22 Elul 5775
by Jonathan Horwitz
Traditionally, the Holy Days of Elul mark the conclusion of the Jewish year – a time for reflection and outlook. The 5775th counting of Elul also marks the end of my journey to college and the prospect of the next four years.
As early as the fourth grade, I was determined to attend Stanford for undergraduate studies, graduate summa cum laude, and go on to pursue a law degree from Harvard. I had a long educational road ahead.
After third grade, I transferred elementary schools to attend Orange Unified’s Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program at La Veta. My first year was very hard for me. La Veta was triple the size of my old school. I came with no close friends. The coursework was much harder.
Yes, the fourth grade coursework was ridiculous. I brought a rolling suitcase to school everyday loaded to the brim with textbooks, fiction, math homework, and EasyGrammar worksheets. We had reading analysis essays for homework every night and quizzes in class several times a week.
GATE was hard, no doubt, but after three years I was well-prepared for my journey at Santiago Middle School and well on-track to attend a prestigious university in just a few years time.
Through middle school, I remained at the top of my class by working hard in honors courses. All the while, I expanded my extracurricular horizons in travel baseball, basketball, golf, musical theater, band, piano, b’nei mitzvah preparations, and Hebrew school.
At the conclusion of eighth grade, I had a very important decision ahead of me – where to attend high school – El Modena or Foothill. El Modena was my home school and the destination of most of my friends. Foothill, the superior academic school, was equidistant to my house in Tustin’s District.
My mother allowed me to make the decision for myself and after teeter-tottering for months, I went with my gut decision to attend my district’s school, El Modena.
Four years went by as I vigorously pursued my dream of attending Stanford or Harvard. I took leadership positions in numerous activities and built quite the resume. By graduation, I was a four-year varsity golfer and three-year team captain, vice-president of the marching band, co-founder of the Jewish Cultural Club, Student Body Communications Commissioner, Gold Cord Community Service honoree, National Merit Finalist (the only one in the district), and valedictorian of the class of 2015.
But I’m just as susceptible to small mistakes as any other teenager. Last October, after putting in a thirty-hour week polishing my Stanford application, I submitted it online the eve of the early action deadline – or so I thought.
In the surreality of the moment and in my rush to my band call-time for a football game that night, I forgot my electronic signature at the end of the application therefore voiding its submission.
Normally so anal about the application process, I decided that I deserved a well-earned break the day of the deadline. After spending all day at a band competition, I refused to work on any college admission paperwork that evening or even turn on the computer to check the status of my Stanford application.
When I discovered the error the next morning, I was devastated. Early applicants have a much better chance at admission. All my years of hard work and dedication were marginalized by my humiliating disorganization.
Over the next few weeks, I regathered myself and continued the grueling application process submitting one shy of a dozen other college applications: Harvard, Yale, Yale-NUS (National University of Singapore), Cornell, UPenn, Dartmouth, Georgetown, USC, Berkeley, UCLA and UCSD.
By New Year’s, all of my applications had been submitted and the next phase of the admission process began – interviews and decisions.
On January 23rd, one day after my birthday, I opened an unexpected package from USC. My household receives USC mail often because my mom is an alumnus, so we naturally assumed the large manila envelope addressed to me was simply the Spring bookstore catalog. I took it up to my room and let it sit there for an hour because I was in no rush to open junk mail. To my great surprise, it was actually my admittance letter! I was admitted as a Presidential Scholar! I ran downstairs screaming in joy!
Meanwhile the interview process continued for several schools. Most importantly, Harvard. The average Harvard interview lasts for thirty minutes. Mine lasted for over an hour and concluded with my interviewer telling me I would be the perfect fit for the school and she looked forward to seeing me at new student orientation. Of course I was over the moon!
Finally, March came – the month to hear back from all the schools. Slowly, but surely, I heard back from them.
First, UCSD: Admitted; Regents Scholar.
Second, UCLA: Admitted. The only admit from my school.
Third, YALE-NUS (National University of Singapore): Rejected
Fourth, Berkeley: Admitted (I fist pumped several times with this news).
With only five days until the Ivy League, Stanford, and Georgetown admissions decisions, I was feeling very confident. I was satisfied with all of my decisions as I never really intended to go all the way to Singapore for four years.
Then, four days early, I heard back from Stanford. It was the first day of spring break and I was heading down to the beach with my friends. My heart raced as I opened my G-Mail in the back seat of my friend’s truck praying for the decision I had anticipated for ten years.
It never came.
I silently read my rejection letter. It was crushing. I didn’t tell my friends the news. I let my mom know via text, and then I just enjoyed the beach and waited to cry until I got home.
I didn’t feel completely defeated – I still had all the hope of Harvard. I had the better shot there anyway after such an amazing interview. All the Ivy decisions were to be released at 2:00 PM on March, 31st. I was in the midst of a San Onofre camping trip I had planned with friends. At 2:00, I removed myself from the group and headed down to the camp bathroom, the only place I could get a painfully slow internet connection.
I opened my G-Mail one school at a time in order from least excited to most excited.
2:10 PM: Dartmouth: Rejected. Ok. No biggie. Don’t want to go there much.
2:12 PM: Yale: Rejected. Alright. Already rejected from sister school, never got interview. Expected. Don’t want to go there.
2:15 PM: Cornell: Rejected. Darn. I had the best chance to get into Cornell.
2:17 PM: UPenn. Rejected. Hard to breathe. Really wanted to go there. Had a super good interview. Still Harvard.
2:20 PM: Harvard. Welcome, Jonathan Horwitz…I get up and gasp! Then, I see the welcome message is a cruel trick. Welcome, Jonathan Horwitz, please sign in to review your decision. Rejected. Crushed. It’s over.
Five rejections in ten minutes. One lifelong dream ended on my phone outside a camp bathroom. I took some time to myself then called my mom to let her know the bad news.
I enjoyed the rest of my camping trip as I shallowly laughed over the heartbreaking rapid-fire rejections.
I appealed my Stanford and Harvard decisions with hand-written messages. Neither school accepts appeals, but I wasn’t ready to give up my dream. I never heard back from either school.
The college admissions process which for me included a lifetime of preparation concluded in disappointment.
The long-anticipated selection process began, and I focused on my extraordinary choices: UCSD, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Georgetown, and USC. In the month of April, I visited a different campus each weekend (all except Georgetown) culminating with a trip to UCLA on April 25th.
By then, I had six days to make a final decision, and I was sold on USC. However, I was still in the running for an alumni scholarship from UCLA where I had advanced to the final 21 applicants of over 3500. After an intense interview process on campus that weekend, I was chosen as the winning applicant – #1 of 3500. I was promised an internship at the County DA’s office, a meeting with Michael Dukakis, and a phone call from the dean of the Luskin School of Public Policy. Plus the guarantee of a hefty scholarship.
All week, I thought long and hard between USC and UCLA, the historic rivals at play again. When talking to friends and teachers, they told me that I sounded like I was leaning toward SC. I really, was, too, but it’s obviously hard to turn down a full ride (between scholarship and aid) from UCLA.
I decided that money should not be the ultimate factor in my decision. The college experience is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I felt like a better fit at USC. I wanted the private school attention and the incredible USC honors program where I will have 14:1 staff:student GE courses.
With the click of the mouse, I accepted admission at the University of Southern California and began my life as a Trojan. Don’t worry, they didn’t need my electronic signature.
Now, several months removed from the fiasco of college applications, financial aid paperwork, college visits, and disappointments, I am convinced that USC is the best school in the world for me – even more so than Stanford or Harvard.
Most importantly, through the process, I adopted the mantra “everything happens for a reason.” Perhaps, it started as my coping mechanism when I forgot the signature on the Stanford app, but it has become the truth. I was meant to go to USC from the very beginning. I grew up an avid SC football fan and the son of an alum. I wore USC shirts to school all the time. While I didn’t research SC or even visit before I applied, and I never seriously considered going there, I still applied. And, lo and behold, I’m a Trojan!
My advice to any student is to ignore the rankings, the generic preconceptions about schools, or the absurd sidea of becoming the perfect all-around applicant. As the college admissions process becomes more competitive every year, schools are looking for genuine people who excel in several areas but not all. Try every appealing activity once but become a leader in your passions. Don’t do an activity as a resume builder. Do it because you love it. If you’re worried that a B in U.S. History, a lost student government election, or a failure to make varsity soccer will keep you out of your dream school, you’re mistaken.
Your dream school will find you as long as you are authentic.
Please feel free to contact me if you, a family member, or a friend has any questions about the college admissions process or any school in particular. I have discovered a passion for the process and would love to help!