed when I found out they had a nuclear reactor), the trips solidified my idea of what I wanted in a college. (The moment I realized I couldn’t go to a non-STEM-focused school: when the Reed student who gave the tour didn’t know about their reactor.)
So, I applied my criteria – fun student body, small, research- or project-oriented – to a list of good science and engineering schools, and finally settled on Harvey Mudd College. I didn’t see the point in applying to any other schools in that tier; if I didn’t get into Caltech or Olin, I was set on HMC. And barring a serious misstep in an application essay, my extracurriculars and text scores definitely qualified me for Harvey Mudd.
Just in case something went catastrophically wrong, I started an application for Oregon State University, which (at the time) guaranteed admission to any Oregon student with a high enough GPA or SAT score. I never actually finished the application; OSU’s deadline was well after I heard back from the other schools.
Doubt set in, of course. My best friend (who applied to ten schools) sat on the phone through more than one “I’m not going to get in anywhere!” stress session. Oh, and this was back when Caltech, Olin, and Harvey Mudd only sent paper decisions. Why was this such a big deal? Because the thinner, cheaper rejection envelopes were sent via USPS, while the bulky acceptance folders were delivered by FedEx. Seriously, I had a small heart attack every time a USPS truck stopped at my house.
Caltech accepted me. Olin waitlisted me, but did an about-face and offered me admission before I’d had the chance to respond to Caltech. Harvey Mudd included a handwritten note with my acceptance letter that made me feel absolutely terrible about declining their offer. OSU even accepted my half-finished, transcript-less application, which is why I say I applied to four schools and not three.
I won’t deny there was some luck involved. When I submitted my applications, I could only guess at my actual odds of admission; the line between measured confidence and arrogance is a fine one. I also had more self-imposed restrictions than many seniors, which made it easy to refuse to apply to a fifth or a tenth school.
All that said… I still think the moral of my college application story is that your list doesn’t need to include every place you might be happy. Just the places you’d be happiest.