My Most Epic Fail
The truth is, I’ve led a pretty storied existence the past few years in that even my bad days make for entertaining cocktail party anecdotes. I’ve accomplished a lot and earned the accolades of my peers and mentors fairly young. As the great scholar, DJ Khaled, once said, “All I do is win, win, win, No matter what.”
At least I did.
I once promised myself to be as honest about my failures as I am about my successes. Thus, I’d like to share with you the greatest failure of my thirties (I’ve been thirty for 8 months now).
Years ago, I’d stumbled upon the Saïd School of Business at Oxford University. What immediately appealed to me about the school was that it focused on social impacts and tackling global issues from a business standpoint. During my career, I’d found the public sector to be where people go to write eloquent reports about how to change the world rather than doing it. The current model of international development was about as successful and sustainable as Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Convinced I could never get into Oxford, however, I settled for occasionally lurking on their website late at night and imagining myself engaging in enriching discussions in one of their lecture halls (all of which resemble Hogwarts in my imagination) rather than apply for the program.
Finally, I worked up the nerve to apply to this program with one simple idea in mind: it’s possible to have development without displacement, put people before profits, scale-up sustainable solutions, and still be lucrative. Put simply, I wanted to apply private sector innovation to the most pressing social issues overwhelming the public sector.
Sounds sexy, right?
Then I took a GMAT practice test and decided, nah, I’m good.
I have always felt intimidated by math, especially under the pressure of timed tests. However, despite my misgivings, I happen to have some good people in my corner who pushed me to give business school a shot. To further emphasize the point, I received lecture after lecture about how women often sell ourselves short and downplay our qualifications whereas a man would apply for a senior executive position with a high school diploma and a certificate he downloaded from the internet.
Ok, fine, I would do it for feminism.
Why just apply to one business school? A few business school friends told me about the Consortium, a program dedicated to getting more minorities into U.S. business schools, and the Soros Fellowship to fund the education of new Americans. When I looked at the roster of past Soros recipients, it was a humble list of every immigrant rocket scientist/cello prodigy with an Ivy League degree.
In short, I was way out of my league unless I happened to win a Nobel Peace Prize by the application deadline. Again, despite not having cured cancer or done anything notable with my life, I was encouraged to apply for both and highlight my community activism.
I needed to prepare. First things first, I bought a new outfit for my first day at Oxford a.k.a Hogwarts (It had a cape. Capes are necessary for saving the world).
Next, I hired a private tutor and registered for the GRE rather than the GMAT, finding the former to be a bit more straightforward. I dedicated 6 months to preparing for the math portion of the exam with my tutor as well as online classes via Magoosh. I eschewed parties and weekend excursions to adhere to a strict studying schedule. Finally, in October, I flew to NYC to take the computerized GRE.
I bombed the math portion with a score that basically reflected that I spelled my name correctly. Ironically enough, I was only 4 points shy of a perfect score on the verbal portion- the portion I didn’t spend 6 months and the equivalent of the 3 months’ wages in a developing country preparing for. In contrast, all the universities that could provide me with a boost in my career and had socially focused MBAs boasted GRE and GMAT scores in the top percentile. I was devastated. Always upbeat, my friends and mentors sent me articles about how U.S. minorities statistically performed worse on math tests, yet still did well in school- a sort of “you aren’t the only one who sucks” pick-me-upper. After licking my wounds, I was advised to focus on the essay instead of my math score, highlighting the challenges I’d overcome and what I wanted to contribute to the world through the skills that an MBA could provide.
I went back to Panama and wrote business school and scholarship essays so eloquent and earnest that I was certain that the admissions committee would, at the very least, want to meet me.
They were not impressed.
Through the consortium, Berkeley and Yale sent me curt rejection letters. NYU didn’t even bother to reject me, deeming it an obvious waste of their letterhead. Since none of them were Oxford, I remained undeterred. Oxford wrote me and asked me to take the GRE again and boost my math score. With a higher math score, they would be willing to consider my application in the next application round one month away.
I considered their request and decided to politely turn them down. Not only was one month an unrealistically short time to prepare, the GRE is $250, a flight back to the US to take the test in time for their deadline was approximately $600, just 5 hours of private tutoring was about another $600. With these costs adding up, I was beginning to understand why most business school classes were so… uniform.
I reminded Oxford that I was living in a developing country and dedicated to continuing working in the developing world, not Wall Street. I’d applied to this specific program not because I had a wealth of disposable income, but because I’d believed that they were sincere in their focus on doing good in the world. Within a day, they sent me an apologetic email and offered to pay for my tutoring- the catch being that an online program was the only option.
Certain that this was a sign that they were interested in me, I again threw myself into studying for a month. I spent the holiday season getting reacquainted with square roots, quadratic equations, the area of 3-dimensional figure, calculating the distance between 2 cars moving in opposite directions, and all the other things that surely made one a qualified executive.
A week before the exam, I still hadn’t brought my score up to where Oxford wanted it to be. I was trying not to have an anxiety attack. Unable to find anyone who could do some brujeria to get me a good score and not wanting to bug Jesus after we hadn’t spoken since the last time I was in over my head, I decided to use my credit card to get a private tutor. I figured that it was a sacrifice to the plastic gods that would pay off in the long run.
With the drills from the top-shelf tutor, I realized that I knew the material and how to answer the questions, but I was psyching myself out due to the time constraints of the tests, leading me to fall for trap answers. And guess what happened? On test day, I did just that. After a month of studying and hundreds down the drain, I walked away with a score just 5 points higher, still short of what Oxford wanted to see.
Well, you should apply to Harvard also, they told me.
They reasoned that Harvard had a larger class and was established enough to accept wild cards like myself that wanted to go down an unconventional path. Fingers crossed for affirmative action.
I sent Oxford my new scores with a note that boiled down to “look, I gave it my best shot” and then began my Harvard application. Two nights before the application was due, I sat outside the baseball arena in Havana, Cuba, one of the few wifi hotspots in a country with still limited connectivity, uploading my application to Harvard before the clock struck midnight using the one-hour of internet granted to me by the wifi card I’d purchased. When I finally made it to the end of the application, I tried to pay the hefty $200 application fee only to realize that I couldn’t make payments from Cuba to an American account. I really wanted to succumb to the panic attack that had been lurking for months. Instead, using the last bit of minutes on my wifi card, I frantically sent my cousin my credit card information and login password to make the payment from NYC for me.
After all that, one of my recommenders didn’t turn in her letter of recommendation on time. When she finally submitted her letter of recommendation 3 weeks late, Harvard promptly sent me a rejection letter.
By then, I had mentally checked out of the process, exhausted by the financial and emotional burden. I’d already received a politely British rejection letter from Oxford after the hoops they’d made me go through- a letter so British that I had to reread it to realize they were rejecting me, not inviting me to tea.. Soros had sent a long email rejecting me in favor of a few Princeton-bound neurological surgeon/ballerinas.
In conclusion, why did I take the time to write about not 1 but 5 business school rejections rather than something more upbeat? Because I’ve met so many people living lives online that are so removed from their actual lives, lives where everyone is well traveled, well-fed, and always content. Rather than paint a false picture of a perfect life, I want to be honest and say that I truly gave my all to something that I thought could help me do some good in the world and failed gloriously.
There is no deeper meaning behind this blog post other than life truly goes on even when you put all your eggs in the same basket and that basket falls …down a hill…that leads to a four-lane highway…during rush hour. Move on to Plan B.
I encountered defeat, but I remain undefeated.
I still don't know where I'm going to wear the jumpsuit with the cape to though...
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