Perfection versus Persistence

How I got into grad school
MAR 2019
Aeronautics and Astronautics

A skinny envelope containing a fat “No”: my first rejection. I’d been confident of my eventual acceptance to Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College, and my 17-year-old ego winced at the surprise.

“Dear Brandon,” the letter started. “Many qualified applicants this year … Very strong accomplishments … We regret to inform you…”. Despite the writer’s reassuring tone, the letter hurt. I tossed it into the backpack pocket where I kept trash for too long.

Receiving that rejection was difficult, but today, I’m grateful for the lesson it taught me. In fact, I might not be at MIT if it weren’t for that letter.

When I breached the subject with my mom, a Soviet immigrant best defined by her determination, she suggested I ask the admissions board to reconsider – or at least to give me an interview. I told her, of course they wouldn’t reconsider; they’d already selected their beloved class of 2016.

Besides, the only student from my high school who’d been accepted was Phong, and he had immigrated from Vietnam when he was 11, learned English in six months, and was, as a high school senior, learning advanced mathematics so he could understand quantum physics.

I was screwed.

Nonetheless, my mom convinced me to request an interview – which they summarily declined: “We don’t do interviews as part of our admissions process.”

In response, my mom decided, Let’s take a two-hour drive to Penn State; we’re getting that interview one way or another. She clearly knew something I didn’t.

I protested throughout the whole ride, and once we’d arrived, I was hesitant to step into the admissions office. By the end of the conversation, though, I had stumbled into a secret appeals process wherein 40 of the 2,000 rejected applicants ask for a re-trial, and two or three of them are accepted.

Surprise: I got in.

I had a lovely four years at Penn State, I met my best friends in the honors college, and when grad school application season opened, I was prepared.

So prepared, in fact, I didn’t even wait to get rejected – I had contacted faculty months before applications were due. A phone call with a woman at Columbia, a meeting with a woman at Brown; through my job at Lincoln Lab, I took a class with a potential adviser at MIT.

When decisions were released, Columbia, Brown, and MIT accepted me. Harvard and Penn declined, but how could I complain? I had never talked with any of their faculty.

The process wasn’t quite over, though: MIT had accepted me into its Aeronautics and Astronautics Department, but the Institute’s Technology and Policy Program (TPP) – my prime objective – had offered a definitive “Maybe”.

I called my mom to share the lukewarm news:

– I got wait-listed by TPP.

– Oh no! Have you done everything you can to get in?

– Yeah, I’ve emailed them a bunch of times… I think I just have to wait.

– Well… What would you do if your life depended on it?

– *sigh*

– Brandon?

– Okay, okay; I’ll go to talk to them in person.

I spoke with a TPP staff member, and a couple weeks later, I celebrated my acceptance to the Technology and Policy Program.

There are a few lessons here.

First, put your face in front of their face. Face time matters. At the very least, ask for a phone call.

Second, a “No” during an application process is the beginning of negotiations, not the end.

And finally, one way to get accepted is to be amazing. Phong, for example – the lone student from my high school who had been accepted to Penn State’s honors college – chose MIT instead, where he received a Marshall Scholarship to continue his studies at Cambridge University.

Another totally legitimate way to get accepted, however, is through tenacity and connections: what would you do if your life depended on it?

Because when those professional rejection writers say, “We had many qualified applicants,” they never specify what “qualified” means.

It could mean “brilliant”. But it might just mean “relentless.”