Step one: Get kicked out of the Navy.
Step two: Figure out what to do next.
It was your younger brother’s idea — through the bluetooth speaker clipped into the dashboard of your beat-up Subaru while stuck in Honolulu rush hour traffic: wouldn’t it be great if mom had two sons go to Princeton? Well, sure, but one doesn’t simply go to Princeton. High schoolers spend years preparing for it. Take older brother — he got accepted for actual academic merit. One day he’s hunched over a textbook skipping his computer turn, next thing you know mama is bragging to yaya about how her oldest is going to university all the way in The U.S.A. To the best university in the U.S.A. At least you’ve always been good at pull-ups. The Navy likes people who do pull ups. Younger brother rolls his eyes through the phone.
Ask Google if there are Ivy Leagues on the West coast. You’ve heard of the place it pulls up. Vaguely. One of the guys you met in training had gone to Stanford and everyone was super stoked on him. You’d rather live in California than New Jersey so Stanford becomes your first pick, then Princeton, then Yale, then Columbia—go big or go home. Wait, you don’t have a home since your parents split up and your family is scattered.
Pull all your strings; wait, you don’t have any because your parents are on welfare. Pull up your SAT scores; wait, you never took them because you grew up in Greece. Pull up your transfer credits; wait, they won’t count because you’ve been taking online classes.
Question your decision to apply.
Step three: Apply
You’ll get one chance to take the SAT and you’ll have one week to prepare — don’t even bother cramming. But that’s the best part about doing things last minute: no time to stress about them.
You’ll have one chance to write your application essays. Throw sheets over everything in your room so nothing will distract you. Cover it all up: the dresser, the stand up closet, the — oh, wait, that’s everything. You don’t smoke but keep a pack around to puff on occasionally next to the laundry machine outside your room, otherwise you’ll never take any breaks.
Avoid research. All you’re going to find is that the odds are against you and you’re better off kissing your Navy boss’s ass to get your old job back. You have to be a certain kind of stupid to get yourself kicked out of the Navy to avoid getting stuck with a job you hate and have four schools with the lowest acceptance rates as your only plan. But if you’re going to follow through, you have to stay stupid. No research.
Ask for help. Harass your family. Older brother just got married so he’s in his own cosmos, but little brother in Seattle will help. He’ll roll his eyes through the phone at you every time you call him. Call him anyway; you’ll be surprised how much he’s grown in the 10 years since you left home. He’ll tell you to stop complicating things with fancy words you heard on audiobooks — contumacious, alacrity, halcyon — no one cares. Keep it simple and tell them your story.
Tell them your story — that’s all you have. Couldn’t save a dying teammate in Afghanistan? Tell them. Went to a Greek public high school and struggled to fit in? Tell them. Didn’t learn about evolution until you were 25? Tell them. Ran until your leg broke in training? Tell them. Lived in 27 houses and never felt at home but hope you will at Stanford? Tell them in the Letter To Your Future Roommate.
You’ll get one chance for an interview with Yale. Pool all the frequent flyer miles you collected in the past five years to book a ticket. You’re banking on your personality over your qualifications and it’s hard to give a good handshake through Skype.
You’ll get your first response from Columbia. They appreciate your interest and the strengths shown by scholastic successes achieved, community service performed, activities pursued, essays written and books read. You’ll want to cry as you collapse onto your bed. Let it happen. So many highly qualified candidates applied, forcing them to disappoint many talented and appealing students, but this decision in no way reflects a lack of confidence in your ability to achieve success in your college plans and throughout life. What did you expect? You’re a 30 year old immigrant from a scattered low-income family who placed all his bets on this college thing. Whose idea was this anyway?
Suck it up and fly to your interview. Call a friend for encouragement while you drive your rental car to Yale. Worried the school will look down on you for having zero service awards? Tell her. Worried they’ll ask why your discharge is General instead of Honorable? Tell her. Worried they’ll find out you got fired? Tell her. She’ll be the first to tell you about imposter syndrome: that it’s normal to feel misplaced or inadequate when facing circumstances with high expectations — especially when coming from an unconventional background. You’ll want to cry as you grip the steering wheel. Let it happen. You’re a little boy who grew up in a campervan whose bad behavior ruined the career he spent the best years of his life building. And who says you won’t mess up this opportunity?
Wear your favorite four-color bowtie to the interview, even though other candidates are wearing jeans and polo shirts. Be honest with your interviewer. They value people who are self aware, and you can’t know yourself without accepting you’re kind of a mess. Admit you don’t think you’re good enough. She’ll say it’s the people with doubts who demonstrate the strongest work ethic. They value resourceful students who will take full advantage of an Ivy’s resources. Tell her you taught yourself calculus on a tablet while on breaks between combat dives. Tell her, but play it down.
On the flight home, just before takeoff, you’ll get another response. It says they appreciate your interest, and were inspired by your passion, determination, accomplishments and heart. You’ll want to cry while you fasten your seatbelt. Let it happen. They think you are, quite simply, a fantastic match for Stanford and are thrilled to offer you admission. They encourage you to share this wonderful news with everyone who helped you reach this moment.
Put your three acceptance letters on the kitchen counter. Stanford, Princeton, Yale—not Columbia. A few years ago they might have fueled your ego, put another notch on your delusional belt. Today, they humble you because you realize you never could have made it alone. Post a picture. Thank the uncles and aunts who let you sleep on their couches and futons when you first came to America; thank the Navy Chief who recommended you for Special Programs even though you fell asleep on watch on your first day of deployment; thank the friends who inspired you without knowing it, like the guy who would always help clean everyone’s guns; thank the girl you went on one Bumble date with who spent the next month giving you essay advice over the phone.
And of course, your mom. Do not forget to thank your mom.
Welcome to the Stanford family. Celebrate, but lightly. You fooled them into thinking you can perform, now you have to actually do it. You’re a 30-year-old low-income, immigrant veteran with no formal English education and a failed Navy career, and you’re about to be a first generation freshman at the most prestigious university in the world. You are, by every definition of the word, an imposter.