Updated: Apr 18
One question I never get asked is: “How did you get into college?” Which is a shame because it’s a darn good story.
You see, in high school I was rather more focused on my extracurricular activities–theatre, choir, interpersonal drama–than on my academic performance.
Translation: my grades were utter shit.
The first semester of my senior year, I took Psychology with Dr. Tina Yeager. She was vastly overqualified to teach high school, but luckily for us she got bored after taking an early retirement to fight an epic battle with brain cancer.
Hers was by far my favorite class of all time, and I went full Hermione Granger: sitting right up front, taking multicolored notes, and sticking my hand up like I was waiting for a high-five whenever she asked a question.
One day, she asked me to stay after class. I was so excited I nearly wet myself. Okay, that may have had something to do with the fact that I was anorexic at the time and had very little in the way of bladder control. But you get the idea: I was thrilled to have been singled out by Dr. Yeager, who was easily the most intelligent human I had come across in my life thus far.
We sat down on opposite sides of her desk, and she tossed an army-green folder with my name typed on the tab across to me. “What gives?” she asked, point-blank.
I opened the folder and quickly realized that what I was looking through was in fact my official academic record. It included all of my report cards, disciplinary actions, and so on. It was a pretty uncomfortable read.
“What do you mean?” I asked, suddenly a lot less excited about this conversation.
“I mean: you are by far the brightest person in my class. In any of my classes. So what in the everloving you-know-what is going on with your grades??”
I sat there with my mouth hanging open like an embarrassed fish for a moment before answering. On the one hand, it was the best complement I had ever received–certainly from a teacher, and quite possibly from anyone, ever. On the other hand, it was a completely fair indictment for which I had absolutely no retort.
“Weeeelllllll,” I began, stretching the word out as much as humanly possible, “It might have something to do with the fact that I’m not super diligent about doing my homework.”
“Ya think?” She flipped the folder closed and removed it from the desk. “Let me ask you this: what is it about homework that you find objectionable? Is it too difficult? Too time-consuming?”
“Not really. It’s just… boring. I guess. Like, there are so many other things I could be doing with my time, you know?”
“Oh, I do. Let me guess: when you do decide to do a homework assignment, you often go completely overboard, embellishing on what was asked and then getting really frustrated that you didn’t get any extra credit for doing a bunch of stuff that wasn’t actually assigned to you.
So then you feel like ‘what’s the point of trying?’ and just give up on the enterprise altogether.”
I nodded. I began to wonder if she could actually read my mind.
“Okay, listen: I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. Teachers don’t really like homework either. We have to assign it, but we also find it super boring and we don’t really enjoy grading it, for the most part. So when you embellish our assignments, you’re actually making more work for us.”
This had genuinely never occurred to me. I was rapt.
“Look, the educational system in this country is crap. You know it, I know it, anyone with half a brain knows it. But you’re not going to do anybody any good by becoming a casualty of a crappy system. So I’ll make you a bet, okay? If you just do exactly what is asked of you–no more, no less–in all of your classes for the rest of the year, I guarantee you’ll get a 4.0.”
I liked where this was going. “And if I don’t?”
“I’ll get all dolled up and take you out to a super fancy brunch at a crazy expensive restaurant.”
Seeing as my definition of “brunch” at the time was half an apple or some celery and watered down peanut butter (followed by running up and down the back stairwell to burn off those nasty calories), the promise of a fancy meal wasn’t much of a draw.
But seeing Dr. Yeager, whom I had never seen dressed in anything other than jeans and a polo shirt, all dolled up?
Oh hell yes.
Besides which, this was one bet I fully intended to lose.
I stuck out my hand. “Deal!”
Meanwhile, I had already applied to three different colleges. The University of Puget Sound (a.k.a. U.P.S.), a fancypants liberal arts school in Tacoma, WA, was my first choice, thanks to an extremely cute boy who told me he was going there.
But I soon discovered it was highly competitive and so, not wanting to put all my eggs in that unlikely basket, I also applied to a couple of “safety schools” – state schools in Colorado and Washington I thought for sure I could get into with my eyes closed.
What I failed to realize is that getting into a state school is a numbers game. As in: you have to have the right numbers to get in. And numbers, as previously demonstrated, are not my strong suit.
You see, in addition to my craptastic grades, I had also bombed my SATs, owing to the fact that I had spent the entirety of the exam fantasizing about the hard-boiled egg I was going to eat afterward. Yes, literally.
Also, I had to leave halfway through the logic section to go pee, since, as I mentioned earlier, starvation weakens the bladder, making anorexics rather prone to, er, accidents. Having peed on the floor once in Second Grade, I wasn’t eager for a repeat performance in High School. So I walked out, despite repeated warnings that I would not be allowed back in again. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t allowed back in.
My numbers, in short, sucked, and I was soundly rejected by both of my “safety” schools in the first round. U.P.S. was my only remaining hope.
I remained optimistic, however. Unlike state schools, private colleges put more emphasis on extracurriculars as well as on the personal essay portion of the application. And if there’s one thing I know I’m damn good at, it’s writing entertaining and edifying essays about my life.
One day, I got a call from an admissions counselor. “Maybe you can help me with something,” he began in a slow, sing-song tone. “I’m having trouble reconciling the brilliant essay I’ve just read with the test scores and GPA I’m looking at here.”
Wondering how many more times I was going to have to have this same conversation, I decided to take a chance. I gathered up my courage, got real vulnerable, and told him the whole truth, down to the narrowly avoided desk-wetting at the SATs. Though I did win points for honesty, he was still hesitant to stake his reputation on someone with my numbers. So, I pulled a Yeager. I made him a deal:
“Put me on the waitlist,” I told him, “then check my numbers again in spring. I guarantee you’ll see a marked improvement.”
He agreed. And sure enough, after a year of following the Yeager method, I achieved my first 4.0, and pulled up my overall GPA to a 3.4. Still not awesome, but a lot less embarrassing than what I would have otherwise ended up with.
I got into U.P.S. off the waitlist with no time to spare. And despite having won our bet, Dr. Yeager still took me out for brunch. And yes: she wore a dress. I’m pretty sure it was the only dress she owned. I was even able to enjoy the meal with minimal anxiety, since by that time I was in a recovery program for my eating disorder. But that’s another story.
All was well until, about two years into my stint at U.P.S., I made a disturbing discovery: my tuition fund had run out.
Now, as some of you may recall, I was already enrolled in a work-study program to help defray expenses. But apparently those expenses were so astronomical that my work-study money only actually covered my room and board, not my tuition.
And though I was fortunate enough to have a family that had planned ahead and put aside a college fund for me, what they had put aside was intended to cover four years at a state school, not the goddamn Harvard of the West. I applied for financial aid, of course, but I wasn’t super keen on heading out into the world with a student loan debt of close to $200,000 for my two remaining years, either.
After weighing my options, I made a tough decision. I was going to have to transfer to a state school. I figured I wouldn’t have a problem getting in, now that I was on the Dean’s List (turns out that’s a good thing–who knew?) at a prestigious liberal arts institution.
With a heavy heart, I walked into the Theatre Arts department to announce the sad news to my professors, John and Geoff. “I’m so sorry,” I told them, “But I can’t afford to stay here.”
“No. Nope. Unacceptable,” said John.
“Follow me,” said Geoff.
The three of us marched over to the office of the college president: Susan Resneck Pierce. We didn’t have an appointment, but John and Geoff were so fired up that her assistant let us go right in.
“How can I help you?” she asked, setting down her reading glasses and tossing a chin-length auburn bob out of her face.
“This young lady is one of our best students,” stated John, “but she says she can’t afford to stay here at U.P.S. What can we do to help her?”
She tilted her chin and squinted her eyes at me. “You look familiar,” she said. “Have I seen you in something?”
“She just played Philomela in The Love of the Nightingale,” supplied Geoff.
I also played Miss Sarah in Guys and Dolls. But that’s another story.
“Oh, yes! That’s right!” her face brightened. “You were phenomenal, just phenomenal, my dear. Well, we can’t be losing that kind of talent over a lack of financial means, now can we?”
She pulled a memo pad over and scribbled onto it: “Presidential Scholarship,” signed and dated it, and handed it to me.
And with that, my tuition costs were magically cut in half.
That’s how I managed to graduate from a ridiculously expensive college with only a couple thousand dollars in student loan debt.
Turns out, everything we undertake in life is actually an audition for something we didn’t even know was an option, and probably wasn’t an option until we needed it to be. So get out there and SHINE, y’all!