Receiving an acceptance letter is one of the most memorable (and stressful) moments of a student’s life. Read on as Eric Kester recalls his unforgettable experience in this excerpt from That Book about Harvard.
It must have looked pretty weird to people driving by: two parents flanking their teenage son as they all made a solemn walk down the driveway. My ashen face and hesitant steps likely made it look like I was walking the plank, or being led by my parents through some bizarre driveway-based version of that punishment. But anyone who’s ever opened a college admissions letter can attest that this was far more terrifying.
Mr. Lynch, our neighbor across the street, was out mowing his lawn and began to watch us. He seemed surprised to see me walk up to the mailbox. “Already time for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue?” he shouted cheerfully.
Part of me wanted to snap at him. I was checking the mail today because I was getting my admissions decision from Harvard, not because I was some sort of obsessive horndog. Besides, the next swimsuit issue was still 293 days away.
I kept quiet, though; my anxiety about the letter had me unusually irritable, and snapping at Mr. Lynch wouldn’t do anything to change what was going to be in the letter when I opened it.
I was a decent college candidate (at least that’s what I had been told by family members obligated to say such things). But everything I had ever heard about the prestigious university indicated that being “good enough” wasn’t good enough for Harvard. So by the time my parents and I finally reached the mailbox, I had already read the letter in my mind:
Dear Eric “Failure” Kester,
After carefully reviewing your application, we have determined that we cannot offer admission to you or any of your future offspring. This was not an easy decision*, but ultimately we concluded that it reflects poorly on the Harvard brand to admit a student who would be better served attending a lesser school, perhaps as a janitor. For your benefit we’ve included a pamphlet to a nearby orphanage in the event that your parents abandon you in shame. We wish you the best of luck in your future, highly unsuccessful life.
With the utmost sincerity,
P.S. Your ex-girlfriend was right about you.
My mom reached into the mailbox and pulled out the heap of mail. She then forced me to walk halfway up our driveway before handing over the pile. Getting into Harvard wasn’t a life or death situation for me, but still my parents thought it might be best if I opened my letter a safe distance away from oncoming traffic.
Breathing, hearing, and pretty much all other bodily functions ceased to work as I hastily flipped through the mail, starting first with the thin letters at the top. The past two years of my life were flashing before my eyes—the grueling “college process” filled with SATs, APs, GPAs, and other miserable letters that have left me forever terrified of the alphabet. The stakes were huge: an acceptance letter would mean that all my hard work had actually paid off. And that my parents wouldn’t have to return those Harvard T-shirts they bought on my campus tour.
I found the envelope from Harvard near the bottom, and it was thick. Under normal circumstances this would indicate good news; acceptance letters include brochures and other informational material for the new admits, while rejections are normally just a letter in a thin envelope. But I remained skeptical. I figured that, in typical Harvard fashion, the university would make even their rejection letters ostentatious, and I would open the fat envelope only to release a package of fireworks that would explode above my house and spell in giant letters: YOU’RE REJECTED.
But my mind was the only thing that exploded when I tore open the letter, scanned the first line, and saw “Congratulations!”