and other horrible things you do to get into stanford
I remember with perfect clarity what it was like to get rejected by Princeton. I was at math team practice when my dad called. The early decision letter had arrived, he said. He didn't mention anything about the letter's size – large envelope for acceptance, small one for rejection – and I tried not to read anything into his voice. I asked him to come pick me up right away. I blew up at him when he tried to stop for gas on the way home. I got home and opened the small envelope, which I'd somehow already known was waiting for me. I skimmed the first few lines – we regret, exceptional group of applicants, etc – cursed, picked up a knife, and stabbed it into my dresser. Then I screamed into my pillow. It wasn't that I particularly needed to go to Princeton. It was just that I wanted it to be over.
I can't remember anything about getting into Stanford a few months later. Isn't that funny? Six years of my life devoted to that sole pursuit, getting into an elite college, and I can't remember a thing about the moment I achieved it. I have a vague recollection that the large envelope sat on my desk for days before I even remembered to open it, though I don't see how that could possibly have happened. The only thing I know for sure is that I never, ever wanted to do anything like that ever again.
The story started and ended with math team, although a lot of other things happened in the middle. We'd heard of a magnet high school called Bergen County Academies, which had a competitive application process to get in. The math team coach there kept an eye out for new talent and had a lot of pull with the admissions committee. His favored mathletes had an amazing track record of getting into the best schools – not just the Ivies, but the biggest names, like Harvard, Princeton, and MIT.
A quick aside on terms here. A mathematician seeks the patterns that unify all things, that allow systems of dizzying complexity to grow from just a few elegant formulas. For example, consider the exponential function f(x) = aex. It's the function that equals its own derivative – that is, the rate of change of the function is the same as the function itself. In this compact equation we can see the skyrocketing population of rabbits on a fresh island or the beams of radiation spitting out from a plutonium core. Architecture, biology, economics, music theory, astrophysics, a dozen other fields all bottom out somewhere in math. A mathematician's motivation might be just as selfish as anyone else's – fame, curiosity, just knocking a chip off their shoulder – but their goal is almost definitionally pure. I was not a mathematician.
A mathlete is someone who participates in math competitions. He (almost always he) uses the elegant axioms of mathematics, the underlying structure of creation, in the same way that a drunken barfly uses a grip of darts, flinging them against a wall to impress friends or strangers. The patterns they leave mean nothing at all, except that sometimes they land in this curvy bucket instead of that one, scoring five points, or a hundred. The only point is to win. On math team, we were mathletes.
My first outing as a mathlete was Mathcounts, a middle-school tournament that progresses from regionals to states to a final country-level competition. It was okay. I didn't like doing it, but I didn't hate it either, not yet. I liked being good at it. I thought being good at it would get me into BCA, which would get me into a good college.
At regionals I was an unexpected breakout. The point leader going into the final rounds was a scrawny kid named Brian, and I was in second behind him. "I don't like you very much," he confided (jokingly? nervously?) as I dispatched the guy in third and prepared to match up against him. In the end he took me out to hold onto first.
The next competition was at the state level. I choked, humiliatingly. Brian advanced to the national level, as did the third-place mathlete from our locals, a Korean boy named Hyun. Still, my results caught the eye of Mr. Oatnook, the BCA math team coach, and he leaned on the admissions committee, and I was accepted to the Bergen County Academies class of 2005.
At Mr. Oatnook's suggestion, I was immediately placed into a math class called Analysis II, a high-track course for sophomores. Taking a sophomore-level class as a freshman would surely be great for my college application. I knew what I'd come here for, and I was getting it. That was very good.
On the other hand, it was also very bad because I'd never taken Analysis I, and I had no idea what was meant to be covered in it. Not infrequently, I'd look up at the whiteboard and realize that I had no idea what these new symbols meant, no foundation on which to build the new material. Was this something I'd missed while I was daydreaming the last five minutes, that I could fix by looking back a few pages in the textbook? Or something that my classmates had spent weeks or months learning in the first-level class that I skipped? Was it going to be on the test?
It was the first time that I started to feel this gap open up between what I was and what I was supposed to be. There was a panicky feeling when I got my first ever C on a math test, but at least it felt connected to some ground truth. Subsequently completing the class with an A-minus and no further understanding of the material was a relief on the surface, but unsettling on a more fundamental level.
Math team practice was, unfortunately, even worse. The problem with doing something pointless for accolades is that you have to do so much of it, for so much longer than you expect. Time flattens out like a square stretched in both dimensions. First it feels like it's taking forever subjectively, because it's so damn boring, then it also drags out objectively because you are doing it so ineffectively, because it's so damn boring.
Practice went for three hours every Saturday. I'd get dropped off at school, where all of the classrooms are dark and locked, except for Mr. Oatnook's room. His classroom was stocked with fresh boxes of doughnuts and stale plastic containers of cheese puffs, and the walls were lined with competition problems and answer keys from previous years. There was no real guidance or coaching, so I'd just pick a competition at random and try to get started.
To give you the flavor of these things, here's an example I took from a recent competition:
Let S be the set of all rational numbers that can be expressed as a repeating decimal in the form 0.abcdabcd… where at least one of the digits a,b,c,d is nonzero. Let N be the number of distinct numerators obtained when numbers in S are written as fractions in lowest terms. Find the remainder when N is divided by 1000.
This is not something you learn to solve in the regular course of your life, not even in advanced math classes. That's because the set of numbers that can be represented with four repeating digits is not actually a set that has interesting or useful properties. The purpose of this problem is separating out people who know the specific tricks to solve it from the ones who don't. The way to solve it is by grinding out similar problems for hours and hours until they begin to form patterns in your mind. (In this case, you would need to know that the decimal 0.abcd repeating is equal to abcd / 9999, and the Euler's totient function, which you can use to count the relative primes of 9999. As it happens, I knew the first formula but not the second, so I wasn't able to solve this problem.)
In the end what you are left with is not really an understanding of anything but rather a bag of tricks, and I could not pick these up to save my life. When I tried, all kinds of other things rushed into my mind instead. A sugar coma from the donuts and the bassline of whichever songs I was listening to to pass the time. The sunlight slowly fading outside. And the quietly insistent question of why I would possibly want to spend my Saturday afternoons this way.
I guess that was the root of the problem. This is no way for teenagers to spend their time, not even for nerdy boys like us. It was so, so boring. We were jockeying for the top spots so we could list the achievement on our college applications, and so that Oatnook would write us the glowing recommendation letters to go along with them. Of the dozen serious competitors in my grade, I think only two had any specific interest in math. One of them was actually so interested in math that he became useless at competitions and eventually stopped showing up to practice. Harry wanted to learn new theorems and theories, not spend his time combining old ones in arbitrary and nonsensical ways. He was a mathematician, not a mathlete.
The rest of us were in it for the college application process. The mathlete par excellence in this category was Hyun, formerly my third-place Mathcounts rival. I think Hyun, like me, had little specific interest in math. Unlike me, Hyun had grit. In his free time, he liked to see how long he could stay awake or how many times he could punch a locker before his knuckles started to bleed. I asked him once why we were doing any of this. "When you know you have to do something, it's better not to ask questions like that," he told me. "Just do what you need to do."
I wasn't like that. In my free time I liked to read fantasy novels and tried to write poetry. Sometimes I snuck out at night to hang out with girls. I was smart, and occasionally I had flashes of brilliance which could be mistaken for competitive math potential. Once I was the only one on the team to solve a competition problem involving the internal angles of a polygon – I worked out that you could subdivide the shape into triangles, and each triangle had 1800 of internal angles, and that was enough to get traction on the rest. But it wasn't enough. I didn't have much grit to begin with, and what I had was slowly worn down by self-doubt and the fundamental emptiness of the pursuit.
It's terrible to contemplate, even now. Competitive math was just one piece of it. We started school at 8 and went until 4:30. Nights were for other worthless extracurriculars to pad out our applications. I did debate team and jazz piano, student journalism and improv, extra science and math classes on weekends. None of it meant anything. Each activity was like the last, one box ticked after the next, each school day starting when it was still dark out and only ending when it was dark again, every hour blended together into some kind of gray resume goo.
The worst part was knowing that it was all going to be extruded into a few lines in an application form, that a committee would review for about ninety seconds before moving onto the next perfectly interchangeable application from some other straight-A tryhard. They wouldn't care, like I didn't care. I hated them dully, like I hated the other applicants that I had to outpace, like I hated myself for being unable to put it all down and find some other way.
The problem got worse as the years went on. I kept getting put into advanced mathematics classes while missing core concepts from previous years. This wasn't just honors track, but actually skipping full years; eventually I was in classes with no standard curriculum at all, classes that had names like Discrete Mathematics and Advanced Topics II. To this day I have no idea what level of math they were meant to correspond to. I kept accepting these placements, of course, because the high-track math would look good on my college applications.
I started to crack. I skipped practice to go to the nearby mall or to the Boston Market across the parking lot. I could get a quarter roast chicken, cornbread, and a side of mashed potatoes for five dollars, and no one bothered me as I doodled in my notebook and waited for the hours to pass. I completed an application for the National Honors Society, yet another horrible bullshit college app contrivance, with essay and community service hours and all, then ripped it up hours before it was due. When we traveled to math competitions, I stayed up until 5 AM the night beforehand, then fell asleep in the competition hall.
Oatnook continued to cover for me, writing me permission slips when I showed up late to school or skipped class, keeping me on the B-teams long after I should've lost my spot. At first he hoped I was in a slump, and later I thought it was just out of habit. Eventually I realized there was something else too: he was stuck in the same game as me. His math team funding relied on the school, and the school's funding relied on showing the district that it could keep placing students into the top colleges. I was a great student, well-rounded with As in the humanities as well as math and sciences, and I looked even better on paper; all of that extracurricular application padding had had an effect. So he needed me to get into a great school as much as I needed him to keep up his side of the bargain.
In the end, I made it. I don't know what he wrote in his letter, but together with everything else it was enough. I got rejected from Harvard and Princeton and even MIT where I had legacy priority through my father. (The MIT interviewer had asked me frankly whether I even wanted to go there, and in a rare moment of straightforward honesty I'd told him that I really wasn't sure.) But I got into Stanford.
Was it worth it? It's hard to say it wasn't. My best friends are still the ones I met in high school and college. I met my wife in my first year at Stanford. The Stanford name gets me in front of venture capitalists and hiring managers, just like Oatnook's name got me in front of the admissions committee before that. I'm now 15 years into a tech career that I'd never even known was possible as a kid, a career that has been comfortable and lucrative in equal parts.
But I also entered college deeply burned out and suspicious. Would it be like this forever, jumping through stupid hoops to prove myself to people who would consider my achievements for a few minutes before throwing me into one heap or another? Once there, I declined to participate in any student clubs, skipped half of my classes, did the bare minimum to keep my grades in order. I was depressed (subclinically, probably), and I was most of the way through my twenties before I recovered.
I ran into Harry at a party a few years ago. He studies as much math as he can, taking programming jobs when funds start to run low. I couldn't really follow the work that he tried to explain to me, something about counting the paths in a changing topology. What would that be like, I wondered, as his words floated gently through the space above my head, to just be interested in something, not as a stepping stone or as a resume line, but just to sit down and count the paths, just because you wanted to know how many there were?
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Correction: Thank you to the readers who pointed out that an object falling is described by a quadratic function, not an exponential.