UC Berkeley was my dream school.
In fact, as a student at a large public high school in the East Bay, as the son and grandson of alumni, and as a young person interested in politics, the University of California, Berkeley, was one of the few schools I knew.
I applied in November of my senior year of high school.
That spring, I received a thin letter in the mail from the admissions office. I went to the garage to open it, to receive the good news. Maybe the small letter would inform me that the fat packet of smiling faces of my future classmates was on its way or available online?
I decided to appeal the decision. I knew the odds were slim: less than 1 percent of the student body at Berkeley were admitted off an appeal. Additionally, I was under the impression at the time that making an appeal was discouraged unless an applicant's GPA was miscalculated by a full letter grade or their SAT scores had risen significantly. Neither of these applied in my case.
(A big thanks to the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley, who clarified their appeal policy for me. According to one official, while "successful appeal applicants tend to provide new and compelling information... that may have been left out of the application or not placed in proper context," the admissions office could not confirm that specific GPA or SAT score fluctuations were part of the appeals decision-making policy at the time I sent in my letter. Likely, a "holistic review that looks at each and every aspect of the student" was policy, despite my impression at the time otherwise).
I wrote the letter in one sitting. It took about four hours. I read it over once, and printed four copies. I addressed one copy to the admissions office, another to a professor in the College of Letters and Science that I looked up online, and the other two to a dean and the chancellor. Aside from my parents and the these recipients, I have not shared this letter with anyone.
The letter is below, unedited:
"You made a mistake." I am sure that hundreds of students and parents have spoken these sentiments to the admission department at UC Berkeley in the course of the past few weeks. I am sure that thousands more throughout the state, throughout the country even, have laughed, cried, and yelled these words, being sure to diminish your institution with each remark. Personally, I hold Berkeley in the highest regards as far as colleges go; having been a life long Bay Area resident, I have come to cherish the diverse atmosphere and thirst for knowledge in Berkeley and the surrounding area entropy. It is in this high-esteem for the university and the community that I write this candid letter.
When a school such as Berkeley is so inundated with qualified applicants desiring to go there, the job of an admissions officer can surely be frightful. Truthfully, I do not feel that UC Berkeley has necessarily made a mistake in its selection, for how can a school sift through the numerous outstanding individuals and select a class meager in proportion to the number of students who wish they could attend. Yes, I write this letter as an appeal for my admissions decision for the Fall of 2003, but more so than that, I feel the need to give a dream school of mine at least one more shot. Regardless of the consequent decision, which I fully realize is statistically to be against my desired response, I must write this letter.
Having listened to my father speak of his college years at UC Berkeley and MIT, the two schools hold a certain mystical quality to me. Knowing well that the type of education I would receive at MIT does not fit who I am and the dreams I strive for, Berkeley has long been the cynosure for my desired collegiate experience. As I recently toured the Berkeley campus, I thought of my dad and tried to picture him in a younger state, walking down the same stretch of Market and Telegraph en route to his favorite hot dog joint, Top Dog. The stories of his time at UC Berkeley held me in awe. My father, a former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory employee, could relate first hand the type of people associated with Berkeley: as I do now, I have always held the school, students, faculty and alumni with respect and admiration.
Wherever I go, I know I will earn an outstanding education. The schools I am deciding amongst (Occidental, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, Santa Clara, and possibly Pomona) are all revered institutions of higher learning. Further, I feel confident that my desire to succeed and do the best I possibly can will further guarantee a positive college experience. Since submitting my college applications in November, I have gained a better understanding of myself, and a better understanding of the surrounding world. Through numerous event planning and participation in the Link Crew events, I realize how impressionable young minds are, and the importance of positive role-models. Thus, I have focused more of my energies into sharing personal ideologies as well as high school experiences with the lower classmen. Currently I am organizing a Drug-Awareness assembly to take place prior to finals week. The assembly is specifically designed to inform the freshmen of various substance abuse and health problems they may encounter in their next few years in high school, and the consequent malignant effects each substance/disorder can have on an individual's life.
Politically, Berkeley is the place to be. With an on-going war in Iraq, the UC campus is the site of much heated debate. As I dream of one day becoming a politician, a dream I plan to make a reality through hard work and determination, Berkeley would provide me with the dynamic atmosphere of political discussion, the kind I relished in at California Boys State and continue to love. Through the relationships and subsequent dialogue I would have with peoples of different nationalities and beliefs at Berkeley, I would be better equipped to make my own decisions in life by way of the additional knowledge gained from such a "melting pot" of people. Needless to say, my goal of becoming a successful public servant continues despite being denied acceptance at Berkeley (currently I am reading Leadership by Rudy Giuliani, an inspirational and informative book which discusses how important it is to work hard for what you believe in) . Though, with this in mind, I feel I could make great strides in the right direction by attending Berkeley.
As I go from one activity to another, from tennis practice where I'm expected to lead the team as captain to musical practice (despite being musically inept, I have practiced numerous hours in the shower throughout my entire life, and plan to be the best Elisha J. Whitney Anything Goes has ever seen!), the disappointment and anxiety I feel at my denial to Berkeley continues. I realize that, like thousands of the other students who may be bewildered at an admission decision, I am simply used to trying my best and yielding the fruits of my labor. Life is full of ups and downs, successes and failures -- even at the green age of 18 I understand this concept well, and realize I will experience my share of both in life. I realize this is not a failure. All the events and activities I have participated in have been due to sheer love and enjoyment, and my knowledge gained from such experiences will aid me always, whether I attend Harvard U or Clown College. Indeed, the colleges I have been accepted to are among some of the top schools as well, and I do feel proud of my options.
Still, Berkeley lingers in my mind, and I must exhaust all enrollment opportunities to be fully content with the application process. A final, more personal note as to why I so desire to attend Berkeley over a few of my other possibilities: in the middle of November, in the midst of completing the bulk of my college applications, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Combined with applying to college, completing homework, staying on top of classes, and keeping my commitments to extra-curricular activities, the knowledge that my mom has a serious form of cancer made those few months all the more stress-filled and difficult. Thank the Lord, my mom has successfully completed radiation and continues to see specialists regularly, solidifying her status in my mind as the strongest person I know. Going off to college, I am going to miss my mom dearly, and she will dearly miss me. I've always been very close with her, and I recognize the ambivalence within her of wanting me to stay close to home in the Bay Area while wanting what's best for me. I feel similar sentiments, having the strong urge to protect and care for my mom, visiting on a regular basis, while desiring to grow as a person into the man I strive to be. Berkeley would be the perfect choice of school in relation to both aspects: its proximity to my home town of Livermore, as well as the educational opportunities Berkeley offers.
I truly believe that God has His plan, and that everything works out for the best. All I feel I can do is submit this letter and let fate have its way.
On re-reading the letter for the first time in nearly 10 years, I remember why I had to write it.
First, I wanted to make the case that if I were to attend Berkeley, I would do just fine. And second, I needed to write the letter for my own sake, not for anyone else; to rest easy with the knowledge that I had tried my best to get in.
The portion of the letter that took the longest to write was the last section. I tried to strike a delicate balance in writing about my mother's illness: I did not want to use the situation to curry any advantage, but I had to be honest about a painful issue that was affecting me and my decision-making -- and would continue to impact my life over the coming years.
A few weeks after mailing the letter, I received a personal letter from the dean. He said that he empathized with my situation and appreciated my reflection, but had no power to reverse a decision. He would forward my letter to admissions.
A week later, I received another letter in the mail: this time, from the admissions office. The letter was less a letter, and more of a fat packet of smiling faces with the words "congratulations."
I was grateful and, more so, encouraged. I had given myself a chance, and now I had proven to myself that I could.
Around the time that I received the letter, I went on a college trip down south to visit the other California schools where I had applied. Eventually, I decided to accept a generous offer of admissions from Occidental College. I decided it would be a terrific place for me to grow, a school of small size, high caliber, and limitless possibility that my favorite high school teacher said I could "make into my own."
The one regret I have with the letter is that I never sent a thank you to the dean for his kind words of support. He took the time to send a personal letter to some random kid who made a bold move. His letter touched me, and I never said just that.
Belatedly, but better late than never: thank you so much, Dean.
Finally, if you are a high school senior (or parent) who receives a thin envelop from a dream school this spring and are "bewildered at an admission decision," take heed. For: "life is full of ups and downs, successes and failures." And, if you do what you do out of "sheer love and enjoyment," and treat others accordingly, you will have already succeeded in life beyond any institution's measure.
You will be just fine.