I made my second call to someone in my alumni network. The young lady I spoke with is a first year student in one of my dream programs–and the way that she described the school confirmed that it’s a place I’d like to be. I think that the most valuable aspect of my call with her–which resulted in another referral, this time to an admissions officer–was the way it has caused me to self-reflect on who I am, what I value, and what I think I’m worth and can do in life. My call with Career Services had already left me a little shaky (“your target schools are a stretch”)–and this call, only a few hours later, served to confirm my self-consciousness. Like, who do I think I am to think I can go to a top five business school in the world? The beauty of this question is that I’m the one who gets to answer it.
ARE YOU GOOD ENOUGH?
On this particular call, it all started when I asked if there was someone in particular she thought I should speak with in the admissions office. “A warm intro,” Sarah (we’ll call her Sarah) affirmed, “is always better than a cold touch.” She kindly offered to write an email introduction for me. I heard her on her computer, clicking away as she found the email address she needed, and then said: “Ugh, oh, man. I feel so rude.” Pause. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to ask. I don’t want to refer you if you’re not a strong candidate.” I reassured her that she should ask away and that I totally get it. (I do! I’m asked to refer people all the time in my business.)
“I’m sorry,” she apologized again, “but how were your grades at Reed?”
I laughed. “I’m happy to share,” I told her, and gave her my GPA. “Oh,” Sarah said, returning to her chipper voice again, “okay, great.” And started typing again. Click, click, click, click. And then: the low, apologetic voice came out again: “I’m sorry, man, I feel like such a jerk, but I just need to know… have you ever been fired? Long periods of unemployment?” I laughed again. “Great question,” I said. “Nope, never. I’ve been employed ever since graduating from school.” “Great!” she said, and started clicking away again on her keyboard. Long pause. “Ummm, one more question. Any activities at Reed?” She’d already shared she’d sat on the study body senate at Reed. Was I as cool? No, but I’d been a house adviser, latin tutor, member of Model UN, participant in Ethics Bowl, writer for our student newspaper, radio host, and volunteer mentor for at-risk youth. “Good!” she said. More typing. Then: “Any internships?” (I happen to know that she did two during her summers in between Reed years). “No,” I said. “That’s okay,” Sarah said, a little disappointed, but like she was trying to reassure me.
I felt like I regretted that. Like I’d lacked initiative. Imagination. Drive. No internships!? But then I remembered that I depended upon the income from my summer nannying gig in order to make it through college. My parents, bless their hearts, had given me a small and finite amount of money that was only good towards a small fraction of my tuition. FAFSA had decided that my parents could afford to give me much, much more than that; Reed had awarded me a nice Merit Scholarship (proportionate to the FAFSA); and I had to take out student loans to fund the majority of my tuition. Already anxious and feeling crushed by the amount of debt I was quickly accumulating, I decided to fund my living expenses each year by working as a full-time, live-in summer nanny. I supplemented my meager pool of summer-gained money by working part-time at the Reed College library during the year. Maybe it was one of those funny beliefs I should have challenged, but at the time I thought that most internships were unpaid and that I couldn’t afford to do something so cool. I thought I had to work. I was so poor at Reed. So incredibly poor. It was hard to eat, hard to clothe myself, hard to pay the rent, hard to travel home to NC, and hard to donate my time to good causes. (Note on that: I took a year off in 2006 and traveled to Costa Rica and Nicaragua for a month. I thought it would be really cool to volunteer at a turtle rescue project on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast or to volunteer at a children’s school while on Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. I was shocked to learn that they wouldn’t accept my help unless I could also bring a significant portion of cash–and I was trying to survive on $10 a day. Volunteering my time to a good cause–or an unpaid internship–seemed financially impossible.)
Business schools want you to know who you are. What you value more than anything. The “gatekeeper” at Stanford talks about how the admissions process should be about self-discovery more than anything. The best application is the one that you might never turn in, the one containing essays you would never let your friends or family read. It should be that intensely real and personal.
When I introspect, I’m a person who seeks out challenges and trials because I believe in pushing my comfort zone. What’s life worth living if you’re not growing? I used to be a bit reckless in this (skydiving! trips into the jungle without a map! getting caught in a forest fire! navigating my way through alpine bogs without a compass! swimming in shark-infested waters!). I have since learned that I value life, my self, and my relationships with others far too much to be so thoughtless and stupid. In fact, a recent TAIS assessment pegged me as “risk averse.” Could it be that I’ve changed so much? Perhaps I’ve since learned to pick the challenges that I know will push me hard and fast but won’t break me.
Other times life threw me curve balls that I never thought I wanted but learned to deal with: I had a really rough teenage-hood, almost died from a pulmonary embolism when I was 22, and developed (and cured! thanks to real, good food) a debilitating autoimmune disease. At one point in time I could no longer type or hold up a water glass. Thank god those days are gone, and may they never come back; but it’s given me such an appreciation for what I have–and so much empathy for those traveling a path of “adversity.” (I put that in quotations because I think that every “curse” has a lesson if not also a blessing.) My brother asked me yesterday: “Do you ever think about if you couldn’t hold a coffee mug?” Yes, I can say, yes I do. Can I imagine life in a wheelchair? Absolutely. I spent a week in one after stepping on coral in Hawaii and contracting a life-threatening foot infection that left me delirious and unable to walk. I’ve been there.
My life has taught me to be the type of person who knows how to take a low, a real low, and be thankful for it because I come out the other side wiser, stronger, and smarter than ever before. I’m one of those people who could be really bitter. I’m not. I’m happy. Open. Loving. I also have an incredible will, a strong sense of self, and a certain stubbornness and headstrong nature that used to give my mother a headache. I picked Reed after Loren Pope, author of Colleges That Change Lives, described it as “the most intellectual college in the country” and because a former student told me that Reed “will teach you how to think and kick your ass.” And that it did. My acceptance letter was sitting on the kitchen counter and my mother told me I couldn’t go. That I couldn’t move across the nation. That I couldn’t afford the tuition. That I was crazy. Maybe I am crazy, but I knew what I wanted and I went after it.
I’m the type of girl who picks the biggest hill she can find and climbs it. In fact, I’ve done just that: In 2006 I conquered one of Backpacker Magazine’s top twelve hardest trails: “The Famous Nutbuster of Upper Slickrock Creek Wilderness.” Widely regarded as the hardest trail in the Southeast, it caused one male commenter on this forum to openly weep. Part of a 21.7 mile loop, this 2 mile section of mountain ascends straight up hill through a forest of rhododendrons. I was carrying 40 pounds on my back and it was not easy. Reaching pure vertical heights at times (think finding handholds to climb up boulder faces) and offering switchbacks as a sort of condolence for my efforts, I took it ten steps at a time. I was surprised at how angry I got. Why am I on this trail!? Why is this so freakin’ hard!? Turns out that this hardest trail is a fantastic metaphor for me as I embark on this MBA journey. Maybe my numbers won’t make me look like a solid candidate for a Stanford or Berkeley or MIT, but don’t underestimate me or my spirit–and I won’t either. Yesterday, while practicing basic long division, I found myself angry that I had made stupid adding and subtracting mistakes along the way to screw up the answer. How could you screw up basic subtraction!? Where’s your brain!? I expect to experience a lot of strong emotions along this journey (and a lot of vertical boulder faces), but I’ve learned something very important in my life of risk, trial, and accomplishment: Take it ten steps at a time.