Submitting my early action application to Harvard, I felt a momentary surge of pure exhilaration as I realized, “I’m done! There’s nothing else I can do.” This of course was followed by the sinking feeling of, “Oh my God, that’s it. There’s nothing else I can do!”
It was November 1st, 2001, and I still had nine more applications to finish by January 1st. Even though I’d get the decision from Harvard on December 15th, I wasn’t going to give myself only two weeks to finish the other applications. (Scrambling to finish your regular decision applications while dealing with the crushing blow of rejection will take years off your life. Seriously. I’ve seen it first hand.) A big part of me was anticipating rejection, too. Acceptance rates were in the single digits and falling, and I was painfully aware that thousands of qualified applicants get denied from top colleges every year.
December 15th was a cold, dreary day in New Jersey. For the first time in history, Harvard would be emailing admissions decisions. Smartphones didn’t exist and I didn’t have a cellphone, so I had to run to the library in between classes to check my CompuServe account (bonus points if you’ve ever heard of that prehistoric internet service). By 2 p.m., my inbox was still empty. When the final bell rang an hour later, I went outside to wait for an activity bus to take me to a swim meet. While the rest of the school was gathered in the steamy auditorium for the Winter Pep Rally, I was standing outside shivering, not even from the cold.
“Stephen,” my friend Ashley tapped me on the shoulder. “Why don’t you call your dad and ask him to check your email?” She offered her cell phone. As I dialed his number, I took a few steps away from the crowd, not wanting anyone to see my face when I heard the bad news.
My dad answered and logged into my email. After a few tense moments while my account was loading, he said, “Nothing. There’s no new mail in the inbox.” I sighed, knowing that I’d spend the next few hours at the swim meet on edge.
“Hang on,” my dad said, and then paused for what seemed like an eternity. I know it’s unbelievable to say that the decision email appeared in the inbox at that moment, but that’s exactly what happened. My dad later revealed that he opened the email and read a few lines before saying anything. If it was a notification of rejection, he was going to still claim that the message hadn’t arrived; he wanted me to be at home to get any bad news so that I could be comforted by family.
“You got in,” he whispered, possibly afraid that if he said it too loud, the universe might suddenly decide to reverse the decision.
“What?!” I shrieked. He proceeded to read the entire email, but the words garbled together. I was completely shocked, and it would be a few more days before the reality actually set in. I thanked him for that moment, but also for his and my mom’s endless support throughout my life.
I gave the phone back to Ashley, told her the good news, and she hugged me. I still had a few minutes to spare before the bus came, so I headed back into school and told my principal. He had been a huge supporter of mine and had even written one of my letters of recommendation. In a fit of excitement, he grabbed the school intercom mic and bellowed, “Senior Stephen Black has gotten into Harvard!!” Thankfully, the thousand other students were busy cheering at the Pep Rally, so nobody heard this over-the-top proclamation. I couldn’t fault him for his excitement, though, since my large public high school wasn’t exactly a feeder for the Ivy League.
Later that night, I went out to dinner with my family to celebrate. It was the culmination of three and a half years of hard work, but it wasn’t over yet. I decided to scrap seven of the nine other applications, which felt wonderfully liberating. I still submitted to Princeton and Yale, ultimately getting accepted and rejected, respectively. I didn’t send in these applications on a whim; rather, I was honestly interested in both schools. In fact, Princeton had been my top choice, though I wasn’t sure enough to apply early decision, which was binding.
I attended the pre-freshman orientation weekends for Harvard and Princeton, and I soaked up each experience as much as humanly possible. I sat in on lectures, talked to dozens of current students, and socialized with potential fellow classmates. I knew I was fortunate to have such a difficult decision to make, and Harvard won me over in the end. Walking through Johnston Gate in September of my freshman year, I finally felt that the arduous journey—from the stress of applications to the joy of acceptance—was entirely worthwhile.