Penn turned down 41,615 applicants this year. My daughter was one of them.
By Brandy Bergman Marshall
“If you applied to Penn today, do you think you would get in?”
My daughter asked me that question repeatedly during her time in high school.
“Well, it was a different time…” I’d say. But that was a cop-out. If I said yes, my daughter might feel inadequate if she didn’t get in. If I said no, her next question was easy to imagine: Then how in the world do you think I have a chance?
Though both of us are well-rounded overachievers, my daughter is a totally different kind of kid than I was. Then again, I’d been pretty different from my father, yet followed him to Penn. There were too many factors to consider. The only certainty was that no one has a lock on acceptance at Penn, in any year.
“Actually, I have no idea,” I admitted. It wasn’t very helpful, but it was true.
My daughter’s high school record probably resembled that of many of the 45,000 applicants vying for a place at Penn: high GPA, National Honor Society, choir, theater, sports, after-school jobs, community service, and the list goes on. As she worked on a résumé for her college applications, I thought back to my Penn convocation, when the director of admissions recited statistics about my fellow freshmen. “The Class of 1994 includes x valedictorians,” he declared, citing the first of many mind-boggling numbers, “y class presidents, z yearbook editors, six athletes we believe are of Olympic caliber,” and the list went on, impressive in its quantity and quality, humbling to kids who felt lucky to be there at all. What would those numbers be 25 years later, I wondered, now that four times as many students were applying?
My daughter had always pursued a daunting high school schedule, pressuring herself to excel. It often left her stressed and exhausted, but I had let her continue, reasoning that it was more important to support her than to hold her back from her own goals. Toward the end of her junior year, however, the intensity became overwhelming. Constantly trying to find time to complete assignments to her high standard, amidst musical rehearsals that sometimes lasted until 11 p.m.—occasionally conflicting with softball games—she finally hit the wall. Anxiety overtook her. She lost weight, was struck by unpredictable bursts of nervousness and emotion, started sleeping erratically, and lost interest in socializing with longtime friends.
Yet she was determined not to let her anxiety define her. She made two vows: 1) to seek outside help and learn as much as possible about mental health and anxiety management; and 2) understand that she can’t be Superwoman all the time.
My daughter earnestly worked to keep her promises, which necessitated careful selection of senior year courses. So for her last year of high school, she decided to try something she had not previously done: have a lunch period. I had never encouraged omitting lunch, but until then I had always supported her choice to take an extra class instead. Lunch was not the only change. For math, she decided against taking the next sequential course, AP Calculus BC. She pointed out that her interest in humanities made AP Statistics a more logical choice, especially for careers in psychology or education. It sounded rational, particularly as I thought about what had fueled my own senior year course selection. Personal well-being and career goals had never entered my mind. Instead, I had strategized about which class configuration would look impressive to colleges, yet still give me the greatest chance of improving my class rank from 11 to a spot in the coveted top 10.
My daughter continued her course selections through her new lens. As she would be required to take science to fulfill general education requirements at most colleges, she proposed taking engaging senior-year electives in place of science. I was skeptical. But she remained undeterred. A poetry class would supplement AP English and help her in college, as English was also a major under consideration. Furthermore, she would enjoy the class. Enjoy the class. I had never considered that concept in high school. There were no honors electives; and without the weight of honors, even an A would have brought down my GPA. My 17-year-old brain would not have understood, but my mom brain saw wisdom that I never possessed at my daughter’s age.
She then pitched me her interest in a law elective. Ever since she had co-organized a 2018 anti-gun rally at the New York State Capitol, social activism had become a priority. The more she understood about law, she argued, the more prepared she would be to effect social change.
I wanted my daughter to be able to keep her “it’s OK not to be Superwoman” vow, but felt like her senior schedule—especially out of context—might appear a bit light to admissions committees. My husband and I had always felt proud of being supportive without resorting to the habits of helicopter or snow-plow parents. Would the college admissions process make me regress to attitudes I’d held 25 years ago? I didn’t want my daughter to struggle emotionally, as she had during junior year. So why did I feel compelled to mention the potentially negative optics of her course load?
“This is what I have to do for me,” she replied, “and two more challenging classes don’t necessarily guarantee me a spot at a top school. I want to remember my senior year, not the anxiety of my senior year.” Her face was as serious as I’d ever seen it.
What did I remember about my own senior year in high school? Cramming to meet deadlines. Believing that if I could make first-team all-conference for soccer instead of second-team, it would make all the difference to colleges.
My daughter’s independent spirit and self-knowledge carried over to her college applications. She wanted them to represent her, not a perfectly crafted semblance of her. If she were going to be admitted to any elite schools, it would be based on who she really was.
So she wrote an application essay about Carol Burnett, and the importance of different types of laughter in life. By contrast, one of my Penn essays had been about a fictional evening with the depressed and suicidal poet Sylvia Plath.
We knew the best chance to get into any Ivy League school, even as a legacy, was applying Early Decision. Penn was my daughter’s top choice, but she knew financial aid would be a factor in deciding on a school. Though we could get an estimate about potential financial aid, we were still worried. I remain grateful to the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women, who had swooped in with an emergency grant at the end of my own junior year that had enabled me to finish my degree at Penn. But that was serendipitous. If my daughter wasn’t accepted early decision, she would miss the December 1 deadline for scholarship consideration at some other colleges. She had to take a chance on applying regular decision.
The first offers of admission, from three well-respected State University of New York schools, included multiple scholarship offers and a spot in an honors program. But the next responses were not favorable. And the final admissions response was from Penn: no.
My daughter was discouraged, interpreting the response as criticism of her as a person. She gained some perspective at school the next day. No one in her entire school district, she reported, had been accepted regular decision to any Ivy League school. Not the National Merit Scholars. Not the kids who’d taken three AP Science classes. No one.
We’ll never know if my daughter’s senior year schedule impacted her college acceptance, but it really doesn’t matter. She has plenty of time in the next four years to take a class in calculus or physics. But she’ll never have another senior year in high school.
I somehow doubt that I’d get into Penn if I applied today, but I did in 1989, and Penn will always be part of who I am. I’m disappointed for my daughter because the Penn rejection caused her to question her own worth. But I couldn’t be more proud. She made choices in her best interest and applied to colleges on her own merits, with essays and stories that were distinctly hers. Perhaps one of them even made a college admissions officer somewhere smile. Wherever she ends up next year, I think she’ll love it, and her attitude will serve her well.
People ask her if she might apply to Penn as a transfer next year. She has a very healthy answer: “It’s possible, but I don’t want to start my freshman year somewhere with the mindset that my stay is temporary.”
I wish I had been that wise at her age.
Brandy Bergman Marshall C’94 is an English education specialist at the New York State Department of Education.