Mar 12, 2014
Why I Took A Gap Year
For most of high school, the US was just a vague blip on the radar of my imagination. My friends and I sometimes imagined what the experience of studying in the US would be like, but we spoke in the offhanded, dreamy tone people usually use to describe things like “winning the lottery” or “running for president”. I had read one of the MIT blogs once, stumbling onto Anna’s post, “Being Qualified for MIT”, but only with distant fascination, fascination because it was such good writing and MIT seemed like such an amazing place, distant because I didn’t seriously think that I could attend a university whose site I had stumbled onto from a friend’s Google search of “World’s Best Universities.”
And then one morning, towards the end of the first trimester of high school senior year, I was sitting in the library, studying for a Geography exam when someone ran up to me and said I had a package awaiting me in the secretary’s office.
I rarely received packages of any sort, so I was pretty curious. Not being a cat, I ran quickly to the office and seconds later, was tearing off DHL-branded tape from what appeared to be a thick file. The file was from the University of Pennsylvania, and inside I found several brochures, and a letter. The contents of the letter went along the lines of, “You seem like a pretty motivated student; you just might be the kind of student we’re looking for! We encourage you to seriously consider applying to Penn.”
It was the first time I had heard of Penn, and my mind hadn’t yet been cultured to the term “Ivy League” or anything of that sort. I knew nothing about the US admissions process, and hadn’t been searching, but the idea that a college thousands of miles away would send me mail of this heartwarming sort was unbelievable. I called my parents and more or less ranted about it. I was given rare access to the internet to find out more about Penn. I checked out the university’s website and Wikipedia page. I found CollegeConfidential links to angst-filled posts covering the spectrum of Penn from its prestige to its exclusivity.
I did try to think of why they had contacted me. I had taken the SAT nearly a year ago, but that had been routine process for my high school (which was partly owned by the Turkish Government), and only because a bunch of Turkish universities required the SAT. There had also been the AMC and AIME, which I think may have contained some random clause about sharing scores with universities and scholarship organizations. Regardless of the reason, I was glad some university out there seemed interested in me. Deadline was already fast approaching, so I hastily worked on my Common Application, and sent it to Penn within days of their mail. I also sent in my SAT scores and registered for the SAT Subject Tests.
I could barely wait the three months to find out the status of my application. In that time, I joined CollegeConfidential, and began to read more about Penn. I found old admit and reject threads and, for the first time since receiving the package, was daunted. My SAT score from 11th grade had been 2080. It was possibly the reason Penn had contacted me, and I was pretty fine with it. But then there were all these amazing scores…2350…2390…even perfect scores…getting rejected or waitlisted. And CollegeConfidential was full of pages upon pages of these drab stories, rejected applicants whose achievements transcended some exam to cover a host of truly amazing feats. It was my first real introduction to the holistic mechanism of the US admissions process, and it created a whirlpool of uncertainty.
Did Penn make a mistake? Did Penn really send me that package?
It was all I could do to balance my sanity between the fear precipitated by the high scores on the reject threads, and the glimmer of hope induced by the relatively lower scores on some parts of the admit threads. I went back to my application, and with some clarity of mind I must have gained in the past couple of weeks, cringed at some of my essays. To one of them asking why I wanted to be at Penn, I had started thus:
“I am one of several applicants aspiring to become a member of the prestigious UniPenn (!). To begin, I feel like the resources the university has to offer are unparalleled relative to anything I’ve seen before…”
Was this enough? Would this be enough?
It was a little while before Penn’s decision date when the results for the AMC12 contest were released, and I saw that I had placed at the 99th percentile worldwide, and had qualified to the AIME. I was pretty excited, and after a while, in a realm of elation separate from mere joy at this achievement, I realized that the news could also “boost my chances”. Excitedly, I sent an e-mail to one of the admissions officers that had contacted me some weeks back, informing him of the news. He replied a few days later, saying that it would be considered with the rest of my application.
March 29th, 2012 was a Thursday. Penn’s decision was hours away. The anxiety, the pure, crazy anxiety permeating the pages of CollegeConfidential was this charged cloud you could feel poking your sides. I was tense; I was crazy. I played the “will they-won’t they” game in my mind. I posted like crazy on CC, asking one of the common “What are my chances” post. Some said I had a decent shot but it was hard to tell. Others said everyone had a low shot. A few were highly cynical of the post itself. All these really just combined to feed the worry.
My friends were around me, and they had nothing but positive comments: “You’ll get in; it’s you!” and “They’ll be crazy to reject you!” I didn’t know what to think, but the closer the decisions came, the more encouraging my friends got, and from their words, a real glimmer of hope emerged.
You do have a chance, I told myself. Penn encouraged you to apply!
A while later, I was somehow standing beside my vice-principal while he logged onto Penn’s website. Drums banged in my chest and throat. Three close friends crowded behind me. I typed in my initials, my hands so shaky it took two tries to get the password right. And text suddenly appeared, text that read:
After careful review of your application, we are unfortunately unable to offer you admission into Penn’s class of 2016…”
My heart calmed. My body went very still. A friend behind me groaned and flung his books. I rose and said in a falsely nonchalant voice, “Well, I tried.” My friends mumbled words I didn’t really hear. I walked out of the office and sadness overwhelmed me.
The week following Penn’s rejection was long and slow. I was moody. Classes seemed to trudge. I realized that for the past four months, regardless of my fears regarding the Penn outcome, I had absentmindedly imagined myself as a student there, a Penn Quaker, soaking sun in the quad and screaming cheers in the Franklin Field. It didn’t seem fair. It didn’t seem right.
In the weeks that progressed however, what was left of school took over my mind. Writing stories took over my mind. Olympiad classes took over my mind. Penn faded.
I finally convinced myself that I’d been indulging in wishful thinking by imagining that I could study in the US. I decided to face my local exams and gain admission into an awesome Nigerian university. Admission into a Nigerian university is different and purely quantitative, depending on a combination of three necessary components—an exam called WAEC, taken by most West African High school students, a localized examination called JAMB and the concerned university’s own examination (usually called post-JAMB).
Due to great restriction on the number of Nigerian universities I could send my JAMB scores to, and a number of post-JAMB conflicts, I only really had one Nigerian university I could apply to, which of course depended on me passing its post-JAMB. So imagine my shock when, at a hotel in Amsterdam for the International Math Olympiad 2012, I decided to check the post-JAMB schedule and saw something quite interesting: the exam was set to take place in about five days. It was the beginning of IMO, and there was clearly no way I’d make it back to Nigeria in time. I spoke to my mom in distress about this, but in the sweet, soothing tone that parents often use, she assured me that I’d be fine.
Just shortly before graduation, my high school had held an annual Nigerian-Turkish cultural event. Activities bloomed throughout the day, with tasty food on standby for the hungry or tired. My mom came for the event, which was nice since I attended a pretty secluded boarding high school, and rarely got the chance to see her. Towards the end of the day, she made a friend called Mrs. Jimoke. As they chatted about the school, my mom told Mrs. Jimoke about most of the academic things I’d been up to, including taking the SAT. Mrs. Jimoke insisted that I reconsider applying to US universities, and gave my mom the contact information of one of her friends—Shade Adebayo—who worked in an educational sector of the United States Embassy.
So after I missed my post-JAMB and after it became clear that I would have to wait at least a few months before I could apply anywhere else, Shade insisted that I apply to US universities. At first I was reluctant, but I realized that a world of possibilities did exist out there, and even if Penn hadn’t accepted me, I could probably find some other institution that would. Shade, energetically, vehemently, believed so.
I consciously avoided considering extremely selective colleges, and did as much research as I could on the others. Since I was so far away, campus tours and admission information sessions were out of the question. I toured CC, read up several college-related books Shade let me borrow from the US Embassy. I went through websites and Wikipedia pages and more detailed places like Unigo. And I came upon UW-Madison. It had a strong engineering program and a campus that seemed to pulse with unique life. As I became more and more entrenched in UW-Madison, reading up its online newspapers, poring over CC threads, I realized an important difference in the way I was attached to UW-Madison and the way I had been attached to Penn. My obsession with Penn had stemmed from both the strange joy of being reached out to and the beauty of the idea that I could be an undergraduate there. I was overwhelmed by the sense of prestige it possessed and some awareness that it had amazing resources I felt I could only find in few other places. I merely had a general sense of what Penn could be for me, a generality that translated into my barely specific essays. But getting to consciously choose to apply to UW-Madison, I did so on the heels of a more developed sense of what the university and its culture were about. I applied for the Spring 2013 term and was accepted. I was speechless with joy when I saw the letter of acceptance. My parents were jubilant.
But of course, there was a problem.
UW-Madison did not offer aid to international students, and my parents would have to pay just a little over forty thousand dollars per year. They assured me that it wouldn’t be a problem, but my mom did wonder if I wanted to apply anywhere else. I was somewhat vehement about my choice of UW-Madison, having grown deeply attached to it, and she assured me that as long as I was sure, it was fine.
I spoke to Shade afterward. She told me something my mom had confided in her. My parents were willing to pay forty thousand dollars, but it was really money they didn’t have. They had begun contemplating possible assets they could sell to fork up some of the money, and the only reason they hadn’t divulged this to me had been a result of my endless excitement with the acceptance news. Shade told me that it would be worth it, absolutely worth it, if I could let UW-Madison go in favor of some university, any other university, that wouldn’t cost as much. Later that night, I sat alone in my room and thought of my parents’ willingness to sacrifice that much for my happiness. I thought of how my educational future, once bright and limitless, now seemed and felt infinitely more constrained. I was overwhelmed by weariness and a strange sense of loss. And so I sat on my bed and cried. I cried for a while, and my mom slipped into my room while I lay hunched over, just feeling deflated. She held me really close. She told me things would be alright. She told me that I would end up where I wanted and needed to be, and that she would walk to the ends of the Earth to secure my happiness. I believed her, every word. I held her closer.
The next day, I declined UW-Madison’s offer of acceptance.
And that’s the bulk of it. That’s why I took a gap year. I applied for the fall term to US universities. I meticulously compiled a small list, considering two important personal factors—cost and culture. Culture in the sense of its people, culture in the sense of energy, culture in the sense of challenge. I had spent most of high school taking extracurricular olympiad classes that pushed me to work late hours at night. I had felt most ingrained in the learning process when I raced with those challenges constantly, and especially with my classmates. I wanted an environment like that. I wanted an atmosphere built on merit and challenge and collaboration, one that could let me push myself, because I understood I could thrive there. I also needed a place I could afford.
I took the SAT for a second time, attaining a score of 2390. I wrote more, feverishly, stories and novellas and ultimately a novel. I spent that year primarily outside of classes, although I did do a few things like teaching and attempting to
burn down the kitchen cook. I grew closer to my family. I grew closer to myself. More clearly than ever, I began understanding what I wanted.
Princeton accepted me Early Action. Harvard rejected me. MIT accepted me on Pi Day, and I will never forget ten words that kept sinking into my mind when I saw that letter of acceptance: We think that you and MIT are a great match. I will never forget the sheer look of joy on my parents’ face when they saw the letter of acceptance and the immensely generous financial aid offer that had come with it. I will never forget them enclosing me, the world vanishing, for that moment of intimacy to take over, a moment that told me in no uncertain terms that things were fine. Things were good.
I’m not really going to talk about CPW or about making the choice of college in this blog post, because that’s not really what it’s about. I’ll tell you what I hope this post is about.
It’s about the frightening rollercoaster that the college application is. This process is merely more than just typing up words and hitting a ‘submit’ button. You’re sending away, with each application, a little investment of emotions, and a little bit of life that washes into some machinery and potentially shapes the next four years. Yes, the applications are important, and yes, it’s alright to be invested. If this is about where you will spend a good chunk of your life, I daresay it’s necessary to be invested.
But at the same time, you’ll need to distance yourself from the process a bit. Care about it but not to the extent that it intricately wraps itself around your self-worth. For colleges as deeply selective as MIT, there’s a lot out of your control, and regardless of what that letter you see on Pi Day says, it really won’t matter in the long run. If it’s a yes, congratulations. You’ve been given a great opportunity. MIT deeply believes in you. If it’s a no, that’s fine. It’s not a declaration of your worth; it’s not MIT saying that you don’t belong; it’s not a testament to some kind of skewed outlook your future will take. A long time ago, I did all the wrong things. I worried about the little details and applied without a true sense of what I was applying for. I tried to put greater meaning into “scores” and “stats” than they really held. I was obsessed with “getting in” to the point that it somehow became the center of my daily thoughts. And when rejection did come, I was stunned and upset. I felt denied of some deserved right, when it was really more privilege than right.
Genuinely care about the places you apply to, and if you do find that a certain college has no room for you at this point in time, then I’ll tell you what my mom told me: you will be fine. Penn’s rejection tore me down, but if I’d known then what I know now, not about where I would end up, but about how I can rise above a letter of rejection, I’d have handled it a whole lot better. And I do want you to know. With tenacity of will, the future will shape itself to suit you and your inner strength. Life delights in throwing stumbling blocks. But where wounds may be inflicted, scars heal and strength grows.
Another thing I hope this post is about: time, people. The people that have been there with you from the get-go, the friends that you made in high school, the parents that have held you close and whispered assurances; they’ve forged themselves into your life before now, and they will for a long, long time. Every step of the way that led to MIT, for every rejection and acceptance and moment of uncertainty, I had friends and family who wiped away my tears when tears came and held me high when joy arrived. Time with the people we love is a truly beautiful gift. Consider the extent of the things they have done and could do, will do, for you, and learn to appreciate them every day.
Life is much bigger than what will happen soon, more unpredictable than whatever signs that hang in your mind try to suggest. For now, try not to fret. Keep doing the things you love. Keep writing. Keep playing trombones. Keep making slam-dunks. Keep singing. Keep watching your favorite TV shows. Keep laughing. And keep the people you love close to you.
I took a gap year out of necessity. At the time, it felt like the worst thing that could happen. It felt too long and the question of where I would end up seemed very subject to chance. But I kept living. I kept pushing forward. And somehow, I’m here right now, typing from a place that had once felt too large to be a dream.
Whatever happens in the next couple of days, you will find that you do have the strength to keep living, that you will be where you need to be, and that you will thrive. Don’t overanalyze the steps leading to that point. Some things you just can’t predict.
And even though it may not always feel like it, trust me. You’ll be fine.